If NASA's number 2 could travel anywhere in the universe, here's where she'd go

A stellar nursery of about 3,000 stars called Westerlund 2 located about 20,000 light-years from the planet earth in the constellation Carina is shown in this undated NASA handout taken by the Hubble Space Telescope released April 23, 2015.  REUTERS/NASA/Handout via Reuters  NASA handout photo of a stellar nursery located about 20,000 light-years from the planet earth in the constellation CarinaThomson Reuters

If you could travel instantly to anywhere in the universe, where would you go?

Tech Insider recently spoke with NASA's deputy administrator Dava Newman and we asked her the same question.

Instead of a distant exoplanet or an exotic moon, Newman picked somewhere surprisingly close to home.

"Mars is my number one answer," Newman said.

There are a lot of good reasons to go to Mars. We could learn a ton about the solar system and our own planet. The mission would drive technological innovation several leaps forward. We might even discover microbial life hiding below the Martian surface.

It'll be a huge challenge, but Newman thinks the agency is "up to the task."

Indeed, for the last few years NASA has adamantly declared that it's on a "Journey to Mars."

Newman said that journey includes three phases: learning about how space affects the human body from experiments on the International Space Station, testing out a giant new rocket and space capsule and proving they work while orbiting between the Earth and the moon, and eventually using that launch system to send humans all the way to Mars.

It sounds like a logical progression, but it's a plan without a price tag or a specific timeline. Most reports NASA has released about its journey to Mars are just strategic overviews and nonspecific.

John Sommerer, a space scientist who has helped review NASA's human spaceflight progress, recently criticized the Mars plan during a House space subcommittee hearing on Feb. 3.

"While sending humans to Mars, and returning them safely to the Earth, may be technically feasible, it is an extraordinarily challenging goal, from physiological, technical, and programmatic standpoints," Sommerer said. "Because of this extreme difficulty, it is only with unprecedented cumulative investment, and, frankly, unprecedented discipline in development, testing, execution, and leadership, that this enterprise is likely to be successful."

curiosity approaching marsNASA

It seems NASA isn't quite on that level yet. Sommerer contributed to a 2014 review that found NASA would need 20 to 40 years and half a trillion dollars to pull off a manned mission to Mars.

NASA got a slight raise for its 2016 budget ($19.3 billion), but the proposed budget for next year is $3 million less than that. The budget decrease doesn't bode well for the future of human spaceflight. If you multiply $19 billion by 20 years, you come up very short of half a trillion dollars.

It's also the president's job to guide NASA, so next year when a new president takes office, he or she might choose to direct NASA somewhere other than Mars.

Mars is possible, but until we see some solid numbers, reasonable timeline, and administrative support, it's doubtful if NASA will be the one to get us there.

Private spaceflight companies like SpaceX are starting to plan their own Mars missions. And with a steady source of funding and support, they might just beat NASA to it.

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