NASA Refines Its Strategy for Getting Humans to Mars

Artist's conception of an early Martian base.

Artist’s conception of an early Martian base.
Image: NASA

NASA’s upcoming Artemis Moon program is serving as a stepping stone for an eventual crewed mission to Mars. A revised list of planning objectives details a strategy for accomplishing this daunting feat.

Tea documentreleased Tuesday, serve as a blueprint for how we’ll eventually send humans to Mars. NASA has chosen to employ a “Moon to Mars” strategy, in which the space agency, with the assistance of commercial and international partners, will acquire the technology and skills needed work on the Moon, and then use those learnings to mount a crewed mission to Mars, tentatively scheduled for the late 2030s or early 2040s.

Earlier this year, NASA drafted 50 high-level objectives for the program, and in June asked members of its workforce, the public, private companies, and international partners to chime in. This was followed by a pair workshops to flesh out these ideas even further.

In total, NASA received more than 5,000 recommendations, allowing the space agency to refine its pre-existing list of objectives and add new items altogether. The resulting 63 objectives reflect a “mature strategy” for NASA and its partners as they develop a plan for “sustained human presence and exploration throughout the solar system,” according to a NASA press release.

“Our first draft of the Moon to Mars Objectives were intentionally broad, and the overwhelming responses we received encouraged us to be even broader in some areas, yet more specific in others,” NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy wrote in the document forward. “We grew from 50 objectives to 63, spanning multidisciplinary science, transportation and habitation, lunar and Martian infrastructure, operations, and a new domain: recurring tenets.”

Smartly, the revised strategy remains closely aligned with NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to return humans to the Moon, this time for good. The 63 high-level objectives listed in the new document are therefore a mix of lunar- and Martian-specific requirements. The new objectives were broken down into five categories: recurring tenets, science, infrastructure, transportation and habitation, and operations.

The recurring tenets reflect common themes across all objectives, such as international and industry collaboration, ensuring the health of the crew and returning them safely to Earth, maximizing the time available for crews to perform science and engineering activities during the course of the mission, and to “foster the expansion of the economic sphere beyond Earth orbit to support US industry and innovation.” I don’t love the specific mention of “US industry and innovation,” as this international endeavor should also seek to foster the economies of partner nations, which it’s very likely to do. But like so many things that NASA says and does, there are political factors that need to be taken into account; the space agency must always cozy up to Congress, the keeper of the purse strings.

Science objectives for Moon to Mars should touch upon planetary science, the science of the Sun, human and biological science, and basic physics, among other fields. Ideally, we should work to improve our understanding of the early solar system, the geology of both the Moon and Mars, the origin of life, space weather, the history of the Sun, and the deleterious effects of long-duration missions onto biological systems, including humans, according to the document . During the program, we should “evaluate how the interaction of exploration systems and the deep space environment affect human health, performance, and space human factors to inform future exploration-class missions,” as the Moon to Mars blueprint spells out.

Specific infrastructure objectives for both the lunar and Martian environments include power generation, various robotics capabilities, a communications infrastructure, navigation and timing (ie ensuring sync between devices, some of which will be separated by vast distances), and on-site resource utilization. For transportation and habitation, the blueprint seeks the development of “an integrated system of systems to conduct a campaign of human exploration missions to the Moon and Mars, while living and working on the lunar and Martian surface, with safe return to Earth.”

Operational requirements to enable human missions on both the Moon and Mars include the establishment of command and control processes, operating surface mobility systems (such as space suits, tools, and vehicles), and the factoring in of communications delays. Fascinatingly, the document also requests the “capability to find, service, upgrade, or utilize instruments and equipment from robotic landers or previous human missions on the surface of the Moon and Mars.” This blows my mind, and I’m suddenly imagining Martian crews poaching NASA’s InSight lander for parts or repairing the defunct Opportunity rover.

“We’re helping to steward humanity’s global movement to deep space,” Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, said in the press release. “The objectives will help ensure a long-term strategy for solar system exploration can retain constancy of purpose and weather political and funding changes.”

These objectives are as necessary as they are daunting, as project planners seek to fulfill mission objectives while having to ensure the safety of their crews. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who breathlessly claims he’ll plant a million colonists on Mars by 2050, should take note. There’s more to reaching Mars than simply packing Starships with colonists and wishing them luck.

More: Elon Musk’s Plan to Send a Million Colonists to Mars by 2050 Is Pure Delusion.

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