NASA has released a detailed outline about its plan to take people to Mars in a new report – “NASA’s Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration”.
“NASA is closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in our history,” says NASA administrator Charles Bolden. “Today, we are publishing additional details about our journey to Mars plan and how we are aligning all of our work in support of this goal. In the coming weeks, I look forward to continuing to discuss the details of our plan with members of Congress, as well as our commercial and our international partners, many of whom will be attending the International Astronautical Congress next week.”
Journey to Mars crosses three thresholds, each with increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth. NASA is managing these challenges by developing and demonstrating capabilities in incremental steps:
Earth Reliant exploration is focused on research aboard the International Space Station. From this world-class microgravity laboratory, we are testing technologies and advancing human health and performance research that will enable deep space, long duration missions.
In the Proving Ground, NASA will learn to conduct complex operations in a deep space environment that allows crews to return to Earth in a matter of days. Primarily operating in cislunar space – the volume of space around the moon featuring multiple possible stable staging orbits for future deep space missions – NASA will advance and validate capabilities required for humans to live and work at distances much farther away from our home planet, such as at Mars.
Earth Independent activities build on what we learn on the space station and in deep space to enable human missions to the Mars vicinity, possibly to low-Mars orbit or one of the Martian moons, and eventually the Martian surface. Future Mars missions will represent a collaborative effort between NASA and its partners – a global achievement that marks a transition in humanity’s expansion as we go to Mars to seek the potential for sustainable life beyond Earth.
“NASA’s strategy connects near-term activities and capability development to the journey to Mars and a future with a sustainable human presence in deep space,” says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA Headquarters. “This strategy charts a course toward horizon goals, while delivering near-term benefits, and defining a resilient architecture that can accommodate budgetary changes, political priorities, new scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs, and evolving partnerships.”
NASA is charting new territory, and we will adapt to new scientific discoveries and new opportunities. Current efforts are focused on pieces of the architecture that are known to be needed. In parallel, its continues to refine an evolving architecture for the capabilities that require further investigation. These efforts will define the next two decades on the journey to Mars.
Living and working in space require accepting risks. A new and powerful space transportation system is key to the journey, but NASA also will need to learn new ways of operating in space, based on self-reliance and increased system reliability. The organisation will use proving ground missions to validate transportation and habitation capabilities as well as new operational approaches to stay productive in space while reducing reliance on Earth.
NASA identifies the technological and operational challenges in three categories: transportation, sending humans and cargo through space efficiently, safely, and reliably; working in space, enabling productive operations for crew and robotic systems; and staying healthy, developing habitation systems that provide safe, healthy, and sustainable human exploration. Bridging these three categories are the overarching logistical challenges facing crewed missions lasting up to 1 100 days and exploration campaigns that span decades.
NASA is investing in powerful capabilities and state-of-the-art technologies that benefit both NASA and its industry partners while minimising overall costs through partnerships. Through its evolvable transportation infrastructure, ongoing spaceflight architecture studies, and rapid prototyping activities, it is developing resilient architecture concepts that focus on critical capabilities across a range of potential missions. The organisation is investing in technologies that provide large returns, and maximizing flexibility and adaptability through commonality, modularity, and reusability.
On the space station, it is advancing human health and behavioral research for Mars-class missions. NASA is pushing the state-of-the-art life support systems, printing 3D parts, and analysing material handling techniques for in-situ resource utilisation. The upcoming eighth SpaceX commercial resupply services mission will launch the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, a capability demonstration for inflatable space habitats.
With the Space Launch System, Orion crewed spacecraft, and revitalized space launch complex, NASA is developing core transportation capabilities for the journey to Mars and ensuring continued access for commercial crew and cargo partners to maintain operations and stimulate new economic activity in low-Earth orbit.  This secured US commercial access to low-Earth orbit allows NASA to continue leveraging the station as a microgravity test bed while preparing for missions in the proving ground of deep space and beyond.
Through the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), NASA will demonstrate an advanced solar electric propulsion capability that will be a critical component of its journey to Mars. ARM will also provide an unprecedented opportunity for the organisation to validate new spacewalk and sample handling techniques as astronauts investigate several tons of an asteroid boulder – potentially opening new scientific discoveries about the formation of the solar system and beginning of life on Earth.
NASA is managing and directing the ground-based facilities and services provided by the Deep Space Network (DSN), Near Earth Network (NEN), and Space Network (SN) – critical communications capabilities that it continues to advance for human and robotic communication throughout the solar system.
Through its robotic emissaries, NASA has already been on and around Mars for 40 years, taking nearly every opportunity to send orbiters, landers, and rovers with increasingly complex experiments and sensing systems. These orbiters and rovers have returned vital data about the Martian environment, helping the agency to understand what challenges people may face and resources they may encounter.
Image Credit: NASA