Citing national pride and security, along with a need to inspire future generations, Rep. Lamar Smith is asking NASA to fast-track to 2021 a "flyby" of Mars and Venus.
"We are not the only nation interested in extending humanity's reach into the solar system," the Texas Republican said Thursday at a hearing of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which he chairs. That committee oversees NASA programs.
"One of the three major space-faring nations will reach Mars first. The question is whether it will be the U.S. or China or Russia."
In a prepared statement, Smith said that with the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle, and landing a man on the moon 45 years ago, "there's a sense that America is falling behind, with our best days behind us."
A shot of inspiration is desperately needed, according to Smith, and what could be more inspiring than "a journey to Mars."
"The Red Planet has long intrigued mankind," he said. "A Mars flyby with two astronauts onboard NASA's Orion crew vehicle could use the Space Launch System that NASA is developing."
The alignment would take advantage of a 2021 alignment between Earth and Mars to minimize the time and fuel required to make the trip, he explained. Instead of taking the normal two to three years, it would cut the time in half. Right now, NASA is not planning a Mars mission until the 2030s.
Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the leading Democrat on the panel, didn't share Smith's enthusiasm, deeming it too risky for a "new crewed spacecraft."
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, agreed, calling a NASA flyby "a foolhardy use of very limited government resources," especially since there are numerous private entities proposing to launch their own missions, according to USA Today
In December, The Los Angeles Times published an op-ed piece by Louis Friedman — executive director emeritus and co-founder of the Planetary Society, and co-leader of the Asteroid Retrieval Mission Study at Caltech's Keck Institute for Space Studies — in which he expounded on what he characterized as an international "space race."
He referred to a competition between China and India, "dramatized by India's launch of a Mars orbiter (in November) and China's launch (in December) of a lunar lander and rover. China also attempted a Mars orbiter last year, and India has already conducted a successful moon orbiter mission."
Japan also is expediting lunar and asteroid missions and Europe has two Mars missions planned for this decade, according to Friedman
. Russia, meanwhile, is "tripling its space budget" and also has missions to Mars scheduled this decade.
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