The Long Game
When Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, revealed his plans to make humans an interplanetary species by going to Mars, the whole world took notice. But when NASA unveiled its new plans for getting to Mars, they barely registered on the global radar.
These details on just how NASA plans to bring humans to the Red Planet came via an article published on the organization's official website on March 28. While the agency may be treading lightly in the publicity department these days due to the political climate, it has already received a clear mandate from the government to get humans to Mars by 2033.
"There's now a sense of urgency," according to NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier. "The hope is we've created enough of a framework that folks can see that there's a real plan worth executing. But also, it's not so defined that it if some piece changes, the entire plan gets thrown away and we start all over again."
A Gateway and a Transport
NASA has been busy preparing for next year's test flight of its Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft. Both the SLS and the Orion are critical elements of NASA's new plans, which still follow the basic program the agency previously outlined. During the 2020s, NASA will focus on learning how to live and work in lunar orbit. Then, by the 2030s, it will start heading to Mars.
The first phase of NASA's plan is to build what it's calling a deep space gateway (DSG), which would essentially be a small space station orbiting the Moon. The plan is to assemble it over the course of three SLS flights and have it completed by 2025. The DSG is meant to be staffed on a continuous basis and could sustain a crew of four, with the Orion docked, for 42 days, according to Planetary.org. It would have a propulsion module, a habitation module, and perhaps an airlock for spacewalks.
The DSG would serve as a space port or launch base for potential lunar landing missions, as well as for a deep space transport (DST) spacecraft. This is phase two of NASA's plan. Planetary.org reports that the DST would be able to support a crew of four for as long as 1,000 days at a time. Between missions, supply and refurbishing runs would be done at the DSG.
The DST would be massive, with a predicted bare weight of about 41 metric tons. The plan is to launch it into lunar orbit in 2027 via a single SLS mission. "There's really no [other] vehicle today, or even planned, that can launch 41 metric tons (to the Moon) in one piece," said Gerstenmaier. "We think that that is the minimum size for this Mars-class transport." If all goes well up to that point, NASA expects the DST to survive three trips to Mars and back.
Despite the agency's understated approach to sharing its plans for Mars, Gerstenmaier is confident that NASA is well-equipped to pull them off. "There's nothing this agency cannot do," he said. "If you can give us a clear direction and give us reasonable resources, this agency and its contractor base will accomplish what you want."