NASA says we're only 15–25 years away from a manned Mars mission. If you think that's a rather speedy timeline, you're not alone: NASA's Inspector General Paul K. Martin agrees. "Given the current state of knowledge," Martin wrote in a recent report, "the Agency’s risk mitigation schedule is optimistic and NASA will not develop countermeasures for many deep space risks until the 2030s."
This means that NASA won't know how to deal with the risks of deep space until around the time they plan to send people out to Mars. Doesn't sound promising.
Martin explained that as it stands now, Mars astronauts will likely be facing far more uncertainty—and danger—than other NASA astronauts:
The Agency may be unable to develop countermeasures that will lower the risk to deep space travelers to a level commensurate with NASA standards for low Earth orbit missions. The astronauts chosen to make at least the initial forays into deep space may have to accept a higher level of risk than those who fly International Space Station missions. We also found that NASA cannot accurately report the true costs of developing countermeasures for the identified risks.
One of the main problem, Martin writes, is that NASA still doesn't know much about the environment astronauts will inhabit once they're on Mars: "One of the major factors limiting more timely development of countermeasures is uncertainty about the mass, volume, and weight requirements of deep space vehicles and habitats."
According to Martin's audit, the agency "continues to improve its process for identifying and managing health and human performance risks associated with space flight," but that "NASA’s management of crew health risks could benefit from increased efforts to integrate expertise from all related disciplines." Martin found that "NASA lacks a clear path for maximizing expertise and data at both the organizational and Agency level."
In addition to the dangers of bureaucracy, Martin pointed to several areas where he thinks the agency won't be able to protect Mars astronauts:
NASA has always said that it isn't ready to send astronauts to Mars. The agency is constantly calling for ideas on how to mitigate risks of deep space travel, like extended exposure to harmful radiation, and conducting experiments to better understand how people will react to spending so much time away from Earth.
So it's not surprising that in response to the audit, William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, and Richard S. Williams, NASA's Chief Health and Medical Officer, said that they're aware of all the issues. "The report represents a validation of, rather than a correction to, NASA's HHP [Human Health and Performance] plan and the challenges ahead. Our concurrence indicates our intent to continue these efforts."
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.