NASA has laid out a detailed plan for how it intends to send humans to Mars in the next few decades. The 36-page report explains the technology and infrastructure that will be needed to make missions to Mars a reality.
Interestingly, the plans indicate that the ultimate goal is to be "Earth independent," meaning they want people to stay there, not just go and come back, although they don’t go so far as to use the word "colonize" in their rhetoric. "Like the Apollo Program, we embark on this journey for all humanity," NASA says in the report, which you can read online. "Unlike Apollo, we will be going to stay."
The journey to Mars involves three major steps, according to NASA. The first is "Earth Reliant" exploration, which is focused on International Space Station (ISS) research. This involves testing technologies such as 3D-printers and life support systems that will be useful for eventual Mars missions. On the ISS at the moment, for example, astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are completing the first "year in space" on the station, a vital step towards long-haul Mars missions.
Next, the agency will move into a "Proving Ground." This will involve testing various components beyond low-Earth orbit. The agency is already building the huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which will be capable of taking humans to Mars, and the Orion spacecraft, which the astronauts will launch in and return to Earth in. Both of these will be flown for the first time together by the end of the decade, and in the 2020s, NASA plans to capture an asteroid and have astronauts go and visit it in cislunar space (between Earth and the Moon).
NASA is adamant we can get to Mars in the next few decades. NASA/Pat Rawlings.
The final step is that "Earth Independent" one. Although there’s no strict time scale, NASA plans to use its previous experience to take humans first into Martian orbit in the 2030s, possibly its moons Phobos and Deimos, before ultimately landing on the surface. "With humans on Mars, we will be able to advance science and technology in ways only dreamed of with current robotic explorers," says the report.
The report also emphasizes the importance of the Mars missions being a "collaborative effort" with other countries. ESA is already involved with the Orion spacecraft, and other countries – perhaps including Russia, Japan, India, and maybe even China – are expected to join in the final endeavor.
Whether the lofty goals will be achieved depends on continuous funding flowing to the agency. And at the moment, it’s not looking too bad. NASA currently has about $4 billion (£2.6 billion) per year to developed its manned exploration efforts, and when the ISS is retired some time in the next 10 years (it has to be, as the outpost is getting fairly old), that will free up another $4 billion for exploration. Of course, more money wouldn’t go amiss, but it could be enough, although some think otherwise.
With the building of the SLS and Orion, and significant research into long-term human spaceflight, habitats, spacesuits, and so on, NASA is pushing purposefully forward with their Mars efforts. Some may be skeptical that it will all come to fruition, but the agency is slowly but surely making headway.
Our bet? See you on Mars in the 2040s.