NASA has formally started the process of envisaging the first crewed missions to Mars, including soliciting input from academics and international and industry partners in addition to their own staff. “We will develop this blueprint, and practice it on the Moon, with the goal of demonstrating it on Mars,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy in a recent high-level workshop.
To get things started, NASA has identified 50 objectives on which they are seeking input. They've also provided an outline of the sort of mission that might achieve them.
The conceptual mission involves 30 days on the Martian surface, and NASA is asking for input on the minimal capabilities to make that happen. Features of the concept are a pre-deployed cargo lander weighing 25 tons to ensure the astronauts have the provisions when they land – sending everything in the one mission along with the crew having been deemed impractical. Equally important is a pre-landed crew assent vehicle so NASA (and the astronauts) can be confident it can get them back off the planet.
NASA is hoping to avoid a repeat of the Apollo missions where humans landed on the Moon six times in quick succession, followed by 50 years (and counting) of absence. “We want to get to a cadence of doing our missions annually,” said associate administrator Jim Free. “So we can maximize the science, maximize our utilization of our systems.” To get there, the blueprint envisages two crew remaining in orbit while another two visit the surface of Mars.
Another precursor is a robot mission bringing samples back from the Martian surface. Besides all the great science this will allow, it will give NASA a better idea of the conditions in which crewed missions need to be sited, and will provide a dry run for getting back off the Red Planet and back to the blue one.
A 30-day mission may seem brief for so much effort, even if it is repeated many times. However, the nature of the Terran and Martian orbits means that if astronauts stay much longer, the trip back will become longer and harder, unless astronauts stay for more than 500 days until the planets align again. A 517-day mission was considered, but the problems are obvious.
“We're doing a demo, Free said. “For future activities in the rest of the Solar System.”
As Director of Space Architecture, Dr Kurt Spuds Vogel noted it's more than 30 years since the first President Bush announced the “Moon to Mars” program. He described the period since as a “roller-coaster ride” that has created “widespread stress and anxiety” among scientists as funding was promised or at least hinted at many times before being withdrawn or delayed.
Despite its name, Artemis is in a part an attempt to reboot the program of getting to Mars. Recent dramatic progress in launch technology reduces the obstacles involved in the first stage of any mission. The likelihood that the Artemis program will land people on the Moon before this decade is out (despite some delays already announced and more anticipated) takes us a step closer.
Nevertheless, there are still many difficulties in sending astronauts further than humans have ever gone and bringing them back safely, something not all the advocates acknowledge.
Submissions close for those with thoughts on May 31. “By the way, if we find your feedback particularly interesting, we may invite you for a workshop to discuss,” Melroy said. “If you're interested in that, you may voluntarily disclose your contact details.”