NASA officials have released a new and improved plan for how the federal space agency will get astronauts to deep space and Mars by the 2030s — and no one seemed to notice.
The details were unveiled during two presentations Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA, gave for the NASA Advisory Council last week. Gerstenmaier showed the council sharp new designs for a small moon-orbiting space station and a reusable transport ship to carry astronauts to Mars and back and laid out how the federal space agency plans to put astronauts on the red planet by the 2030s, but the announcement was barely even reported, and was summed up in a NASA release.
NASA officials are most likely just fine with that. The space agency has often been used as a political bargaining chip, something NASA officials currently seem to be trying their best to avoid since the only shot they have of ever going to Mars is by staying neutral enough that nobody decides to hack away at their funding for political purposes.
There's been a push for NASA officials to come out with a specific plan about how exactly they are going to get astronauts to Mars ever since the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built, was announced in 2011.
At that point, people wanted to know how in the world NASA could justify creating the massive rocket, one of the holdovers from President George W. Bush's Constellation program which had intended to simply go back to the moon. (The SLS, a particularly divisive project, is known with varying degrees of anger and fondness as that "stupid huge rocket" by NASA watchers.)
NASA officials tried to acquiesce. Back in 2015 NASA gave in and released the first plan formulating how the agency might actually get to Mars. It was dissected by Congress, which criticized the plan for being light on details such as how much it would cost and specifics like how NASA would pull off the journey.
So now NASA is trying again. The updated plan presented by Gerstenmaier still doesn't get into the nitty-gritty details, but it does provide more information about how NASA intends to pull the whole thing off. The revised plan follows the basic approach the agency previously outlined in 2015, albeit with a few adjustments based on the NASA Authorization Bill recently signed by President Donald Trump.
It nixes some key components of the Mars trip as conceived by NASA under the Obama administration. Instead of a three-phase plan to go to Mars, starting with astronauts, working on communication issues aboard the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit in step one and then embarking on the Asteroid Redirect Mission in phase two, before finally attempting the Mars jump, NASA has cut it down to only two phases.
The ISS communication stage has been booted (it's listed as "phase zero" in that it's something NASA is already doing) and so has the controversial lasso-an-asteroid bit. Instead, the plan is to use Orion and the SLS — due to undergo their first test flight next year — to further explore the moon and learn more about space travel. Meanwhile, NASA's first phase in the journey to Mars will be focused on building a space station, the Deep Space Gateway, and setting it up to orbit the moon. The station will be tended by crew, and when the Orion spacecraft docks there, four astronauts will be able to stay aboard for up to 42 days, according to the release.
It won't just be NASA astronauts aboard. The hope is that international space programs and commercial space companies will contribute to the DSG's construction and will then help staff the station, according to the release.
The station will be equipped with more than just a habitation module, too. NASA wants to provide the station with an airlock to allow spacewalks and a propulsion module so that astronauts will be able to do maintenance on the DSG and move it to different lunar orbits. From there, the DSG will act as a pit stop for lunar missions and a launchpad to take the plunge into deep space.
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And when NASA enters the second phase, the agency gets even more ambitious. The plan is to build a deep space transporter, an enormous craft that will weigh in at about 41 metric tons. The vehicle will be launched into space in a single piece in 2027, according to Gerstenmaier, aboard the SLS.
This is where the SLS really comes in, since Gerstenmaier maintains that no other rocket in the world is powerful enough to get such a huge spacecraft aloft and into orbit. The transporter will hold a crew of four and will be able to keep them alive for up to 1,000 days at a time — long enough, planners hope, to get to Mars and get back again.
Anyway, NASA's new and improved plan still doesn't lay out any hard fast takes, though it does feature a key task only the SLS can accomplish, which will certainly help make it seem like the rocket was as essential as some have claimed.
While we don't know what it will cost to build the DSG, let alone the transporter, and nobody has even touched on what the pricetag will ultimately be for putting humans on the surface of Mars, we do know that NASA is hammering out the details on how it could pull this thing off, and it's sounding a lot less like science fiction than it used to.