NASA’s first human mission to Mars may not land on the planet



first humans mars astronaut glove shutterstock_341700152Shutterstock

  • NASA has finally revealed details about its plan to
    send astronauts to Mars.
  • The plan calls for building an outpost to orbit the
    moon and test Mars hardware.
  • A crew of four may have to spend up to 3 years inside
    of a Mars spaceship — yet never land on the planet.
  • It remains to be seen if NASA’s flat budget can
    facilitate reaching Mars by 2033.

For years, NASA has talked about sending people to Mars with its
gigantic new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a new
spacecraft called Orion.

But NASA hasn’t said how it plans to use that $40 billion of new
hardware, even after publishing
a 36-page Mars exploration plan
in October 2015.

Fortunately, a plan may finally be coming into place.

On March 21, President Donald Trump
signed a new law
that mandates NASA send people to Mars by
2033. Then, a week later, the space agency published its most
detailed plan yet for reaching the red planet.

The scheme is neither for the claustrophobic nor feint of heart:
It involves locking astronauts into a tube-shaped spaceship,
sending them into deep space for 3 years, and giving them no form
of emergency escape beyond the moon.

What’s more, astronauts would only orbit Mars in 2033; they’d
never attempt a landing.

That’s according to a document authored by William H.
Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human exploration and operations
directorate, which he presented during a NASA advisory
council
meeting on March 28. We first learned about the
presentation via a story by Eric Berger
at Ars Technica
.

“NASA is leading the next steps into deep space near the moon,
where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems needed
for challenging missions to deep space destinations including
Mars,” NASA said about the new plan in
a press release
.

Getting to Mars in five phases


deep space gateway moon mars nasa
An
artist’s concept of NASA’s Deep Space Gateway (left) space
station near the moon.


NASA


Gesternmeier’s program lists five phases to reach Mars.

Phase 0 involves using the International Space
Station “as a test bed to demonstrate key exploration
capabilities and operations, and foster an emerging commercial
space industry” with partners like SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital ATK,
and others. We’re currently in this phase.

Phase 1 is ambitious, involving six launches
that span from 2018 through 2025.

First, NASA wants to launch its inaugural SLS rocket (a
321-foot-tall behemoth that’s designed to rival the
Saturn V rockets
that blasted Apollo astronauts
to the moon
). Assuming that maiden flight and tests of its
new Orion spaceship go well, the space agency will launch five
more SLS rockets.

The first of those five would send NASA’s unrelated Europa
Clipper probe to Jupiter, where it would study an icy moon with a

hidden ocean
that may be
habitable to alien life
. Four other missions will each launch
a piece of a new space station, called the Deep Space Gateway
(DSG), into orbit near the moon — a region called cislunar space
— where four astronauts will help assemble and provision it.

“The gateway could move to support robotic or partner missions to
the surface of the moon, or to a high lunar orbit to support
missions departing from the gateway to other destinations in the
solar system,” Gerstenmaier said in the release.


deep space transport moon mars nasa
An
artist’s concept of NASA’s Deep Space Transport (right) spaceship
near the moon.


NASA


Phase 2 builds on the lunar space station by
launching a Deep Space Transport (DST) to it in 2027. Then,
around 2028 or 2029, four lucky astronauts would spend up to 400
days inside the 41-ton tube as it orbits near the moon. Their
mission: Make sure the DST works and nothing critical stops
working.

Phase 3 begins around 2030, assuming the DST and
its crew experience no problems. Another SLS flight would restock
the spaceship with supplies and fuel, then yet another launch
would load it up with four people — the first crew to visit Mars.

Their two- to three-year-long flight “would likely involve a
Venus flyby and a short stay around Mars” and “would offer no
hope for an emergency return once the crew leaves cislunar
space,” Berger wrote at Ars Technica.

Phase 4 would happen beyond 2033, and is fairly
nebulous at this point. All it calls for in Gerstenmaier’s
document is “development and robotic preparatory missions” to
deliver habitats and supplies to the surface of Mars, plus
eventual “Mars human landing missions”.

Will NASA put the first boots on Mars?


mars colonyNASA

It remains to be seen whether or not NASA can pull off this grand
plan on the relatively flat budget Congress keeps handing it.

During the Apollo moon missions, NASA made up more than 4% of the
US budget. Today, it’s share has shrunk to about half of a
percent.

Even if NASA does manage to execute this plan, it may have
competition from the private partners it hopes to get involved.
The private sector may even beat NASA to Mars.

Elon Musk, the founder of the rocket company
SpaceX
, recently said he plans to
send people to Mars by 2022
. Boeing has also challenged
SpaceX in beating the company to the red planet. Musk said he’s

OK with this
because all he wants to do is colonize Mars and
protect humanity from self-imposed annihilation or a rogue
asteroid.

“I think it’s good for there to be multiple paths to Mars … to
have multiple irons in the fire,”
Musk said
in August 2016.

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