One of the biggest obstacles to space exploration is the lack of a propulsion system which will allow us to reach a destination in a meaningful period of time and return.
The New Horizons one way mission took ten years to get to Pluto. Planned missions to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn will take five to ten years to reach their objectives. A round trip to Mars could take three years depending on the length of time spent on the surface.
Testifying before the House Space Subcommittee on Thursday March 17 2016 NASA Administrator Charles Bolden had this answer when asked about the need for “game changing” propulsion:
“We are on a journey to Mars and most people believe that in the end nuclear thermal propulsion will probably be the most effective form of propulsion to get there.”
Unfortunately Mr. Bolden’s statement “most people believe” has not yet translated into a commitment by the Agency to develop nuclear thermal propulsion system within a specific period of time.
As a result, the Agency is stuck planning all of its missions, manned or robotic, using chemical propulsion to lift off from Earth and then gravity assisted boosts from planets to reach the exploration site.
Mission objectives, the number and size of instruments, scientific goals, and staffing requirements for the 2020’s and beyond are all constrained by the limits imposed by 1960’s propulsion capabilities.
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