The race to Mars is on. NASA wants to put humans on the Red Planet by the 2030s – after landing us on asteroids in the 2020s – while Elon Musk’s SpaceX wants to get a human on our closest planetary neighbour first, by 2026.
In its ongoing mission, involving a suitable amount of bureaucracy and planning, NASA’s revealed the three stages it will need to go through to achieve the giant step of a boot on Mars’ surface.
The 35-page plan published by the space agency provides an outline of the colossal challenges that mankind must overcome if we are to be a two planet species: Earth-reliant exploration, a proving ground and finally Earth independence.
At present, we’re still in the Earth-reliant stage and we have been for all of our manned space exploration to date. NASA says the stage is currently “focused on research aboard the International Space Station”.
“On the space station, we are testing technologies and advancing human health and performance research that will enable deep-space, long-duration missions,” the roadmap to Mars says.
The stage is one that has been accelerated thanks to emerging technologies. In the last 18 months the first 3D printer has been sent to space, which will eventually allow us to build structures on other planets, and the first food has been grown in space. The stage also involves improving communications systems, working out how our bodies react to prolonged spaceflight and more.
It’s likely that the first and second stages of NASA’s plan will heavily overlap, although the third stage, which will provide the most risk to human life, will be carefully considered.
The proving ground – the second step to Mars – involves NASA learning to “conduct complex operations in a deep space environment” but still allows the crews to return to Earth in a few days. This will mostly be in cislunar space – the region between Earth and the Moon – the agency says.
Missions that prove the capabilities will include the asteroid redirect mission, in 2020, that will collect a boulder from an asteroid and return it to astronauts to investigate. The second stage will also see the first “deep-space habitation facility for long-duration systems testing,” the report says. There will also be an increase in autonomous missions and docking technologies, and a focus on resupplying “consumables, packaging, and materials” used in space.
The completion of these two stages will mean that sufficient technology has been developed to allow astronauts to get to Mars but also to be able to survive there, using the resources they took and those they create. This accomplishment will mean humans have reached the third stage: Earth independence.
“Earth Independent activities build on what we learn on ISS and in cislunar space to enable human missions to the Mars vicinity, including the Martian moons, and eventually the Martian surface,” NASA’s report says.
This stage will allow a “transition in humanity’s expansion,” the authors write. Humans will be able to live and work within commuting distance of Mars, as well as on its surface. This will include harvesting Mars’ resources to create the essential elements we need to survive: water, fuel and oxygen.
“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,” said NASA’s William Gerstenmaier.
The full publication, NASA’s Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration, can be found here.