NASA is taking a multistep approach to its ultimate goal of putting boots on Mars.
The journey begins in low Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS), which has hosted rotating crews continuously since November 2000. During this time, NASA and its ISS partners have been learning more and more about how to support astronauts on space missions.
This effort took a big step forward this past March, when NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko wrapped up an unprecedented 11-month mission aboard the orbiting lab that gave researchers new data about the physiological and psychological effects of long-duration spaceflight. (A Mars mission will be long-duration; it takes six to nine months to get to the Red Planet using currently available propulsion technology.)
In the next 10 years, NASA plans to extend the reach of human spaceflight out near the moon, to test spaceflight gear — such as the Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion crew capsule, both of which are in development — in a “proving ground” in deep space. For example, in the mid-2020s, the agency plans to send astronauts out to lunar orbit, to visit an asteroid boulder dragged there by a robotic spacecraft. (The boulder-snagging first part of this Asteroid Redirect Mission is scheduled to launch in the early 2020s.)
After the proving ground comes the journey to Mars itself. Current plans call for sending astronauts to Mars orbit in the early 2030s, with trips to the surface coming sometime after that. NASA officials have said they hope to eventually set up a small outpost on the Red Planet, where astronauts would search for signs of Mars life and perform other research.
What will we live in?