It's been clear for some time that NASA aims to send astronauts to Mars, but until recently there were few specifics available about the agency's plans. How, exactly, would astronauts get there? How long would they stay? How would NASA support them on the red planet? We knew that NASA intended to send astronauts to Mars via the massive SLS (Space Launch System) rocket, but until late March all other details of the mission were still a mystery.
But now, thanks to NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, we have some insight into the first flights of the SLS and what NASA hopes to achieve during those launches. Gerstenmaier briefed NASA’s advisory council on March 28th on the agency's short, medium, and long-term plans for spaceflight, including NASA's plans for getting to the red planet.
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NASA intends to build a lunar outpost called the Deep Space Gateway (DSG)
After a test mission of the Space Launch System rocket currently scheduled for 2018, and a mission to send a spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa, NASA will begin using the SLS to construct a lunar space station. The agency is debating between at least six different habitats, so it's not clear yet exactly what form that space station will take. It likely won't be quite as big as the International Space Station (ISS), or have year-round occupancy, but it will be a launching platform for deeper space missions.
The outpost will be built in space, like the International Space Station
The lunar habitat will likely require a minimum of three SLS launches, the first in 2023, to construct. The basics—power, propulsion, the habitat—should be in place by the end of 2025, and further launches could add facilities like airlocks, which would allow private craft (such as SpaceX) to dock within the outpost. It seems as though NASA isn’t viewing this facility as proprietary. They’re looking forward to it being a collaborative venture with other private spaceflight organizations as well as other countries.
After the outpost is completed, NASA wants to build a deep space transport system
Once the lunar outpost is up and running, NASA plans to build a deep space vehicle, currently called the deep space transport system, to facilitate travel outside the Earth-Moon corridor. After all, while the space capsule Orion is livable for a three-day trip between the Earth and the Moon, it’s much too small for the nine months or more it will take to get to Mars. For epic journeys, NASA wants to build a larger spacecraft that has enough room for habitation and storage of the supplies needed for a long-duration mission in space.
Around 2029, NASA wants to send a crew on a 300–400 day test mission aboard the new transport system
Before sending astronauts to Mars, NASA wants to test the deep space transport mission in a long-duration mission, during which the astronauts could still be rescued if a problem arises. A crew would test the spacecraft in the vicinity of the Moon for 300 to 400 days to make sure it’s up to the rigors of deep space. This stage might sound like it’s just delaying a Mars mission, but it’s important to remember that there will be no hope of rescue for our astronauts if something goes wrong on the way to (or back from) Mars. Therefore, NASA needs to double and triple check that the spacecraft which will ferry astronauts to the red planet is spaceworthy.
The first Mars mission would occur in 2033
Finally, in 2033, NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars. The first mission would likely only take astronauts into Martian orbit. Landing, and all the challenges that come with it, would be part of a later mission.
This plan sounds ambitious, and it is, but it’s doable. The first crewed mission in this cycle wouldn’t occur until 2023, which should give NASA enough time to make sure the hardware is sound and they aren’t taking undue risks with the lives of astronauts.
It’s unclear how Congress will react to this ambitious plan; though there has traditionally been bipartisan support for NASA, Congress hasn't always supported large amounts of funding for long-term missions outside of low Earth orbit. Still, we can hope that they’ll provide appropriate budgets to make NASA’s plans a reality.