NASA, and space exploration in general, seem to be having a bit of a renaissance moment of late. There was the announcement earlier this year that the Kepler telescope had discovered its first earth-size planet orbiting the habitable zone of another star.
Then there was the whole flowing water on Mars thing. Then the Pluto revelations of water ice and blue skies revealed by the New Horizons spacecraft flyby.
As if that wasn't enough, NASA have recently released very detailed plans of how they intend to send people to Mars over the next few decades. "NASA is closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in our history,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
“Today, we are publishing additional details about our journey to Mars plan and how we are aligning all of our work in support of this goal. In the coming weeks, I look forward to continuing to discuss the details of our plan with members of Congress, as well as our commercial and our international and partners, many of whom will be attending the International Astronautical Congress next week.”
The 36-page document outlines how the trip to Mars will be a permanent one for those embarking on it:
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.
This pioneering endeavor carries out the direction given to us in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act and in the U.S. National Space Policy. It engages all four NASA Mission Directorates and all NASA Centers and Laboratories. It enlists the best of academia and industry across the nation and builds on our existing international partnerships while embracing new ones. And like pioneering efforts before it, the journey to Mars will foster and attract new commercial enterprises.
Why Mars? 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.
Exciting times. The actual launch won't be for at least a few decades though. But they've been preparing for it already. At this very moment astronauts are on the ISS undertaking an experiment to spend the first year in space. If successful this will be followed by missions to the Red Planet's vicinity, putting astronauts in low-Mars orbit or around one of the Martian moons.
Work is already underway on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket too, which will take humans to Mars, along with the Orion spacecraft, which will launch and return the astronauts to earth. These will be tested by the end of the decade.
Then in the 2020s NASA's Asteroid Direct Mission will involve the agency redirecting an asteroid to a stable orbit around the moon, so astronauts can visit, explore it, and return with rock samples.
These will all be vital steps to NASA landing the first humans on Mars sometime in the 2030s.