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Red Planet red flags? NASA council has doubts about Mars mission

The space agency's own advisory council wondered aloud this week if NASA should drop the whole idea of visiting the Red Planet.

NASA

For months, NASA has talked up its Journey to Mars road map with speeches, videos, posters, hashtags and even astronaut job openings promoting a manned mission to the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s. But on Wednesday, its own advisory council discussed dropping the whole idea -- at least for now.

A NASA Advisory Council meeting is typically about as exciting as it sounds, but the three-day meeting of the NAC now underway at the Johnson Space Center in Houston included a bit of a bombshell from council member Bill Ballhaus. He chairs a committee tasked with looking into NASA's plans to address risks and challenges of the journey to Mars and reported that the committee did not get the plan from NASA it was expecting.

"This is not the outcome we wanted. We wanted a plan that argued for urgency but we did not find that," Ballhaus said. "We might as well face up to it."

The key word there is "urgency." Ballhaus argued that NASA hasn't made the case that there's an urgent need for a manned mission to Mars, and without urgency, he said, the technology to make the mission possible will not get funded by Congress and the White House.

The council discussed refocusing NASA's attention away from Mars and toward so-called "proving ground" missions like capturing and visiting an asteroid closer to Earth.

In one particularly strange moment after panning NASA's Martian ambitions, Ballhaus suggested looking for ways to excite the public and generate support for NASA. He must have missed the recent blockbuster movie about a manned mission to Mars; that idea sure seemed to excite people.

It's important to note that the NAC is just an advisory council that was discussing possible recommendations to the space agency. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has the power to completely ignore the council's advice and push on to Mars, if he wants.

The discussion is an interesting peek behind all the Mars marketing bluster. When a group of career space smarties throws up a red flag about NASA going to the Red Planet, it makes you wonder if the Vegas odds on who will make it to Mars first might be more spot on than they originally seemed.