The Next Step: NASA’s Journey to Mars
Meghan Brown posted on October 09, 2015 |
New report outlines plans to develop technology and knowledge for successful space exploration.

Following the recent big announcement of finding water on the surface of Mars, on October 8, 2015, NASA released the outline of its plan for the journey to Mars, which describes in detail the challenges humans will face as they attempt to explore beyond Earth.

The report addresses the three thresholds to cross on the way to a successful Mars mission and how NASA plans to manage these challenges.

Earth Reliant Exploration will focus on research aboard the International Space Station, testing technology, human health and performing research tasks to enable long-duration, deep-space missions.

Proving Ground Testing includes learning to conduct complex operations in a deep space environment that still allows crews to return to Earth in a matter of days. Primarily operating in cislunar space—the volume of space around the moon that features multiple possible stable staging orbits for future deep space missions—NASA aims to advance and validate the capabilities required for humans to live and work at distances much farther away from our home planet, such as on Mars.

Earth Independent Activities will build on the results of the ISS and deep space research to enable human missions to the vicinity of Mars. This would include expeditions such as a low-Mars orbit or on one of the Martian Moons and eventually the Martian surface.

“NASA is closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in our history," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during the release of the report. "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.”

(Photo courtesy of NASA.)
(Photo courtesy of NASA.)

NASA’s current efforts focus on pieces of the architecture that are known to be required for future space exploration. They plan to continue refining an evolving architecture for the capabilities that need further investigation.

“NASA’s strategy connects near-term activities and capability development to the journey to Mars and a future with a sustainable human presence in deep space," said William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations.

"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," Gerstenmaier continued.

Challenges for Space Pioneers

Living and working in space requires accepting risks, but many believe that the journey to Mars is worth the risks. A new and powerful space transportation system is key to the journey, but NASA also will need to learn new ways to operate in space, based on self-reliance and increased system reliability.

The proving ground missions are intended to validate transportation and habitation capabilities, as well as new operational approaches to stay productive in space while reducing reliance on Earth.

There are three categories of identified technological and operational challenges:

  • Transportation of humans and cargo through space efficiently, safely and reliably.
  • Working in space using methods that enable productive operations for crew and robotic systems.
  • Staying healthy through the development of habitation systems that provide safe, healthy and sustainable human exploration.

Bridging these three categories are the overarching logistical challenges facing crewed missions lasting up to 1,100 days and exploration campaigns that span decades.

This table shows high-level, near- and far-term decisions that must be made to continue on the journey to Mars. (Courtesy of NASA.)
This table shows high-level, near- and far-term decisions that must be made to continue on the journey to Mars. (Courtesy of NASA.)

Strategic Investments Addressing Pioneering Challenges

NASA is investing in capabilities and technologies that can benefit both NASA and its industry partners while minimizing overall costs through innovative partnerships.

Through evolvable transportation infrastructure, ongoing spaceflight architecture studies and rapid prototyping activities, they aim to develop resilient architecture concepts focusing on critical capabilities across a range of potential missions.

On the space station, research goals include advancing human health and behavioral studies for application to the crew of future Mars-class missions.

Technological development is focusing on state-of-the-art life support systems, printing 3D parts and analyzing material handling techniques for in-situ resource utilization.

With the Space Launch System, Orion crewed spacecraft and revitalized space launch complex, NASA is working to develop core transportation capabilities for the journey to Mars and to ensure continued access for commercial crew and cargo partners to maintain operations and stimulate new economic activity in low-Earth orbit. 

This secured U.S. commercial access to low-Earth orbit allows NASA to continue leveraging the station as a microgravity test bed while preparing for missions in the proving ground of deep space and beyond.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) demonstrates a solar electric propulsion capability that aims to be a critical component of the journey to Mars. ARM will also provide an unprecedented opportunity to validate new spacewalk and sample handling techniques as astronauts investigate several tons of an asteroid boulder – potentially opening new scientific discoveries about the formation of our solar system and beginning of life on Earth.

NASA is also managing and directing the ground-based facilities and services provided by the Deep Space Network (DSN)Near Earth Network (NEN) and Space Network (SN). All of these networks provide critical communications capabilities for human and robotic communication throughout the solar system.

Through robotic missions, Earth has already been present on and around Mars for 40 years, taking nearly every opportunity to send in orbiters, landers and rovers with increasingly complex experiments and sensing systems.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, one of the many surface and orbital missions to Mars. (Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.)

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, one of the many surface and orbital missions to Mars. (Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.)

These orbiters and rovers have returned vital data about the Martian environment, helping to understand what challenges we may face and what kinds of resources we may encounter.

The revolutionary Curiosity sky crane placed nearly one metric ton – about the size of a small car – safely on the surface of Mars. 

However, future missions will require landing at least 10 times that weight with humans – and then being able to get them back off the surface.

These challenges are solvable.

NASA and its partners are working on developing solutions every day so that one day we can answer some of humanity's fundamental questions about life beyond Earth: Was Mars home to microbial life? Is there life on Mars today? Could it be a safe home for humans in the future? What can it teach us about life elsewhere in the cosmos or how life began on Earth? What can it teach us about Earth's past, present and future?

The complete report, NASA’s Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration, is available online.

To learn more about NASA's Journey to Mars, including the agency's latest scientific exploration of the Red Planet, visit the mission page.

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