NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. Flight hardware is now in production and a plan is in place, each a stepping stone building to the next, relying on both robotic and human exploration.
Mars’ formation and evolution are comparable to Earth, helping us to learn more about our own planet’s history and future. Mars had conditions suitable for life in its past. Future exploration could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?
The path to Mars
While robotic explorers have studied Mars for more than 40 years, NASA’s path for the human exploration of Mars begins in low-Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station. Astronauts on the orbiting laboratory are helping us prove many of the technologies and communications systems needed for human missions to deep space, including Mars. The space station also advances our understanding of how the body changes in space and how to protect astronaut health.
A fleet of robotic spacecraft and rovers already are on and around Mars, dramatically increasing our knowledge about the Red Planet and paving the way for future human explorers. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover measured radiation on the way to Mars and is sending back radiation data from the surface. This data will help us plan how to protect the astronauts who will explore Mars. Future missions like the Mars 2020 rover, seeking signs of past life, also will demonstrate new technologies that could help astronauts survive on Mars.
The Hubble Space Telescope that launched in 1990 has given us a view of the universe and has sent hundreds of thousands of images back to Earth, shedding light on many great mysteries. The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018, promises to open up even more of the universe.
Engineers and scientists around the country are working hard to develop the technologies astronauts will use to one day live and work on Mars, and safely return home from the next giant leap for humanity. NASA also is a leader in a Global Exploration Roadmap, working with international partners and the U.S. commercial space industry on a coordinated expansion of human presence into the solar system, with human missions to the surface of Mars as the driving goal.
In 2014, NASA launched the spaceship Orion for its first test flight. NASA’s Orion Flight Test and the Journey to Mars. Orion is the first spacecraft built for astronauts destined for deep space since the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s. It is designed to go farther than humans have ever traveled, well beyond the moon, pushing the boundaries of spaceflight to new heights.
And beginning in 2018, NASA’s powerful Space Launch System rocket will enable us to test new capabilities. SLS is the first launch system capable of sending humans, habitats and support systems into deep space. This advanced, heavy-lift launch vehicle will give the nation a safe, sustainable and versatile means of reaching beyond our current limits of low-Earth orbit and open new doors of scientific and human discovery from the unique vantage point of deep space. Built on the most powerful and proven propulsion system in the world, SLS reduces the required mission duration, which decreases the mission cost and allows for a faster path to Mars.
Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown.
Technology development makes missions possible. Each Mars mission is part of a continuing chain of innovation: Each relies on past missions for new technologies and contributes its own innovations to future missions. This chain allows NASA to continue to push the boundaries of what is currently possible, while relying on proven technologies as well.
The development of space exploration technologies provide tangible benefits for life here on Earth including:
Technologies of Broad Benefit
- Propulsion: for providing the energy to get to Mars and conduct long-term studies
- Power: for providing more efficient and increased electricity to the spacecraft and its subsystems
- Telecommunications: for sending commands and receiving data faster and in greater amounts
- Avionics: electronics for operating the spacecraft and its subsystems
- Software Engineering: for providing the computing and commands necessary to operate the spacecraft and its subsystems
In-Situ Exploration and Sample Return
- Entry, Descent, and Landing: for ensuring precise and safe landings
- Autonomous Planetary Mobility: for enabling rovers, airplanes, and balloons to make decisions and avoid hazards on their own
- Technologies for Severe Environments: or making systems robust enough to handle extreme conditions in space and on Mars
- Sample Return Technologies: or collecting and returning rock, soil, and atmospheric samples back to Earth for further laboratory analysis
- Planetary Protection Technologies: for cleaning and sterilizing spacecraft and handling soil, rock, and atmospheric samples
- Remote Science Instrumentation: for collecting Mars data from orbit
- In-Situ Instrumentation: for collecting Mars data from the surface