NASA Unveils its Plans to Return to the Moon and Send People to Mars
A new proposal from NASA shows a 20+ year timeline that includes a return to the moon to create a permanent presence, and plans to send people to Mars.
For years now – even decades – NASA has made no secret of its long-term goals. First, it plans to create a new spacecraft capable of carrying humans into space. This ship would be a replacement for the long-since retired shuttle and give Americans back a vehicle to reach orbit. Second, NASA expects to return humans to the moon in some capacity. Third, it will send people to Mars and return them safely. It’s a fairly static plan with infinite variables, and the space agency has just revealed a working plan on how it will accomplish these goals.
NASA officially setting a timeline is in part the result of the Space Policy Directive-1, which was signed by President Trump in December 2017. The stated goal in it is for NASA to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.”
NASA’s new plans are in keeping with that and should fulfill the space agency’s longstanding goals at the same time.
Over the past few years, Congress has significantly toyed with NASA’s budget. One year Congress allotted more money than NASA asked for, the next it stripped it to the point that a crewed Mars mission just didn’t seem financially feasible. That back-and-forth may continue in the future, but at least NASA has a plan and a series of milestones it can aim for.
A New Way to Reach Space
To address the first goal of finding new ways to send humans into space, NASA is currently working its own spacecraft, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.
Orion was first announced in 2011, and it was designed to be the spacecraft that takes humanity to Mars and beyond (specifically to asteroids – anything beyond that would likely require something else). It’s currently still in development, and despite an initially optimistic goal of launching a crewed test in 2021, a recent report from the Government Accountability Office suggested 2023 or 2024 was more realistic.
In the meantime, NASA is also expanding more into an agency that helps commercial groups reach space. Or as the agency itself states, “NASA intends to transition from the current model of human space activities in low-Earth orbit to a model where the government is only one customer for commercial services.”
Over the next few years, NASA will “shape the plan for the transition of low-Earth orbit activities from direct government funding to commercial services and partnerships, with new, independent commercial platforms or a non-NASA operating model for some form or elements of the International Space Station by 2025.”
In other words, expect to see more and more of companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, and other American companies expand their commercial presence in space, both through government contracts and to achieve their own goals.
The International Space Station will also take on a slightly more commercial nature. It’s not clear what form that will take, but the ISS is open for business.
“NASA recently awarded 12 contracts to industry to investigate the best way to use the space station to engage the U.S. commercial industry to take a lead role in low-Earth orbit,” NASA stated in a press release. “The portfolio of selected studies will include specific industry concepts detailing business plans and the viability of habitable platforms, using the space station or separate free-flying structures.”
These changes are already underway, and we should see a larger commercial presence in the very near future.
A Permanent Return to the Moon
The next stage in NASA’s plans involves a return to the moon with a human contingent, which includes a new space station that will operate in lunar orbit.
The current timeline would see humans return to the moon by 2023 or 2024 (depending on Origin’s development), albeit only in lunar orbit. The next step – setting foot on the lunar surface – would then follow in the “late 2020s.” Prior to landing back on the moon, however, NASA will introduce the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a space station in lunar orbit that will help to explore the moon and prepare humans for missions deeper into space.
Gateway will be a modular station, complete with a science lab, habitation areas, and holding areas for materials. One of its initial goals will be to help ferry people to the lunar surface and back, and then to help construct some form of habitation on the moon. It will remain the first stop for lunar missions for years to come, but it will also be an integral part of a crewed mission to Mars.
One of the big challenges in sending people to Mars is the weight. The more a spacecraft weighs, the more difficult it is to send it into orbit. Sending up multiple launches without a single destination also dramatically increases the risks to a spacecraft through repeated docking maneuvers. A trip that will take months, like the mission to Mars, requires more fuel and supplies than any exploratory mission in history. Gateway will act as a storage silo for those supplies and fuel, and the crew will stop there to load up on the way.
But before anyone heads off to the Red Planet, there will need to be countless tests on the effects of long-term exposure to deep space on living organisms. Many of those tests will be conducted on Gateway, while the lunar surface will acts as a test bed for new technologies that will be needed to go to Mars, asteroids, and beyond.
Construction on Gateway is currently underway. The first modules may be sent into lunar orbit as soon as late 2022, with the habitational units reaching the station no earlier than 2024. The first crew may then take up residency in 2026, with lunar landings coming after.
Sending Humans to Mars
While a return to the moon will undoubtedly be a major milestone in human history, setting foot on Mars will be a defining moment.
The timetable on reaching Mars is still very much in flux, but the tentative plan is still to have people on the Red Planet in the late 2030s. There are still several things that need to be accomplished first, including creating some of the technologies that will be necessary to travel to Mars and return safely. Many of those are still just theoretical at this point.
The next major step toward sending humans to Mars will take place in July 2020, when NASA’s next Mars rover is set to launch. Once the new rover reaches the Martian surface, it will continue the ongoing goal of looking for past life on Mars, but it will also attempt to demonstrate the potential for producing fuel and other resources needed for human exploration. Those results will then inform the following robotic missions.
After the next Mars rover, subsequent robotic missions will attempt to land, collect samples, and then return to Earth. That is itself an extremely ambitious and difficult project. It will mark the first rocket launch from another planet, a critical component of any later crewed mission.
If any of the steps leading up to a crewed mission to Mars fail – from the Origin test to the Gateway creation to the robotic exploration of Mars – it could delay everything after that. All projects would be put on hold until that piece is successfully and safely completed. That could lead to delays of months or even years.
It’s still a long way out and there are several challenges to solve, many of which don’t have solutions yet. But the path is clear and Mars awaits.