NASA has already started working on US President Barack Obama’s vision of sending humans to Mars 2030 and returning them safely by announcing two initiatives that build on the President’s vision and utilize public-private partnerships to enable humans to live and work in space in a sustainable way.
The information about the two initiatives was released just days after Obama outlined his vision to send humans to Mars and back by stating: “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.”
In April 2010, the President challenged the country – and NASA – to send American astronauts on a Journey to Mars in the 2030s. By reaching out further into the solar system and expanding the frontiers of exploration, the President outlined a vision for pushing the bounds of human discovery, while also revitalizing the space industry and creating jobs here at home.
To realise this goal, Obama instructed NASA to develop spacecraft and technologies geared toward sending astronauts to deep space, while at the same time partnering with American companies to build a strong space economy. NASA got to work and ever since the 2010 announcement, has helped catalyze a vibrant new sector of the economy by enabling the commercial transportation of cargo and soon crew from American soil to the International Space Station.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden notes in a blog that NASA work on International Space Station involves a great deal of research and technology demonstrations holding great promise for everything ranging from sending human beings to Mars to improving eye surgery to purifying drinking water and making communities more resilient when natural disasters strike. Bolden described the work on the ISS as the heart and soul of the first stage of NASA’s Journey to Mars; a stage that is called “Earth Dependent.” It is focused on developing technologies and capabilities in earth orbit, where it is still fairly easy for us to directly support humans.
However, over the course of next 10 years, NASA intends to enter what they call “Proving Ground” stage under which the space agency intends to lead the international community and demonstrate and test technologies for the first time in cis-lunar space, the area around the moon, where our astronauts are days or weeks away from Earth, rather than hours. For example, in the mid-2020s, NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission will send a robotic spacecraft to a nearby asteroid to test out important exploration technologies such as solar-electric propulsion, conduct scientific and planetary defense experiments, and then return a boulder from the asteroid to an orbit around the Moon for astronauts to study. As the title of this stage indicates, this work serves as necessary preparation for eventual missions that will take humanity even further, to Mars and beyond.
NASA says that it has already started laying the groundwork for deep space missions. In 2014 the space agency issued a “broad agency announcement” or “BAA” asking private partners for concept studies and development projects in advanced propulsion, small satellites, and habitation as part of the newly created Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships or “NextSTEP” program. Six companies received awards to start developing habitation systems in response to that “NextSTEP” BAA.
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. And their development would be achieved through new public-private partnerships designed to build on and support the progress of the growing commercial space sector in Earth orbit.
NASA is also working on extending our reach into deep space by expanding our partnerships with commercial space companies. Recently, NASA asked the private sector how it might use an available docking port on the ISS. One of the potential uses of such a port would be preparation for one or more future commercial stations in Low Earth Orbit, ready to take over for the Space Station once its mission ends in the 2020s. The private sector responded enthusiastically, and those responses indicated a strong desire by U.S. companies to attach a commercial module to the ISS that could meet the needs of NASA as well as those of private entrepreneurs.
As a result of the responses, this fall, NASA will start the process of providing companies with a potential opportunity to add their own modules and other capabilities to the International Space Station. While NASA prepares for the transition from the Space Station to its successors, the agency is also working to support and grow the community of scientists and entrepreneurs conducting research and growing businesses in space. A vibrant user community will be key to ensuring the economic viability of future space stations.