What path will lead American humans to Mars?

by Elizabeth Howell on May 24, 2013

How long does it take to get to Mars

An artist’s conception of the Curiosity spacecraft landing on Mars. Credit: NASA

Is it just us, or has there been a lot — a LOT — of talk about getting humans to Mars lately?

Here’s Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin promoting a book about Mars exploration. Over here is Mars One, currently accepting applications for a one-way trip to the Red Planet in 2023 — an opportunity that thousands of people applied for so far. Don’t forget the Inspiration Mars people, either.

Even as our robotic emissaries break otherworldly driving records and search for Mars’ missing atmosphere, it’s not enough for our exploratory horizons. The stunning pictures robots beam back from Mars only fuel the fire for human hopes to get there.

President Barack Obama has said he wants to get to Mars by the 2030s, but his is the latest in a series of plans to get there. Every president seems to have a new idea of Mars exploration.

A Congressional committee this week tried to cut through the noise to get some clear messages about what to do. (Context: NASA’s fiscal 2014 budget is up for discussion, so this has budgetary relevance.)

An artist's concept of how the spacecraft for the Inspiration Mars Foundation's "Mission for America" might be configured. Credit: Inspiration Mars.

An artist’s concept of how the spacecraft for the Inspiration Mars Foundation’s “Mission for America” might be configured. Credit: Inspiration Mars.

So. We had four witnesses with maybe 150 to 200 years of combined space experience appearing before the subcommittee on space on Tuesday (May 21), each with a plan.  To wit, here is a very brief summary of their individual positions:

Louis Friedman, executive director emeritus of The Planetary Society (who co-led the co-leader of the Keck Institute for Space Studies Asteroid Retrieval Mission Study): Do the asteroid mission proposed by NASA. It will launch four to five years from now. If done properly, it would be a great opportunity for humans to explore as well as for commercial opportunities in mining.

Paul Spudis,  senior staff scientist at the NASA-funded Lunar and Planetary Institute: Return to the moon. It’s close, so close to Earth that we can operate rovers by remote control. It’s a good spot to learn more about the solar system, and it provides practice for us in living off the resources of the land as it has water — a tool for life support and energy.

- Steve Squyres, Cornell University planetary scientist renowned for his Mars rover research: Go to cislunar space, the area close to the moon. It’s an easily accessible spot in a restricted budget environment. Thinking beyond that is not realistic in the current budget environment.

Douglas Cooke, NASA’s former associate administrator for the exploration systems mission directorate: Re-establish lunar exploration. The asteroid mission would not connect well with the long-term strategy, but the lunar surface would as (like Mars) it is a hostile environment suitable for testing planetary exploration technologies.

Artist impression of an astronaut on Mars (NASA)

Artist impression of an astronaut on Mars (NASA)

Representatives then peppered the space experts with tons of questions, such as:

– How best to bring in international partners?

– Should we be concerned about other countries talking about going to the moon themselves, such as Russia and China?

– Should we take away from other NASA programs, such as astronomy or debris retrieval in orbit, to focus on Mars exploration? (Recall that Mars science was slashed in 2012, including the loss of participation in ExoMars.)

– How do we interest the public in the mission? The asteroid retrieval (which many committee members heavily criticized as one released with little outside consultation) doesn’t seem to spark with the person on the street.

– Should we even attempt to go given the sequestration environment right now?

Take a listen of the experts’ answers in full in the archived webcast (available here).

But also — what’s your take? Is it worth going to Mars in the first place, and if so, how do we best achieve that? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.


Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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