Obama’s Cognitive Dissonance About Mars

The president wants to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, but his administration has done little to achieve that goal.

President Barack Obama delivers a big space policy speech in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 15, 2010.
Jim Young / Reuters

In April 2010, Barack Obama gave a big space-policy speech at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA’s 30-year-old space shuttle program was winding down, and the space agency was looking ahead toward the next era of human space exploration.

Obama was feeling expansive. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow,” he said. “And I expect to be around to see it.”

This week, with only 100 days left in his final term, Obama renewed that ambition in an op-ed in CNN. Someday, he wrote on Tuesday, “instead of eagerly awaiting the return of our intrepid explorers, we'll know that because of the choices we make now, they've gone to space not just to visit, but to stay.”

Public interest in a Mars mission has flourished in the six years since Obama’s speech in Florida, thanks in part to several high-profile triumphs in pursuit of that goal. To name a few: the Curiosity rover’s nail-biting landing on Mars, Elon Musk’s regular and often successful tests of reusable rockets, and Matt Damon’s extraterrestrial potato farming in The Martian. But Mars mania doesn’t correspond with Mars money. In the last few years, Obama’s budget proposals for NASA have included cuts to the space agency’s Mars exploration projects.

That’s what frustrated Casey Dreier, the director of space policy at the Planetary Society, when he read Obama’s op-ed this week. Dreier told me he was glad to hear from Obama on Mars; he believes it’s “fundamentally important that a president is excited about space.” But the Obama administration’s actions haven’t always jibed with its goals for Mars, he said.

“It’s almost like he’s talking about a different NASA,” Dreier said.

In his $17.7 billion budget proposal for NASA fiscal year 2013, Obama asked Congress for about $1.2 billion for the space agency’s planetary sciences division, which builds and operates all robotic missions in the solar system, including the orbiters and landers that have gone to Mars. That represented a 20 percent cut to the division’s budget from the year before. The reduction forced NASA to withdraw from a joint project with the European Space Agency that launched an orbiter and a lander to Mars earlier this year. “We are having to make tough decisions, because these are tough economic times," NASA chief Charlie Bolden said when the budget request was released in early 2012. "We are doing all that we can to be fiscally responsible."

Congress responded by putting more money back in; the Senate proposed $100 million more than Obama’s request for planetary sciences, and the House proposed over $200 million. The final number came to $1.3 billion. In the years since, Congress has appropriated more than Obama has requested, and lawmakers restored 2013 funding levels by fiscal year 2016.

Lawmakers have also appropriated more funds for the Space Launch System (SLS), the rocket Congress told NASA to build in 2010, which is supposed to launch astronauts on a journey to Mars. Experts say the government would be better off using reusable rockets produced by commercial companies instead of pouring millions of dollars into one they can’t use again. The Obama administration has proposed cuts to the SLS, which have faced criticism from Republican lawmakers whose home states support NASA jobs. “This administration cannot continue to tout plans to send astronauts to Mars while strangling the programs that will take us there,” said Lamar Smith, a Texas congressman and the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, when Obama released his proposal in February. Smith has also criticized the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)—the administration’s plans to lasso an asteroid and bring it into the moon’s orbit, where astronauts can visit it, by the mid-2020scalling it a “distraction” from NASA’s Mars goals.

But Obama’s legacy in space policy will not be the SLS, or even the Mars mission he describes as “the next chapter of America’s story in space.” The president has presided over an unprecedented expansion of partnerships between government agencies and commercial entities over space technology. Obama has requested more and more each year in funds for NASA’s commercial spaceflight program, which invests in private companies that are designing launch systems—like SpaceX and Boeing—to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, a capability NASA lost when the shuttle program ended.

"Just five years ago, U.S. companies were shut out of the global commercial launch market,” Obama wrote in the CNN op-ed. “Today, thanks to groundwork laid by the men and women of NASA, they own more than a third of it. More than 1,000 companies across nearly all 50 states are working on private space initiatives.”

Obama’s op-ed is likely one of his final public statements as president about the future of the American spaceflight. It’s a lot rosier than some of his first public statements; in April 2008, the then-senator told a group of Wyoming voters that “NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration.” Eight years later, Obama appears to believe that NASA found its focus again under his administration, even if he didn’t always find the money to pay for it.