This past week at the International Astronomical Conference in Jerusalem, Israel, NASA announced its official plan for sending astronauts to Mars by the late 2030’s.
NASA’s plan, laid out in its report “Journey to Mars,” consists of three main phases that are intended to incrementally address the abundant challenges of manned interplanetary travel.
Phase 1 – Earth Reliant
This phase is focused on conducting research close to home aboard the International Space Station. Since the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, the U.S.-portion of the ISS has been used as a national laboratory to conduct hundreds of civilian and private industry experiments.
The questions addressed by these experiments are broad, spanning the impact of microgravity on human eye acuity to the acceleration of microbial growth in space. Coupled with these scientific inquiries are on-orbit tests of technology pertaining to environmental life support, 3D printing, and extravehicular operations.
NASA will continue these investigations to set the foundation for long-duration missions.
Phase 2 – Proving Ground
The Proving Ground phase is intended to teach NASA the ins-and-outs of complex operations in a deep space environment.
This phase consists of numerous planned space missions, including (but not limited to) the 2020 Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission to collect and ferry a near-Earth orbit asteroid and autonomous docking and rendezvous operations.
Cumulatively, these missions will aim to validate capabilities required for Mars exploration.
Phase 3 – Earth Independent
This is show time – when humans will make their first true foray into interplanetary travel.
By 2033, NASA is hoping to have an exploratory crew of astronauts on Phobos, the larger of the two Martian moons. In 2039, NASA intends to place a crew on the surface of Mars for a 30-day stay. In 2043, NASA aims to execute a 500-day manned Martian mission.
Conducting these “Earth independent” operations will require significant advancements in in-situ resource utilization and communications systems. NASA hopes that consistent minimization of resupply needs will allow Martian settlements to function fairly autonomously of Earth-born researchers.
In a solar system full of intrigue and spots of interest, why select Mars as the main destination for foreseeable manned missions? The NASA report explains:
Mars is the horizon goal for pioneering space; it is the next tangible frontier for expanding human presence. Our robotic science scouts at Mars have found valuable resources for sustaining human pioneers, such as water ice just below the surface. These scouts have shown that Mars’ geological evolution and climate cycles were comparable to Earth’s, and that at one time, Mars had conditions suitable for life.
What we learn about the Red Planet will tell us more about our Earth’s past and future, and may help answer whether life exists beyond our home planet.
-By Ari Sandberg, SEDS-UM Member