NASA Announces Roadmap to Return to Moon, on to Mars

NASA unveils plan for a Mars 2020 mission supported by work done on the Moon. What does this mean for the future of space travel?
Susan Fourtané

Following President Donald Trump Space Policy Directive-1 signed in December 2017, NASA has recently submitted to Congress a plan for the National Space Exploration Campaign.

The Space Policy Directive-1 is to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.”

The National Space Exploration Campaign calls for human and robotic exploration missions. The collaboration human-robot will expand the frontiers of human experience in the cosmos and enhance scientific discovery of the natural phenomena of Earth, other worlds, and the cosmos as a whole.

This new goal in space exploration comes after 18 continuous international partners living and working together on the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS has reported advances in the commercial space sector, robotics, and other technologies.

All this is going to represent a boost in the next few years with the launch of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

NASA has reported five strategic goals of the Exploration Campaign:

  1. Transition U.S. human spaceflight activities in low-Earth orbit to commercial operations that support NASA and the needs of an emerging private sector market.

  2. Lead the emplacement of capabilities that support lunar surface operations and facilitate missions beyond cislunar space.

  3. Foster scientific discovery and characterization of lunar resources through a series of robotic missions.

  4. Return U.S. astronauts to the surface of the Moon for a sustained campaign of exploration and use.

  5. Demonstrate the capabilities required for human missions to Mars and other destinations.

Nasa moon earth mars sustainable plan
Source: NASA

Low-Earth Orbit Activities

NASA intends to transition from activities in low-Earth orbit to a model where the government is only one customer for commercial services. 


Current partners, commercial, and other stakeholders have given valuable input to NASA that served to develop a plan for the transition of low-Earth orbit activities from direct government funding to commercial services and partnerships. 

This will include independent commercial platforms or a non-NASA operating model to constitute new elements of the International Space Station by 2025.

It is within the plans of NSA to expand public-private partnerships to develop and demonstrate new technologies and capabilities that will be paramount to enable new commercial space products and services.

The year 2024 will mark almost 25 years of successful international human occupancy and cooperation in space on the International Space Station (ISS).

The ISS is an experiential testing ground. It enables the discovery and development of advanced robotics, communications, medicine, agriculture, and environmental science. The ISS can also be an enabler into the transition to commercial activities in low-Earth orbit. NASA has awarded 12 contracts to industry 

NASA recently awarded 12 contracts to industry to investigate the best way to use the space station. The studies will include specific industry concepts with detailed business plans including the viability of habitable platforms, or separate free-flying structures.

Back to the Moon

The Moon may hold valuable unknown resources to support space activity and scientific treasures. The 1968 Apollo XI mission transporting the first men to walk on the Moon happened almost 50 years ago.

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left footprints at only six sites. The Apollo XI remained on the lunar surface for a total of 16 days. 

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NASA is now planning for Americans to orbit the Moon starting in 2023. Landing astronauts on the surface should happen no later than the late 2020s. 

A key component of establishing the first permanent human presence as well as building infrastructure on and around the Moon is the Gateway, a lunar orbiting platform to serve as host for astronauts.

The Gateway will serve to prepare the transit into deep space, testing new technologies and systems that will help build the infrastructure to support missions to the surface of the Moon. It will also prepare for the mission to Mars.

NASA also will study the effects of the deep space environment of the Gateway by learning how living organisms react to the radiation and microgravity of a deep space environment over long periods.

The Gateway will be a platform ad command module for the assembly of payloads and systems during surface exploration. It will serve as for the development of refueling depots, servicing platforms, and a sample return facility.


NASA is currently working on the construction of some elements of the Gateway, which will be assembled in space using the Orion spacecraft and SLS and also commercial launch vehicles. The first element will launch from Florida in 2022.

Meanwhile, the lunar surface will serve as a training ground and technology demonstration test site. This will prepare for future human missions to Mars and other destinations in the future. Robotic lunar surface missions will begin as early as 2020 with a focus on the scientific exploration of lunar resources and preparation of the lunar surface for a sustained human presence.

By the late 2020s, NASA expects to have a lunar lander capable of transporting crews and cargo starting trips to the surface of the Moon. 

First humans on Mars 

A long-duration human spaceflight on the space station is one of the key components of the Exploration Campaign already underway. Other components include the development of advanced life support systems and continuing to lead and advance the world in deep space science missions.

The focus of the Exploration Campaign is the development of technologies and systems that enable a series of human and robotic lunar missions that are extensible to Mars. Leadership in robotic exploration on and around Mars is one of NASA's main assets.

The InSight mission is currently on its way to Mars. It will land in November to study the interior of the Red Planet. NASA is also next developing the next rover to Mars which is scheduled to launch in July 2020.

According to NASA, the Mars 2020 will aid in the search for past life and demonstrate the production of fuel and other resources that enable human exploration. This mission will also serve as a subsequent roundtrip robotic mission with the historic first rocket launch off another planet and a sample return.

Mars 2020 will serve as a critical precursor to future series of crewed missions to Mars planned to start in the 2030s and culminating in a surface landing on the planet supported by the work done on the Moon.