We're probably still decades away from putting humans on the surface of Mars, but on Tuesday NASA released a draft of a new high-level workshop that outlines how a 30-day mission on the Red Planet might happen.
Of primary significance for a month-long stay on Mars is a spacecraft that transports astronauts there, and can also serve as a habitat during the stay. This would employ a hybrid rocket that brings chemical and electric propulsion together.
Most notably, NASA's scheme for bringing humans to Mars would put two people in orbit, while another two astronauts descend to the surface in a lander vehicle weighing 25 tons.
We may not be there yet, but it's never too early to start preparing for the next historic step in the legacy of the human exploration of deep space.
NASA says astronauts will need time to adapt to Mars' atmosphere
The high-level draft identifies 50 crucial points that lie under four broad categories for human exploration in general — that means infrastructure on the moon and Mars, operations, and, of course, science.
"The feedback we receive on the objectives we have identified will inform our exploration plans at the moon and Mars for the next 20 years," said Pam Melroy, NASA's Deputy Administrator, in NASA's blog post. "We're looking within NASA and to external stakeholders to help us fine-tune these objectives and be as transparent as possible throughout our process."
"With this approach, we will find potential gaps in our architecture as well as areas where our goals align with those from industry and international partners for future collaboration," added Melroy.
The outline of a future mission to Mars was assembled by Kurt "Spuds" Vogel, NASA's director of space architectures. And he said two crew members could survive inside of a pressurized rover that could double as a habitat and exploration vehicle — enabling the pursuit of critical science objectives.
"Our assumption here is the crew will be deconditioned," said Vogel during the NASA workshop. Vogel then added the agency will "need as much time to adapt to the partial gravity." Famously, the surface of Mars only has roughly one-third of the gravity we experience on Earth.
Making a mission to Mars' surface feasible
"So we want to maximize the science so we allow [the astronauts] to drive around before they become conditioned enough to get in the space suits and walk and maximize that science in 30 days," explained Vogel.
Added to the transit time to and from Earth, a future mission to the surface of Mars and back could elapse two of our years — but it could also entail a lengthy 500 days on the surface, which could mean nearly 1,000 days away from our warm blue planet for prospective astronauts of the not-too-distant future.
Naturally, 30 days feels more feasible on many levels: beyond the obvious psychological stresses of being away from Earth and on an entirely different planet, the logistical and financial necessities of lengthy stays on alien worlds could prove too difficult to manage. At least, it seems, on our first trip to the Red Planet. Later, after the Lunar Gateway is completed and operational in orbit of the moon, NASA will build the Transit Habitat to provide shelter for astronauts on their long, world-historic journey to Mars.