The most important person at NASA said Tuesday that a manned mission to Mars is not only inevitable but is on track.
"The journey to Mars is real, it's attainable, and it matters to humanity and human progress," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said at the annual Humans to Mars summit in Washington DC, where scientists, professors, and others who dream of the Red Planet gather to discuss the state of a planned mission there. The event is organized by Explore Mars, a nonprofit made up of scientists and entrepreneurs who desperately want humans to set foot on the planet.
Every year, Bolden, the head of NASA, goes to the summit and, every year, people there get upset that NASA hasn't made more progress on any sort of manned Martian mission. This year was no different, but Bolden actually seemed more forthcoming with what the holdup has been. Though nothing is planned until the mid 2030s, a Mars mission now does seem more realistic.
"If we start over, trust me, there are people who have been through this show before. We are toast, we are history."
"We are on pace to send American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. There is a new consensus around this timetable and this goal, and the plan is clear, affordable, and sustainable," he said. "It is my firm belief we are closer to getting there than ever before in human civilization."
Normally, a declaration like this causes people to ask why NASA is going to go wrangle a boulder off of an asteroid and put it into orbit around the moon first, instead of going directly to Mars as many would prefer.
As he's said before, Bolden said that the asteroid mission is integral to a Martian one—not because we'd learn something from wrangling an asteroid, but because we simply need to test certain technologies, and might as well do them while actually accomplishing something instead of on simple test flights.
"We have been advised to cease and desist on the asteroid mission by some experts in the world. That's fine," Bolden said.
Bolden added that any Mars mission as currently designed by NASA will require the development of high energy solar electric propulsion in space. While it's developing that technology, it may as well go to an asteroid.
In fact, he said that changing the plan now would completely torpedo any Mars mission. He said that switching the plan or defunding the asteroid mission now would make a NASA trip to Mars impossible "in any of our lifetimes."
"Do we need to use an asteroid to [develop solar propulsion]? No. But no matter what you do, you cannot stop the effort to develop high energy solar electric propulsion," he said. "If we go back to doing what we usually do, starting out and then [changing our minds], you face certain death [of the idea] and the end of any hope of going to Mars. If we start over, trust me, there are people who have been through this show before. We are toast, we are history."
Over the next two days at the summit, some of the brightest minds will discuss the steps we need to take before we get there.