'Historic pioneering endeavor’: NASA reveals plan for human mission to Mars

© Jim Urquhart
NASA’s goal for Mars is to have human missions there by the 2030s. It will require performance research, testing technologies and advancing human health to enable deep space, long duration missions.

The space agency revealed its plans reach the Red Planet in a 36-page report released last week, entitled 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,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement.

Accomplishing this goal will require three stages. The first is continuing its ongoing research aboard the International Space Station, which studies the effects of living in space for long periods of time, and furthering the development of its most powerful rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). The next step will involve crews conducting operations in deep space environments near the moon, which it calls its Proving Ground stage.

The third “Earth Independent” stage involves enabling human missions to low-Mars orbit or on one of the Martian moons, before eventually landing on the Martian surface.

“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,” said 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’s goal is, of course, complicated by the fact that Mars itself is not especially hospitable to human life. “It has minimal oxygen, a temperate of 200 degrees below at the poles, and low gravity that can burst internal organs within minutes,” and dust, as described by The New York Times.

Even outside of the planet’s hostile conditions and various transportation issues, the space agency faces complex technological and operations challenges, including how to support crewed missions lasting over 1,000 days and exploration campaigns that span decades. Other concerns are over how to send humans and cargo through space “efficiently, safely and reliably.”

Once astronauts arrive at their destination, NASA must know exactly how to keep the crew and robotic systems safe, healthy and productive, as well as how to sustain human exploration. An additional challenge will be how to get the crew off the planet’s surface and returned safely back to Earth.

“Through our robotic emissaries, we have 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 vita data about the Martin environment,” said NASA.

“The revolutionary Curiosity sky crane placed nearly one metric ton – about the size of a small car – safely on the surface of Mars, but we need to be able to land at least 10 times that weight with humans – and then be able to get them off the surface.”

NASA said it is also looking at a variety of new techniques and capabilities, including printing 3D parts, state of the art life support systems, solar electric propulsion, new spacewalking and sample handling techniues, and developing networks like the Deep Space Network, Near Earth Network and Space Network to enable communication through the solar system.

“The journey to Mars is an historic pioneering endeavor – a journey made possible by a sustained effort of science and exploration missions beyond low-Earth orbit with successively more capable technologies and partnerships,” NASA said in its statement.

©