NASA outlines its plans to reach Mars and beyond
For years now, one of NASA’s primary goals has been to send humans to Mars. It’s a mission that the government, several commercial agencies, and a huge number of people all back, but it has remained vague on specifics.
Last week, NASA outlined its steps for reaching Mars and how it plans to get there. It did it quietly without a lot of fanfare, but it gives us a clear look at the agency’s strategy to get people to the Red Planet.
NASA has become incredibly adept at publicizing its accomplishments in order to get the public excited (a necessary skill in a world where the exploration of space is viewed by many as an expensive “elective” pursuit), but this one flew under the radar. There were probably a few very good reasons for this.
To begin with, plans this complex for a goal this far out need to be flexible and based on the success of each step along the way. That means they may change at any point. The other reason is likely to stay out of the crosshairs of turbulent political winds.
Congress recently approved NASA’s $19.1 billion 2018 budget, which included several cuts but also included funding for a trip to Mars. Politics can change, however. If a politician with clout puts forward a solid argument that the money for NASA could better be spent on something else, the current plans could be derailed. So for now, at least until things progress to the point where it makes more sense to continue than to back off, it’s best to avoid drawing attention to plans with price tags that contain the word “billions.”
Speaking of the price, it’s difficult to commit a specific figure. Not only do costs for experimental technology tend to go way over budget, a significant portion of the plans to reach Mars rely on commercial agencies. Regardless of an exact figure, it won’t be cheap.
The plans were broken into multiple stages, with each stage containing several steps.
Phase 1: The Moon
The first stage in the plans to reach Mars and beyond lies with the moon, and a proposed space station in a cislunar orbit (placing it between the Earth and the moon) known as the Deep Space Gateway (DSG).
The DSG will similar to the International Space Station (ISS), but smaller and meant for a different purpose. Unlike the ISS, the DSG would remain uncrewed the majority of the time. It would potentially consist of a propulsion module, a habitation module, an observation area with 360-degree views, and airlocks – one for spacewalks and one for docking. The DSG might also be modular, meaning it could be added to over the years. The DSG will contain solar panels to generate the energy needed to power the 40-kilowatt solar-electric propulsion system, making it the most powerful SEP in operation.
There is discussion as to whether or not the DSG could go into low lunar orbit, but it would require significant changes (aka a lot of money). That may or may not be possible, but the DSG would potentially offer a demarcation point for lunar excursions, and possibly a platform to build a base on the moon. A lot of it will depend on what the scientific community desires, where commercial agencies want to invest, and whether or not NASA’s budget has room for habitations on the lunar surface.
While uninhabited the majority of the time, the DSG would serve as a stop for the Orion capsule as it made its way to the moon, along with any commercial flights that might need the station. The goal is to have the first sections of the DSG in orbit in 2025, then complete the construction by 2026.
Eventually, the DSG will act as a staging base for longer missions. Supplies could be sent to the DSG over time, which in turn could make it more economical given the costs involved. Every additional pound sent into space costs money, so with a small portion of commercial launches taking the supplies to the DSG over time, it would stretch out the costs over months or years. There’s another reason for the DSG, however.
NASA has a plenty of data on the effects of space on humans over a long period of time thanks to the ISS, but there is a difference between spending time in orbit around Earth and spending time hundreds of thousands – and eventually millions – of miles from anyone that could potentially help if something happened. In reality, if something happened on the ISS there’s not much people on Earth could do on a moment’s notice, but there’s a psychological component to it. What does that type of isolation do to a person over an extended period of time? It would also encourage lunar inhabitants to be less reliant on Earth for things like repairs and construction, but the psychological issue is important too.
Phase 2: Beyond the Moon
Once the DSG is fully operational, NASA will begin to assemble the Deep Space Transport, the ship that will carry humans to Mars. While the Orion capsule will be in use for years to come, it isn’t a realistic means of transport to Mars. We will need something bigger, and built specifically for long trips.
Astronauts are taken from hearty stock and trained to overcome most hardships, but it’s unreasonable to think that a crew can stay in a single capsule for months at a time without serious complications arising – both psychological and physical. To combat this, NASA is planning on creating the DST, a large spacecraft with multiple sections designed to house a crew of four for around 1,000 days.
The DST would be the largest spacecraft ever built by a huge margin; it would weigh around 41 metric tons without any crew or supplies. The exact design isn’t known yet, but it would likely feature sections that are seven meters across, possibly more. By comparison, the ISS modules are 4.3 meters across and Space Lab was 6.6 meters. The DST will be so large that there aren’t any rockets currently in use that could lift it into orbit (that’s where NASA’s new SLS and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Launcher come in).
The bulk of the DST would be sent into orbit around the moon starting in 2027, with additional sections and supplies being sent up over the next two years. Then in 2029, a crew would take control for a one-year test flight around the Earth and moon. Assuming everything was functional, the first crewed flight to Mars would then occur in 2033.
In terms of durability and longevity, the DST is being designed for at least three flights to Mars. Depending on the course selected when humans are ready to go to the Red Planet, it may also swing by Venus for a gravity assist, meaning the spacecraft will have traveled between three planets when it returns home.
While the DSG and the DST are in the works, there are several goals that must first be completed, including crewed flights of the Orion capsule and the completion of the SLS. There are also several commercial groups – SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and others – that will need to be incorporated into these plans, but it’s too early to say who will take the lead (SpaceX seems to have the inside track, but things could change).
Once the new generation of capsules are proven and in use, both scientific and commercial, the DSG will open up several new possibilities, including lunar settlements, possible trips to the asteroid belt, and more.
The plans are just guidelines at the moment. Each step needs to be successfully accomplished before it can move on to the next, and if one goal fails NASA will need to either keep trying or consider alternatives. Still, there is enough time and flexibility built into the plans that a 15-20 year timetable will hopefully give more than enough room for any fail safes.
In the year 2033, we may have human beings on Mars. And this is how NASA will do it.