NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) officials have revealed broader plans for an eventual Mars mission that require a new space station orbiting the Moon. The plans include astronauts manning the station for year-long missions. But the one thing missing from NASA's two-step path to Mars is a popular stepping stone -- the Moon base. It appears that NASA might be setting up to get to the Red Planet without the benefit of a base on the lunar surface.
NASA officials from the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate recently spoke at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C., and Gary Williams, the deputy associate administrator for policy and plans, shed additional light on the space agency's plans for getting to Mars. The first phase, according to Williams (per Space), will be to launch five missions designed to deliver selected habitat components and other equipment to cislunar orbit, where the new space station will be constructed. One of the missions will include the actual vehicle, the Deep Space Transport, to be used in conveying a crew to Mars.
Once the components for the space station, called the Deep Space Gateway, is assembled, NASA then plans to conduct year-long missions where astronauts will gauge the feasibility of whether or not the Deep Space Transport would be able to complete a voyage to Mars and back that would take more than 1,000 days.
The second phase, Williams said, would begin with the delivery of the Deep Space Transport vehicle (slated for 2027), which would see a subsequent year-long lunar orbit mission. The first mission to Mars is scheduled for 2030.
"We're trying to lead this journey to Mars with a broad range of partnerships," Williams said at the Summit, according to Space. "One of the things we'll be doing over the next few years is, putting that package together: what players want to provide what – both nationally and internationally – and how we can together, with NASA in an orchestrating role, really move out on these crewed missions to Mars."
Noticeably missing from the NASA Mars mission plans is a manned Moon base, often considered as a necessary waystation for efforts at reaching Mars.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin also spoke at the Humans to Mars Summit, where he presented his vision of reaching Mars as a series of build-up phases, included international cooperation and the construction of multiple space stations and fleets of transport space ships (first to complete circuits between space stations, followed by stations-to-Moon circuits, and finally circuits from the Moon to Mars and back), and the subsequent construction and permanent manning of a Moon base. Aldrin emphasized a working relationship with China, which is currently at work on its first space station (to be complete by 2022) and has been in talks with the European Space Agency (ESA) about a joint effort to build an international manned Moon base.
Williams' tentative suggestion concerning international cooperation in the next few years comes with the knowledge of the aforementioned talks between the ESA and China and the China's space ambitions, which include several space stations, a Moon base, and a mission to Mars. It is also tendered knowing that NASA has encouraged and is in current partnerships with private sector space companies, like SpaceX, to provide valuable ongoing services. With the International Space Station set to see Russia pull out of its partnership with the ESA and NASA in 2024, that space station may be deorbited shortly thereafter for lack of funding, leaving only China with a Low Earth Orbit space station. Moreover, NASA is restricted by law to have no technological dealings with China, which would make any cooperative efforts that even peripherally involve China out of the question -- such as the possible collaboration between the ESA and China in building a lunar facility.
Unless Congress repeals the 2011 law.
NASA's plans are to have an autonomous space station, the Deep Space Gateway, operational by 2026, with the first mission to cislunar space slated for 2018. A dozen years later will see the first manned voyage to Mars. Whether the mission will enjoy international cooperation, perhaps even with China, is as yet unknown. But at present, NASA's Mars mission plans are designed around a solo (with private sector collaboration) agency effort.
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