NASA’s Deputy Administrator discusses agency’s road-map to Mars in exclusive interview
NASA has posted stunning imagery of astronauts exploring the planet Mars for some time. In fact, during the agency’s “glory days” throughout the Apollo Program, the agency looked to field a space station – to serve as a way-station to the Red Planet. Now? NASA is consistently saying it plans to send crews to Mars. Does it plan to do so alone? What role will commercial firms play? NASA’s Deputy Administrator, Dava Newman, answered these questions and more in an exclusive interview with SpaceFlight Insider.
Newman was nominated for the position in October of 2014 by President Barack Obama, and she assumed that position in May of 2015. She was tapped for the role after Lori Garver, the last person to hold the position, opted to leave in September of 2013. Newman’s background made her a good fit for the position – especially considering what the agency is planning on attempting in the not-so-distant future.
NASA has stated it plans to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. These are goals that were outlined in the NASA Authorization Act and in the U.S. National Space Policy, both issued in 2010. Newman was asked about what challenges the agency faces in accomplishing these long-anticipated missions.
SpaceFlight Insider: NASA has recently unveiled its plan for the “Journey to Mars” – what, in your estimation, is the most difficult part of that effort for NASA as an agency?
Newman: “We have a lot of work to do to develop all of the capabilities for our Journey to Mars, but the good news is the work is already going on right now, at every NASA center. Our strategy involves enabling the commercial sector to continue launching cargo from the U.S. and soon to launch astronauts from America, which will help enable full utilization of the International Space Station – our springboard to the rest of the Solar System. We’ll soon be testing new technologies in the proving ground of deep space, around the Moon, followed by missions that will be Earth-independent as they head for Mars.”
SpaceFlight Insider: We are told we will be seeing crewed circumlunar flights / ARM by the mid-to-late 2020s with footsteps on Mars taking place in the 2030s. Is that timeline still accurate?
Newman: “Our Journey to Mars plan is to build on our work in low-Earth orbit onboard the ISS to learn how to live and work in space for the long term, which will enable the more challenging technologies and missions to cislunar space in the 2020s and Mars in the 2030s, consistent with the goals President Obama has established.”
SpaceFlight Insider: “The Martian” has shown the world a vision of what traveling to Mars could look like – especially in terms of the spacecraft we’d need to send crews there. The one depicted in the movie – is huge. Given that and the budget constraints NASA is working under – how high (percentage-wise) would you think that this effort will be an international endeavor?
Newman: “NASA and the U.S. will lead the Journey to Mars, and we seek partnerships with other nations. We have already partnered with other nations on robotic missions to Mars and the International Space Station, so we have a good background in cooperating with other nations. We look forward to new friendships and partnerships emerging in the coming years.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Will there be crossover between Commercial Crew Program astronauts and those astronauts tapped to fly missions to Mars/deep space?
Newman: “The astronaut classes of the coming years could have the opportunity to fly on both commercial spacecraft to the station, as well as the next crewed flights to deep space. As you know, our four commercial crew astronauts are already training for the first test flights on commercial spacecraft.”
SpaceFlight Insider: How are Earth analogs helping those crews tapped for deep space missions to prepare for an eventual Martian expedition?
Newman: “We’ve done a lot of work right here on Earth in areas such as larger scale rovers to traverse the surface of another planet, testing in-situ resource utilization technologies, and training underwater in NEEMO [NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations] to help simulate an enclosed environment and advanced EVA work. We continue to work in the field on science, exploration, and technologies that can advance our knowledge and preparation for future planetary missions.”
SpaceFlight Insider: The Mars 2020 rover – what will it be tasked with doing to enable NASA to carry out crewed missions?
Newman: “Every robotic mission to Mars is advancing human presence there by helping us learn more about the environment astronauts will encounter. The Mars 2020 rover includes our most high-resolution cameras ever, instruments to advance ISRU [in-situ resource utilization] technology and search for organic molecules and increase our knowledge of the environment, and an experiment to make oxygen from the Martian atmosphere – all information that is essential for human exploration of Mars.”
SpaceFlight Insider: The U.S. has been dealing with economic issues for some time – how is NASA working to overcome potential financial shortfalls?
Newman: “NASA is fortunate to benefit from bi-partisan support. Every space mission has to be planned over the long term, and we have worked hard to make each step of our journey to be affordable and build on what has come before.”
SpaceFlight Insider: What role might NASA’s new commercial partners play in the crewed exploration of Mars?
Newman: “Creating a viable commercial space sector always has been a critical component of our strategy. While American industry takes over flights to low-Earth orbit, we’ll be able to focus on the more complex missions to deep space.
“Industry has always had a seat at the table, however, and has been an essential partner in every space mission since NASA’s founding, so we will continue to rely on commercial innovation, hard work, and excellence.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Is NASA planning on establishing a permanent presence on the Red Planet (along with whichever partners are involved)? Or will the missions sent to Mars be similar to the Apollo Program?
Newman: “We’ll be developing the final architecture of our presence at Mars over the coming years, but will be developing a wide range of technologies, from habitats and food production, to solar electric propulsion and radiation shielding to make these missions possible. We look forward to a future where humans are interplanetary.”
Newman serves as a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has been deeply involved with the development of the Bio-Suit, a more flexible and modern version of the bulky spacesuits that have been used since the beginning of the Space Age.
The first major step NASA is currently planning on taking on the agency’s Journey to Mars is likely the first combined flight of the space agency’s Orion spacecraft and the massive Space Launch System heavy-lift booster. That flight, dubbed Exploration Mission-1, is currently scheduled to take place no earlier than late 2018. The Orion spacecraft has already been sent aloft, on Exploration Flight Test 1, in December of 2014.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.