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NASA report outlines steps in its Journey to Mars

Robotic missions will continue to play a crucial role in preparing for human missions to the surface of Mars. Image Credit: NASA

Robotic missions will continue to play a crucial role in preparing for human missions to the surface of Mars. Image Credit: NASA

On Thursday, Oct. 8, NASA announced the release of a 36-page report outlining the agency’s plans for human exploration of Mars, entitled NASA’s Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration. The report discusses challenges that astronauts will face on lengthy space missions, including current and future research that will help NASA address these challenges.

Nasa's Journey to Mars graphic

A graphic of the Earth Reliant, Proving Ground, and Earth Independent thresholds. (Click to enlarge.) Image Credit: NASA

“NASA is closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in our history,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Today, we are publishing additional details about our journey to Mars plan and how we are aligning all of our work in support of this goal.

“In the coming weeks, I look forward to continuing to discuss the details of our plan with members of Congress, as well as our commercial and our international and partners, many of whom will be attending the International Astronautical Congress next week.”

The report splits the path to Mars into three phases: Earth Reliant, Proving Grounds, and Earth Independent. Challenges that will be faced along the path include transportation, living and working in space and keeping astronauts healthy during long deep space missions. Key capabilities will need to be developed during each phase to reach the ultimate goal of crewed missions to Mars.

The Earth Reliant phase will focus on research being conducted aboard the International Space Station (ISS). By using the ISS as a microgravity laboratory, NASA can test new technologies and conduct vital human heath and performance research that will enable deep space, longer duration missions. NASA plans to continue use of the ISS until 2024.

During the Proving Ground phase, NASA will conduct deep-space missions that will allow crews to return to Earth in a matter of days. These missions will primarily be to the volume of space around the Moon known as cislunar space, which features many stable staging orbits for possible deep space missions. Proving ground missions will help NASA to advance and validate capabilities required for humans to live and work at distances much further from Earth.

The Earth Independent phase will build on lessons learned from the ISS and deep space missions to enable human missions to the vicinity of Mars, possibly either low-Mars orbit or one of the planet’s two moons, and eventually to the surface of Mars.

This table shows high-level, near-, and far-term decisions that must be made to continue on the journey to Mars. Image Credit: NASA

Table showing the Selected Critical Time Frames and Decisions on the Journey to Mars. (Click to enlarge.) Image Credit: NASA

William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters, said: “NASA’s strategy connects near-term activities and capability development to the journey to Mars and a future with a sustainable human presence in deep space.

“This strategy charts a course toward horizon goals, while delivering near-term benefits, and defining a resilient architecture that can accommodate budgetary changes, political priorities, new scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs, and evolving partnerships.”

The report also describes many steps that NASA is currently taking to prepare for the planned activities of the next two decades.

Research is being conducted aboard the ISS in the fields of health and human performance in space, advanced life support systems, printing 3-D parts, and developing material handling techniques for in-situ resource utilization (ISRU).

The Bigelow Expendable Activity Module (BEAM) will be launched to the ISS aboard the eighth SpaceX commercial resupply mission to demonstrate the capabilities of an inflatable space habitat.

Infrastructure upgrades are currently underway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to prepare the space launch complex for upcoming missions.

The Space Launch System and the Orion crewed spacecraft are currently under development. Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), the first uncrewed launch of Orion atop the SLS, is currently scheduled for 2018.

Video Courtesy of NASA


Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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