NASA released a unifying vision to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. While the goal has support in Congress and from the White House, securing adequate sustained funding through the next two decades and managing the inherent risks involved in human travel to deep space remain considerable barriers to NASA’s goal.
“NASA is leading our nation and our world on a journey to Mars. Like the Apollo Program, we embark on this journey for all humanity. Unlike Apollo, we will be going to stay. This is a 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,” reads the opening sentences of a major National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Journey to Mars report released in October, along with a website. The report concludes that “While far away, Mars is a goal within our reach.”
Presidents since Dwight Eisenhower have floated the idea of going to Mars, and President George H.W. Bush prominently called for a mission to Mars. A human spaceflight mission to Mars has become an umbrella goal under which President Obama, NASA, the U.S. scientific community, and policymakers have found growing consensus and toward which they are now working. Beginning with a major space policy speech at the Kennedy Space Center in 2010 and the release of the U.S. National Space Policy later that year, President Obama pushed for Mars as a horizon goal for pioneering space. Said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at an Oct. 28 event at the Center for American Progress:
“The centerpiece of the President’s plan was and is a journey to Mars that will culminate with sending American astronauts to an asteroid in the 2020s and the Red Planet in the 2030s. … Five years after the President challenged NASA to send astronauts to Mars … we’re closer … than ever before in human history.”
Mars journey faces uncertainty from changes in political leadership that will come over next 20 years
The catch? The success of the plan will require future Presidents, NASA administrators, and Congress, to stay the course for the next 20 years, with an eye on both the end goal of reaching Mars and adequate funding for the space agency in the years between now and then. At the Oct. 28 event, Bolden said this “will require future leaders to continue to make the decisions that point us in this direction. … It’s my sincere hope that future leaders from all sides of the political spectrum see it through.”
Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Lamar Smith (R-TX) was critical of the report, calling it “some real pretty photographs and some nice words,” but Smith has been a longtime NASA and human space exploration enthusiast. He’s “encouraged for future Mars missions” but says budgets are going to constrain NASA’s vision until Congress and the space agency can agree to a budget schedule for the endeavor: “This [report] sounds good, but it is actually a journey to nowhere until we have that budget and we have that schedule and we have the deadlines."
Endeavor to focus NASA mission and resources in all directorates for next decades
According to the report, the journey to Mars will pass through three phases, each tackling increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth. The three phases are Earth Reliant, Proving Ground, and Earth Independent. The Earth Reliant phase, currently ongoing, is focused on research aboard the International Space Station, where NASA and its international partners are “testing technologies and advancing human health and performance research that will enable deep-space, long-duration missions.” During the Proving Ground phase, NASA and its partners will “practice deep-space operations” in “cislunar space—the volume of space around the moon featuring multiple stable staging orbits for future deep space missions.” And finally, in the Earth Independent phase, NASA will send “human missions to the Mars vicinity, including the Martian moons, and eventually the Martian surface.”
Moving beyond lower Earth orbit and eventually to Mars will be an all-encompassing undertaking for NASA, focusing the resources of all four of the NASA Mission Directorates and all of the NASA centers and laboratories. NASA is currently developing the Orion crew spacecraft, a “launch, reentry, and in-space crew spacecraft designed to transport a crew of four to deep space,” along with the Space Launch System (SLS), “Orion’s ride to deep space.” Orion was launched successfully into space on a Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle in December 2014 for its maiden voyage, and the SLS will support its first deep-space exploration mission (EM-1), anticipated in 2018. Explains the report, “Although uncrewed, EM-1 will provide the first integrated test of SLS and Orion, including SLS’ launch performance, Orion’s heat shield, and deep-space navigation.” Both Orion and SLS passed major design reviews earlier this year. NASA is also developing solar electric propulsion technology to use “energy from the sun to accelerate ionized propellant to very high speeds,” which is “incredibly efficient and can provide thrust continuously for months or years, allowing more mass to be transported with far less propellant.”
Mars journey seen as next logical step in human space exploration, may answer major science questions
The Journey to Mars report explains that Mars was selected as NASA’s horizon goal because it is “the next tangible frontier for expanding human presence.” “We pioneer space,” reads the report, “to discover life, identify resources, foster economic growth, inspire and educate, protect ourselves from space-based threats, and leave a better future for the next generation.” In an audience call and response at the Oct. 28 event, Bolden emphasized this point:
“Mars matters. Because its formulation and evolution are comparable to Earth’s, Mars matters. Because we know that at one time it had conditions that are suitable for life, Mars matters. Because what we learn about the Red Planet may tell us about our own home planet’s history and future, and because it might just help us unravel the age old mystery about whether life exists beyond Earth, Mars matters.”
Deep space exploration expected to benefit humans on Earth with unexpected applications and technologies
Bolden also pointed out that NASA’s human space exploration has already provided countless technologies and applications that have improved everyday life for much of humankind, and in some cases are transforming how we live. Said Bolden:
“In a relatively short period of time, the space program has revolutionized the way we practice medicine, insulate our houses, purify our water, wear our eyeglasses, obtain television and radio signals, stay safe on our highways, protect our firefighters, feed our babies, power our electric grid, and lie down for a night’s sleep. That, of course, is only the short list. … [Space program] technologies have resulted in many planned and unexpected capabilities and products, like improved artificial limbs, memory foam, solar panels, and so many others … originally developed for the space program that also have invaluable earthly benefits.”
NASA Inspector General highlights the many risks of human travel into deep space
Earlier this month, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin released an audit of the NASA’s human space exploration activities, finding the agency “faces significant challenges” and that the timeline NASA is operating on may be too optimistic given the risks of deep space travel that that agency need to address. According to the audit:
“Long duration missions will likely expose crews to health and human performance risks for which NASA has limited effective countermeasures. Apart from the tremendous engineering challenges in launching and returning astronauts safely to Earth, humans living in space experience a range of physiological changes that can affect their ability to perform necessary mission functions … Accordingly, the astronauts chosen to make at least the initial forays into deep space may have to accept a higher level of risk than those who fly International Space Station missions.”
Among those risks are the microgravity environment which can reduce human bone density and muscle strength, space radiation that causes cancer, as well as potential changes to the central nervous system.
The Journey to Mars report anticipates many risks and challenges along the way to the goal, but insists they are manageable. The report concludes: “There are challenges to pioneering Mars, but we know they are solvable. We are developing the capabilities necessary to get there, land there, and live there.”