NASA has finally erased all doubts about landing humans on Mars within a few decades. They just released the most detailed outline yet, specifying three major phases of research and exploration that will culminate in permanently establishing our presence on Mars.
Phase I: Earth Reliant
The first phase is “Earth Reliant Exploration,” which includes research conducted on the International Space Station (ISS). Before we can trust technologies for communication, fire safety, 3-D printing, and life support on a deep-space, long-duration mission, we have to test them in the microgravity environment of the ISS, hopefully reducing their dependence on Earth.
Astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren are currently halfway through their one-year mission aboard the ISS, which will yield important discoveries about the effects of long term space habitation on human health. Other studies here on Earth, like NASA’s 70-day bedrest study and the year-long isolation experiment meant to mimic Martian life, will also help NASA develop the most effective and protective strategies to preserve the health and competence of any Martian pioneers.
Phase II: Proving Ground
The second phase will bring NASA experiments beyond the ISS into cislunar space around the moon. While distant enough to reflect some of the challenges in traveling to Mars, cislunar space still allows crews to get back home within a few days. During this phase, NASA must test its Space Launch System rocket, which is currently under construction, alongside the Orion spacecraft that will carry the astronauts themselves. NASA anticipates to launch both systems for the first time in 2018.
In 2020, NASA plans to conduct the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission to pluck a boulder off a near-Earth asteroid and bring it into cislunar space for astronauts to analyze. This mission will give NASA the chance to test the solar electric propulsion technology that will be crucial for making it all the way to Mars, while also letting astronauts practice protocol for spacewalks and handling delicate samples.
By the end of the Proving Ground phase, NASA will establish a deep-space habitat that extends our reach beyond the lower Earth orbit. The habitat will break the reliance on round-the-clock assistance from Mission Control and frequent resupply missions.
Phase III: Earth Independent
In the final phase, Earth Independent operations will bring us right into the neighborhood of Mars. Manned missions to low-Mars orbit or one of the planet’s moons will set up habitats that can survive far from Earth, so that when astronauts finally do make it to the surface, they’re ready for a long-term stay instead of a vacation.
NASA has already set a few gears in motion that will eventually get the whole machine off the ground. Last month, they tested the SLS rocket’s wiring and boosters in a simulated rocket launch, and the Orion spacecraft has already made its first space flight. NASA has also begun building facilities for communication networks that will support the astronauts on their journey. And 40 years of data from a host of orbiters, landers, and rovers have painted a vivid picture of what NASA should expect once the astronauts land on the surface.
Of course, many details remain up in the air. For example, what will NASA do about those hyped-up water streaks they discovered a few weeks ago? Building a habitat capable of supporting human life will involve greatly altering the Martian landscape, which would interfere with whatever processes are at work in its ecosystem. In the process of introducing terrestrial life to Mars, we may completely wipe out any existing life-forms before they even get the chance to bloom.
While many challenges and missions lie between us and Mars, this plan shows that our dreams of setting foot on Mars are firmly rooted in reality. We are closer than ever before to severing the chains that have thus far bound our species to Earth.