Obama’s closing argument

If you were on Twitter the morning of Oct. 11, you may have a seen a breaking news tweet from CNN that announced, “Obama says US is partnering with private firms to send humans to Mars by 2030s.” It pointed to an essay on CNN’s website written by (or, at least, written for) President Obama titled “America will take the giant leap to Mars.”

And, sure enough, he does talk about human missions to Mars. “We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time,” he wrote. That effort, he added, “will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators.”

But that wasn’t news, breaking or otherwise. It was largely a reiteration of the goals he laid out for NASA in an April 2010 speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth,” he said then. “And a landing on Mars will follow.”

What Obama offered in his CNN essay was something of a closing argument for his human spaceflight plans — and his legacy — in the waning months of his administration. Obama had directed NASA to pursue humans-to-Mars as a long-term goal in that 2010 speech, and, six and a half years later, the agency was still in pursuit.

But how much headway has NASA and the administration made? “Journey to Mars” has become a central theme of NASA’s activities, with the agency mentioning it at almost every opportunity. NASA has made progress on some of the initial key elements, like the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System. In August, it awarded contracts to six companies to continue work on designs of modules that could serve as habitats in cislunar space, the agency’s “proving ground” for missions in the 2020s to prepare for Mars expeditions in the 2030s.

NASA, though, has still only taken the initial steps in that journey to Mars. It’s faced criticism from Congress for not providing more details about its plans as well as for not providing what members deem adequate funding for Orion and SLS, as shown by the increases recent appropriations bills have provided for SLS in particular.

So what becomes of Obama’s goal of humans to Mars come 2017? Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has endorsed retaining Mars as a long-term goal, but has said little about what changes, if any, she would make to NASA’s approach to achieving it. Republican nominee Donald Trump has said far less about Mars, suggesting he would only review NASA’s plans and work with Congress on what the agency’s long-term goals should be.

While there will be new occupants in the White House and on the ninth floor of NASA Headquarters next year, many members of Congress will be back, retaining either their criticism of NASA’s efforts or support for specific programs. Maintaining NASA’s plans will thus likely result in more of the same criticism or support, while changing direction may create new supporters and new critics on Capitol Hill.

Any long-term human spaceflight program faces the challenge of surviving from one administration to the next, a test President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration failed by 2010. It’s not surprising that NASA’s current Mars goal is still in place after six and a half years in one administration. The real achievement will be if it’s still around two years from now.