Milbank: Space exploration? It's time for a new mission plan

By Dana Milbank, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoDana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Email: danamilbank@washpost.com.

NASA just confirmed what sci-fi enthusiasts have known all along: There are other civilizations out there.

This bombshell was dropped Tuesday by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at the Humans 2 Mars Summit in Foggy Bottom. “Here in the Western world we think very short-sighted,” he said. “We think about the time in which we’re going to be on this Earth, or which our kids or grandkids are going to be on this Earth. Many other civilizations think muuuuuch longer than that, and we need to start thinking that way.”

Many other civilizations! Klingons, Romulans and Vulcans?

Bolden, a former astronaut, did not say. But he spoke about being in a race to colonize other worlds before the sun burns out like other stars have. “One of these days that’s going to be the story of our star, the sun,” he said. “And so if this species is to survive indefinitely, we need to become a multi-planet species. So one reason we need to go to Mars is so we can learn a little about living on another planet, so that when Mikaley, my granddaughter, is ready to move out of the solar system we’ll know a lot more about living away from this planet than we know today.”

Bolden may not really believe that humans will be traveling beyond the solar system in the next couple of decades when 14-year-old Mikaley will be of space-traveling age. And, happily, Mikaley needn’t book her ticket just yet because scientists expect the sun to be around another 5 billion years, give or take.

But listening to Bolden and other NASA officials at the Mars summit (platinum sponsor: Boeing; gold sponsor: Lockheed Martin), I wondered if their ambitions were proceeding at warp speed relative to realities here on Earth.

President Obama revived the languishing field of human space flight, proposing to put humans on an asteroid in 2025 and on Mars in the 2030s. The administration extended the life of the International Space Station to serve as “our stepping stone to the rest of the cosmos,” as Bolden put it. That sounds really cool. But it may be a colossal waste of money.

Budget realities require a modest approach to human space exploration. Even NASA officials admit humans won’t reach Mars at current funding levels, and it’s difficult to see where extra money will come from in an age of shrinking budgets. Meanwhile, there’s a compelling argument that we could accomplish more with a less expensive strategy of unmanned exploration. The Congressional Budget Office said last fall that eliminating NASA’s human space exploration program (but leaving robotic exploration intact) would save $73 billion over a decade.

Pleading for funding

Our current trajectory won’t get us to Mars; estimates of the cost of a human trip run into the hundreds of billions. “We’re going to have to figure out ingenious ways to do it based on the present budget plus modest increases,” Bolden said at the summit.

Or maybe more than modest. William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration, told the same audience of the need to “break the paradigm” of current funding. “We cannot do it at the same budget level we’re at today. It’s just not going to work.”

Bolden said he would “get down on my hands and knees and beg and plead” with Congress to support human space exploration. But begging does not a Mars mission make, particularly when NASA can arguably do more with unmanned exploration. The crafts are lighter and easier to land, there are no worries about life support, and no need for a return trip.

And robots don’t get cancer or radiation poisoning. Gerstenmaier said that NASA asked the Institute of Medicine “to take a look at our current standards for radiation exposure limits on astronauts” to see if it might be “ethically acceptable” to raise the limits.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to recognize that if you’re weighing shortcuts like that, something may be wrong with your mission plan.