The question is when will humans reach Mars rather than how. NASA is currently preparing to return astronauts to the Moon and eventually reach Mars.
In 2017, US president Donald Trump signed a directive instructing NASA to return astronauts back to the Moon and eventually reach Mars and beyond. The US space agency plans to return to the Moon by 2024 and reach Mars in 2033.
But according to experts, reaching the red planet by then is highly unlikely considering the massive effort to bring humans to the Moon in the first NASA mission back in the 1960s.
“The Moon is the proving ground for our eventual mission to Mars,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a conference this week.
“The Moon is our path to get to Mars in the fastest, safest way possible. That’s why we go to the Moon.”
Robert Howard, project leader in the development of future space habitats at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said that the challenges aren’t so much technical or scientific as much as a question of budget and political will.
“A lot of people want us to have an Apollo moment, and have a president stand up like Kennedy and say, we’ve got to do it and the entire country comes together,” he said.
“If that happened, I would actually say 2027. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think in our current approach, we are going to be lucky to do it by the 2037 date.”
The best year he sees humans reaching Mars would be by the year 2060.
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NASA and other agencies are working hard to bring humans closer to the day we finally touch the red planet. A handful of rovers and landers have increased our understanding of the planet’s surface, atmosphere and complex geological make-up.
International space agencies have simulated the Martian environment so astronauts can learn how to adjust in the planet’s harsh environment. Experts around the world have also come up with life-saving tools to survive on Mars.
However, from the design, manufacture, and testing of the rockets and spaceships required to learning the best way to grow lettuce: all the groundwork remains to be done.
The most important task is finding a way to shield astronauts from constant exposure to solar and cosmic radiation, said Julie Robinson, NASA’s chief scientist for the International Space Station.
“A second is our food system,” she added. The current plant system ideas “are not packageable, portable or small enough to take to Mars.”
The whole mission could take two years since Mars and the Earth are closest to each other every 26 months.
The mission will also require agencies to produce more developed astronaut suits. And new techniques to exploit Martian resources to extract water, oxygen, and fuel necessary for humans to live there.
Scientists will also need to improve the way astronauts deal with medical emergencies. And the final problem is how will a group of people cope with the psychological stress of being totally isolated for two years?
A NASA researcher studying the likelihood of getting to Mars by 2033 concluded the objective was “infeasible.”
“It isn’t just budget,” said Bhavya Lal of the Science and Technology Policy Institute. “It’s also organization bandwidth, how many things can NASA do at the same time?”