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Why does Congress call Mars plan a 'journey to nowhere'?

Movies like 'The Martian' and new NASA discoveries are capturing public imagination about space exploration, but Congress seems less excited.

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Matt Damon stars in 'The Martian.' The movie has reignited public interest in NASA's exploration of Mars.

Aidan Monaghan/20th Century Fox/AP/File

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Scientists have worked toward a crewed Mars mission for years, and now movies like "The Martian" and new evidence of liquid water on Mars are crystallizing enthusiasm for Mars from the public and Congress. 

"Scientists for years have been pointing out that as far as technology goes, we don't really need that much more," James Schwab, who has participated in two Mars Rover challenges, told The Christian Science Monitor. "It's probably indicative of a shift in thought. For a lot of people it's seeing movies like 'The Martian' and 'Interstellar.' " 

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NASA collaborated with filmmakers to make "The Martian" as scientifically accurate as possible. Star Matt Damon said said he hoped "The Martian" could give viewers a taste for Mars exploration and encourage support for science.

"I don't have any lofty expectations, but I do hope some kids see it and geek out in science and enjoy it," he told Science.com. 

But outside of Hollywood, NASA is struggling. Congressional Republicans had harsh words for NASA's newly released report, "Journey to Mars," reported The Hill. They wanted more details, particularly about logistics, they said.

"It's just some real pretty photographs and some nice words," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, who chairs the House Science Committee, during the hearing. "This [report] sounds good, but it is actually a journey to nowhere until we have that budget and we have that schedule and we have the deadlines."

Republicans also criticized the Obama administration for cutting space funding. Congress shares the blame, said ranking Democrat Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas.

"Too many times in recent years, NASA's had no idea when it would actually get an appropriation, when it would actually be reauthorized, whether that appropriation would be for more than a few months or whether they may even have to suspend their work due to government shutdown," she said, according to The Hill.   

Although he gave unfavorable reviews to NASA's operating plan, Representative Smith's interest in Mars appears genuine, particularly after NASA announced evidence of water on the red planet.

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"We live in exciting times," he told the Dallas Morning News. "The more evidence we find of (water on Mars), the more encouraged I am for future Mars missions."

Have the popular success of the Mars Sojournor Rover and the thrill of seeing Matt Damon on Mars given the public and Congress renewed hope in a Mars project?

Mars landing is possible, says Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, if NASA returns to the "mission-driven approach" of the Apollo era.

"We are much closer today to being able to send humans to Mars than we were to being able to send men to the Moon in 1961, and we were there eight years later," Dr. Zubrin told the Mars Society in August. "Given the will, we could have humans on Mars within a decade."