Highlights from the 10th Achieving Mars Workshop

Back in December, NASA officials, space industry experts, members of the academic community, and science communicators descended on Washington, D.C., for the Achieving Mars Workshop X (AM X). This workshop is hosted by Explore Mars Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing leading experts from disparate fields together to contribute to creating the first crewed missions to Mars. On May 17th, the results of this year’s workshop were summarized in a report titled “The Tenth Community Workshop for Achievability and Sustainability of Human Exploration of Mars.”

Erik Antonsen, Bruce Jakosky, and Lisa May co-chaired the workshop, which took place from December 5th to 7th at George Washington University. Antonsen is the CTO of Advancing Frontiers, a consulting company providing spaceflight integration services, and an Associate Professor of Space Medicine and Emergency Medicine with the Center for Space Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine (BCM). Jakosky is a Professor Emeritus of Geological Sciences and the Associate Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at UC Boulder. May is the Chief Technologist for Lockheed Martin’s Commercial and Civil Space Advanced Programs.

As always, the workshop featured presentations and discussions that addressed the challenges, benefits, and ongoing efforts to realize the human exploration of Mars. But this year was special in several ways, not just because it was the tenth anniversary of the AM series. In addition, AM X took place during an auspicious time for NASA, space agencies, international organizations, and commercial space companies supporting human spaceflight. Between the impending return to the Moon through the Artemis programs and uncertainties about the first crewed missions to Mars, there was a lot to discuss!

For instance, last year’s workshop (AM IX) addressed the pressing question of whether NASA would be able to mount a crewed mission to Mars by 2033. This has been a key aspect of NASA’s Moon-to-Mars (M2M) mission architecture, detailed in the agency’s annual Architecture Concept Reviews (ACRs). It is also in keeping with Explore Mars’ goal of advancing the “human exploration of Mars and beyond no later than the 2030s.” Alas, in recent years, there has been growing skepticism that several key technologies will be ready to meet this deadline.

As Universe Today reported at the time, these doubts were raised at AM IX, and there was no consensus regarding potential solutions. This included the possibility of a flyby mission by 2033 and whether or not a nuclear-thermal propulsion (NTP) system, which can potentially reduce transit times to Mars (45 to 100 days), would be ready in time. In addition, there were the comments of Deputy Administrator Jim Reuters, who acknowledged that sending astronauts to Mars by 2040 was “an audacious goal for us to meet… It may sound like a lot, but it is [a] very short time to develop technologies we need to develop.”

As with previous AM workshops, cooperation and effective communication were emphasized. This includes coordinating robotic and human spaceflight missions and broader cooperation between space agencies, government, and industry. A key concern that was identified was the process through which NASA’s mission architecture evolves. While participants agreed that the M2M ADD “provides a strong starting point for an iterative architecture process,” they also concluded that the development process was insufficient. As stated in the AM X Report:

“Participants observed that despite recent progress, existing channels were insufficient to adequately integrate human capabilities and limitations as well as science objectives into the architecture development process. Similarly, sustainable human exploration of the Moon and Mars will not occur unless science and human exploration objectives are infused early and continuously into the systems engineering processes.”

Artwork for the AM X Workshop Report. Credit: Explore Mars Inc.

To address these concerns, the workshop participants came up with four recommendations for improving existing channels and the architecture development process. They include:

Public Outreach & Involvement

First, the AM X Workshop Report recommended that public interactive forums be more frequent to develop inputs to NASA’s Architecture Definition Documents. The communities emphasized for engagement include operations, human research, science, international organizations, and others “that empower cross-disciplinary teaming, welcome broad participation from external experts, and provide a pathway to incorporate community recommendations and findings into Mars mission planning.”

The need to coordinate with diverse science communities to prioritize and narrow science objectives was also noted, as was the possible need for certification paths for external groups “to provide input in
smaller settings and more frequently than once a year at the ACR.”

The Report also emphasizes the need for initiatives and workshops that focus on the development and integration of “intelligent systems” and “data analytics” that will be critical for missions operating farther from Earth for extended periods. According to NASA’s mission architecture, this applies to Phase III of the Moon to Mars plan (aka. “Earth Independent”), where operations will shift from cislunar to deep space. This will include transits to and from Mars using the Deep Space Transport (DST) and science operations on the Martian surface.

Risk Mitigation

Second, the Report acknowledges the historical trend where certain priorities (like discovery science, technology, and infrastructure development) are often sacrificed for short-term needs. To this end, it is recommended that NASA acknowledge and address tensions between scientific investment for “risk mitigation purposes and investment for discovery science in planning for M2M missions.” While there is no reference to the sacrifices made to realize the Artemis Program and a return to the Moon by 2024, there are some hints that this could be the case.

An illustration of the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost in orbit around the Moon. Credits: NASA

The shifting priorities brought about by the expedited timetable have led to the deprioritizing of mission elements crucial to reaching Mars by the 2030s – like the Lunar Gateway. As acting Deputy Administrator Doug Loverro explained in March of 2020 during a NASA Advisory Council science committee, the Gateway was deprioritized to “de-risk” Artemis so NASA could focus on meeting the mandatory goals of Artemis and its 2024 deadline. Meanwhile, no design or feasibility studies have been performed for the DST or a Mars orbital habitat (a la the Mars Base Camp) since 2018/19, coinciding with the Artemis “shake-up.”

Regardless, the Report cites the need for increased funding to ensure “technology maturation, demonstration, and infusion to incorporate capabilities.” This is understandable, given that budget concerns have been an issue since NASA began planning missions to the Moon and Mars. In addition to speeding the development of technology, an increase in funding is also desirable to incorporate rapidly advancing technologies such as “artificial intelligence, data management, in-space manufacturing,” and others that are still relatively early in the development process.

Another important factor emphasized here is Health and Human Performance (HPP), which clearly refers to strategies for mitigating the health risks associated with deep space transits. These include extended periods spent in microgravity and long-term exposure to elevated levels of solar and cosmic radiation. To date, NASA has explored multiple possibilities for addressing these concerns, but no concrete plans have emerged just yet.

Evolving Architectures

Further to Recommendation I, the Report states that NASA and commercial companies invested in Mars exploration should continue designing “evolvable mission and campaign architectures.” The purpose of this is to allow for new technologies to be incorporated along the way and prevent the current state of technology from limiting plans. As per the Report, this will help ensure that “we do not design architecture and hardware applicable only for the first mission without allowing both to evolve for subsequent missions.” To this end, NASA and commercial industries are encouraged to:

  • Develop common standards, requirements, and interfaces to allow the incorporation of multiple technologies, capabilities, and/or solutions as technology progresses over the next two decades.
  • Create and implement a Human and System Readiness Level verification process to assess if the human, hardware, software, and planning systems are sufficiently mature as an integrated system.
  • Ensure that the architecture is sufficiently flexible that it can address a wide range of missions beyond the first one.
Artist’s representation of NASA’s “Moon to Mars” mission architecture. Credit: NASA

Commercial Partnerships

Finally, the Report encourages NASA to continue investing and cooperating with commercial partners to realize lunar capabilities and technologies that will help them reach Mars. This goes to the heart of the M2M mission architecture, which prioritized a return to the Moon during the 2020s to develop the necessary technologies, systems, and expertise to create a pathway to Mars by the 2030s. “The Moon is how we learn to get to Mars,” it reads, “and we want companies thinking not just about getting to the Moon but, at the same time, how getting there prepares us for the more challenging missions to Mars.”

As usual, the prospect of sending crewed missions to Mars raised many concerns at this year’s workshop. This should come as no surprise, as the goal itself is incredibly ambitious and presents many major challenges. If there is a takeaway from this year’s workshop, it is that there is plenty of work to be done before a mission can be realized. This work must take place at the architectural level, emphasizing wider public engagement, advancing technologies, and a commitment to long-term goals.

Further Reading: Explore Mars

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

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