NASA Holds Exploration Forum Outlining Pathway to Mars

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Publication date: 
2 May 2014

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and other officials outlined the agency’s pathway to Mars during an April 29 forum.  Robotic exploration; the role of the commercial space sector in low-Earth orbit; development of the Orion Capsule, Space Launch System and Ground Systems Development; the Asteroid Redirect Mission and technological developments were presented as steps NASA is taking to expand its capabilities and develop a human mission to Mars. 

“While humans have been fascinated with Mars since the beginning of time, there are a number of very tangible reasons why we need to learn more about our closest planetary neighbor,” stated Bolden as he described the similarities between the formation and evolution of Mars and Earth.  “What we learn about the Red Planet may tell us more about our own home planet’s history and future and help us answer a fundamental question does life exist beyond Earth,” Bolden continued as he invited the public to join in NASA’s discussions about the best path to Mars. 

President Obama challenged NASA to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by the 2030s during an April 2010 speech and the National Space Policy supports those objectives.  The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 includes an exploration roadmap which was embraced by the international space community which developed the Global Exploration Roadmap

During the forum, Bolden described that the agency’s activities, including those in Low-Earth Orbit and aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are some of the steps supported by the national policy objectives which are necessary to get humans to Mars.  He noted the growth in the commercial space sector that has resulted from U.S. involvement in the ISS as he stated the Administration’s intent to have U.S. companies carry astronauts to the ISS.  Regarding NASA’s efforts to develop capabilities in deep space necessary to go to Mars, Bolden described the work on Orion and the Space Launch Services.

Robotic exploration activities were described by John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.  He provided a history of Mars observation dating back to the 1960s showing photos of the planet’s surface while discussing the planet’s potential for water.

William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate addressed NASA’s interest in human space exploration.  He outlined some of the challenges associated with the Mars environment and drew parallels with that of Earth.  Research performed in the ISS on issues including life support and microgravity is intended to allow NASA to transition its deep space operations such that the command of space systems is independent of rather than reliant on Earth-based systems. 

Phil McAlister, Director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development gave an overview of the companies involved with bringing crew to Low Earth Orbit.  Collaboration that improves capabilities of commercial spaceflight will also spur economic growth as they advance private sector interests.

Dan Dumbacher, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems discussed NASA’s progress on the Space Launch System and Orion.  Prior to sending humans to Mars, NASA will need to better understand how to operate in deep space for long periods, he noted. 

Michele Gages, Senior Technical Advisor of Human Exploration and Operations outlined the Asteroid Redirect Mission.  The goals of identifying an asteroid, redirecting it to a stable orbit, and collecting samples have been previously discussed on Capitol Hill but questions still remain about the relationship between this mission and NASA’s overarching goal of a human mission to Mars.  During the forum, Ganges focused on the Mission’s development of deep space capabilities. 

Jason Crusan, Director of Advanced Exploration Systems discussed the Evolvable Mars Campaign and the strategic principles for exploration implementation.  These include addressing the constraints of the current budget environment level, high-technology readiness level, near-term missions, opportunities for commercial business, multi-use space infrastructure and international and commercial participation. 

Randy Lillard, Program Executive for Technology Demonstration Missions within the Space Technology Mission Directorate focused on the space technology portfolio outlining the pioneering concepts and transformative breakthroughs that have resulted from NASA research.  Solar electric propulsion, space optical communication, and developments in life support technologies have implications for NASA as the agency continues to focus on deep space exploration.  He noted the Supersonic Flight Plan and other space technology investments intended to advance NASA’s capabilities. 

The final panel included Ellen Stofan, Chief Scientist and David Miller, Chief Technologist who discussed benefits to the science and technology communities that result from NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars.  They drew parallels between current NASA activities and the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs noting that Mars will be a sustainable goal.  The pathway to Mars will involve partnerships between all NASA directorates, the commercial sector and the international community.  Questions of habitability and opportunities for innovation were addressed as they highlighted some of the recent research activities at NASA. 

The recent reauthorization of NASA in Congress showed the bipartisan interest in the agency’s activities.  This forum highlighted some of the technological and strategic advances that will be necessary in order for NASA to achieve the goal of sending humans to Mars.

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