When you think of outer space, you may think about space ships, Neil Armstrong, and a troubled young Jedi in a galaxy far, far away. But what about politics, congressional hearings, international space treaties, and the discussion of exploring Mars by Senators? This is the real world of space politics.

Aside from the next generation technologies that are boasted on the media, the real “space race” happens to be in the halls of the nation’s Capitol.  Recently, the Congressional Subcommittee on Space had a rare meeting to examine the proposed Mars exploration plan straight out of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  NASA, the leading civil authority on space exploration and research for the U.S. government, is credited for being the support system behind getting the first men to the moon and has been on the cutting edge of everything to do with space.

So why has their Mars plan become so controversial?

“The Journey to Mars” and the “Journey to Nowhere”

Just this month, the NASA Mars program released its “Journey to Mars” proposal to the public. The plan discusses the technological advances that the agency is pursuing to achieve a successful mission to the red planet. They call it a “historical endeavor” as they pursue their development of the program and it’s mission.

Immediately after its release, congressmen convened the Subcommittee on Space and began to tear apart the proposal. It was found that many of the programs and developments in the Mars program’s proposal were not financially suitable for the already-established NASA budget.

“This proposal contains no budget; it contains no schedule, no deadlines,” says Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX 21), who chairs the Committee on Science. “This sounds good, but it is actually a journey to nowhere until we have that budget and we have the schedule and we have the deadlines.”

The Republican representatives that sat in on the committee hearing, including Congressman Smith, moved away from the deep space exploration proposal due to the fact that there are no technical details.

The NASA Authorization Act for 2010 and the National Space Policy

Space Committee members focused on the importance of NASA’s reorganizing the proposal and budgeting for the coming missions like the proposed Mars orbit mission in 2030.  However, unlike Congress, the Obama Administration has showed little support for the agency. “Congress’s support has not been matched by the Administration,” says Representative Brian Babin (R-TX 36), the chair of the Subcommittee on Space.

Development of space programs has been the vital the mission of NASA for years. “These programs are critical for the journey to Mars, and yet since 2010, the Administration has attempted to cut their funding every year,” Babin further stated.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2010, when it was signed into law, directed the agency to develop the Mars program and the new technologies that will support such a mission. Notably, some of these new technologies include the high-tech Space Launch System (SLS) and the “Orion” project. The 2010 authorization bill mandated that the agency begin development and to work towards celestial bodies outside of “low-earth orbit.”

Initially things went fine, but the Obama Administration began mandating budget cuts and gutting the space agency. Due to these cuts in funding, the Mars timeline was delivered in a relatively vague manner. However, one thing to keep in mind is that all “space laws” are vague in themselves.

Around the same time that the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 was passed, the Obama Administration put forward a space policy that has been the focus behind any appropriation laws and any further exploration, research, and development programs.

The national space policy reads that it is in the best interest of the United States government “that the Administrator of NASA, by the mid-2030s, send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth.” Consequently, the development of programs like SLS and Orion began draining higher projected funds.

Politics As Usual

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, however, has become a bargaining chip for political agendas from stakeholders in the executive branch and the legislative branch. Several of the problems outlined in this piece have been outcomes of political divisions that commonly produce gridlock on Capitol Hill.

The troubles for the Mars plan first began with the Congress not accepting NASA’s outline for the mission. With the appropriations for the agency still not passed, the Committee on Science is adamant to iron out logistical details pertaining to the projected outcomes of a potential mission to Mars.

On the flip side, the mission has proven to be an excellent test ground for technologies that have been developed for the mission.  In fact, the latest Matt Damon film, The Martian, is loosely based on many technologies that Mars program personnel have developed on a day-to-day basis.

With the NASA Authorization Act for FY 2016 & 2017, or H.R. 2039, still being debated in committee, the bill has proven to be a protection for NASA funding and tool to spite the Obama Administration for the remainder of the presidential cycle.  The bill mentions “Mars” a total of 32 times in vital portions of the budget proposal. In fact, it outlines the importance of the Mars mission and the benefits it can bring.

Mars exploration missions, according H.R. 2039, should, “define the specific capabilities and technologies necessary to extend human presence to the surface of Mars and the sets and sequences of missions required to demonstrate such capabilities and technologies.”

Ever since the appropriations bill for the Department of Defense was vetoed by President Obama, a funding war has been sparked between the White House and an already decisive House of Representatives. The fate of the NASA appropriations bill is based on a small few that want to use the space agency as a chip in a political game of Texas hold’em.

It is politics as usual, but the risk of an agency shutdown–let alone a partial or whole government shutdown–should be taken wholly out of consideration. NASA can’t run without appropriations from the President’s budget, and Mars will remain a distant dream without the funding needed for critical research and development.