I get asked that question a lot. I end up giving two answers: my own wishful dreams, and the less inspiring view of what I think might actually happen.
I recently came across a thoughtful article that agrees with my complicated views on the subject very well. It’s titled “Mission to Mars: Will America Lose the Next Frontier?” After noting the merits of the MSL rover, the article points out the downside of the project: by going almost $1B over its initial cost estimate, MSL has forced the delay or cancellation of other Mars endeavors. (I believe that the article’s note about the cancellation of the Mars 2016 mission is a reference to the 2018 MAX-C mission, a step on the path to sample return, which was canceled. We do have a mission slated for 2016, announced after the article’s publication: the Mars Insight lander.) Similarly, the article notes the terrible impact that the James Webb Space Telescope has had on NASA’s astrophysics program. JWST is NASA’s poster child for mind-blowing cost overruns. Initially estimated at $500M, it’s grown by leaps and bounds and is now estimated at $8B. Both MSL and JWST are sure to deliver rich scientific gains in their respective missions. However, I think this article is correct and fair to note the other efforts that have fallen by the wayside to ensure that these projects are complete.
The main message of the article, however, is the bigger view on what this means in terms of larger, longer-term goals:
“But today, thanks to a combination of budgetary stress, regulatory overkill, and an unfortunate lack of political skill at the highest levels of NASA, the Mars exploration program is in deep trouble. It may be a very long time before the U.S. space agency launches another significant Mars mission.”
Put simply, NASA doesn’t have the budget to send humans to Mars. “Regulatory overkill” refers to a strict intolerance of any NASA failure, no matter how large or small, which necessitates over-engineering (and ballooning costs). Unless something dramatic changes in NASA leadership, political weight, or budgetary windfall, it’s unlikely that our space agency is going to get us there. But all is not lost; Elon Musk is on the job.