NASA/MSFC

Obama just explained how NASA will get humans to Mars by the 2030s

Let's do this.

PETER DOCKRILL
12 OCT 2016
 

Just in case all the recent headlines around SpaceX and Blue Origin had you thinking that the future of space exploration would be dominated entirely by private companies, President Obama wants you to know that NASA is still squarely in the game.

In a personal column published on CNN this Tuesday, Obama recommitted to getting human astronauts on Mars in the next two decades, and gave new details on how NASA plans to make this happen.

 

"We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America's story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time," Obama writes.

"Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we're already well on our way."

That spirit of cooperation is what saw NASA astronauts install a new dock on the International Space Station (ISS) in August, with the goal of receiving crewed spacecraft from Boeing and SpaceX in 2017 and 2018.

Not only would this be the first time private companies have docked with the ISS – it's also the beginning of a partnership that Obama says will lay the technological foundations to eventually take us to the red planet.

"Within the next two years, private companies will for the first time send astronauts to the International Space Station," he writes. "The next step is to reach beyond the bounds of Earth's orbit."

To do so, Obama says that NASA is now working with commercial partners to develop habitation systems that will keep humans alive on their way to Mars – and during their stay.

 

This new program, some details of which were initially announced by NASA in August, has six companies working on prototypes for what NASA calls "deep space habitat modules".

"The idea is that these habitats or 'habs' would evolve into spacecraft capable of sustaining and transporting astronauts on long-duration deep space missions, like a mission to Mars," explains NASA administrator Charles Bolden on his NASA blog.

While it's only a testing stage, it's an important first step in the preliminary round of NASA's Mars-focussed research – a chapter the space agency calls "Earth Dependent".

"These missions will teach us how humans can live far from Earth – something we'll need for the long journey to Mars," Obama writes.

After these initial tests are complete, we'll reach the "Proving Ground" stage – where these habs will be tested in space and on the Moon – prior to actually being used on missions to Mars in the 2030s and beyond.

But while some of the details the president and NASA shared this week are new, some argue that most of the substance of the plan has been in place since Obama first outlined his space goals in 2010.

"There's nothing big here at all, unless you haven't been paying attention," space policy expert John Logsdon, formerly of George Washington University, told Associated Press. "It's a refocussing of the fact that he set these goals and NASA has been pursuing them."

As if alluding to the criticism of how slowly NASA's Mars dreams have evolved in recent times, Obama says that making the "giant leap" to Mars isn't something that can happen overnight – especially with the space agency's strictly controlled budget.

"Scientific discovery doesn't happen with the flip of a switch; it takes years of testing, patience, and a national commitment to education," he writes.

And while most of the media attention around voyages to Mars is focused around the bold claims of private ventures – for example, just last week, Boeing boasted it would beat SpaceX to the Red Planet – it's also fair to say some of these companies have been a little loose on detail (even logic).

Last month, SpaceX stunned the industry with its plan of sending humans to Mars by 2025, but as many have pointed out, the company doesn't have the funding to make this happen on its own – meaning the whole endeavour remains squarely an exciting possibility for now.

NASA's game plan might seem a little slower, and it certainly packs less bravado, but it's also delivering solid results – some of which are helping to seed the very success that companies like SpaceX are now enjoying.

"Just five years ago, US companies were shut out of the global commercial launch market," Obama explains.

"Today, thanks to groundwork laid by the men and women of NASA, they own more than a third of it. More than 1,000 companies across nearly all 50 states are working on private space initiatives."

With all that competition and activity taking place, there's no way of knowing exactly who's going to make it to Mars first – or when that might be – but the race to get there is definitely on, and it's truly an exciting thing to watch.

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