Will NASA land a man on Mars by 2030?
That is the question being raised by scientists around the nation following an announcement by the U.S. space agency that it will return to Mars in 2020 in preparation for a manned mission by 2030.
In a statement released late Tuesday of last week, NASA officials announced their latest plans for the Red Planet, saying they plan to use a pair of upcoming Mars missions to further expand their knowledge in preparation for a 2030 manned mission.
“The challenge to restructure the Mars Exploration Program has turned from the seven minutes of terror for the Curiosity landing to the start of seven years of innovation,” NASA’s associate administrator for science, and astronaut John Grunsfeld said. “This mission concept fits within the current and projected Mars exploration budget, builds on the exciting discoveries of Curiosity, and takes advantage of a favorable launch opportunity.”
While the goal of landing a man on Mars by 2030 has long been the focus of NASA, recent budget cuts have left the space program barely scrapping by as it continues to test out new features that could ultimately lead to a successful launch and landing on Mars. Speaking in Tuesday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden reiterated the agency’s goals, saying both he and the Obama administration remain set on reaching Mars by 2030.
“The Obama administration is committed to a robust Mars exploration program,” said Bolden. “With this next mission, we’re ensuring America remains the world leader in the exploration of the red planet, while taking another significant step toward sending humans there in the 2030s.”
While the announcement seems to have rekindled interest in a manned mission, questions remain. Speaking earlier this year, a top NASA official told congressional lawmakers that the agency is on track with its next crewed mission to an asteroid that is expected to prepare astronauts for the nearly six-month to Mars.
NASA and its team of private contractors are “making excellent progress” toward launching an unmanned test flight in 2017 in preparation for the real mission, Dan Dumbacher, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development, told members of a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee.
Meanwhile, a NASA team has tested a space suit in a setting with extreme conditions akin to some of those found on Mars — an Argentine base in Antarctica — for possible use on a visit to the Red Planet. The NDX-1 space suit, designed by Argentine aerospace engineer Pablo de Leon, endured frigid temperatures and winds of more than 47 mph as researchers tried out techniques for collecting soil samples on Mars earlier this year. The space agency has already unveiled the planned design of the rocket that could carry the astronauts to Mars. The massive rocket, which will be longer than a football field and is billed as the most powerful U.S. rocket since the Saturn V that took Apollo astronauts to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, could face engineering challenges, possibly delaying the mission.
In addition, recent findings by the Mars Curiosity rover has presented important data that could allow scientists to better understand how astronauts will handle the challenging environment of the planet’s inhospitable surface. A mission consisting of a 180-day outbound cruise, a 600-day stay on Mars and another 180-day flight back to Earth would expose an astronaut to a total radiation dose of about 1.1 sieverts (units of radiation) if it launched now, according to measurements by Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector instrument, or RAD.