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A group of 70 space experts, including Bill Nye the Science Guy, has laid out the key points in a scenario that would send astronauts on a trip to orbit Mars in 2033. That mission could blaze a trail for eventual landings on the Red Planet, according to the Planetary Society, which organized this week's "Humans Orbiting Mars" workshop in Washington.
“We believe we now have an example of a long-term, cost-constrained, executable humans to Mars program,” workshop chair Scott Hubbard, a former Mars program executive at NASA who is now a professor at Stanford University, said in a news release. The "orbit-first" scenario is consistent with NASA's long-term plan, which calls for crewed missions to Mars and its moons starting in the 2030s.
Nye, the nonprofit Planetary Society's CEO, said the mission is doable "without breaking the bank." The society said an independent cost estimate showed that the Mars program "would fit within a budget that grows with inflation after NASA ends its lead role in the International Space Station." The Aerospace Corp. and experts from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory did the cost analysis, Hubbard said.
"I was very pleased to see how thorough ... the cost analysis was," Nye told reporters.
If NASA's commitment to the space station ended in 2024, that would free up funds for the 2033 orbital mission, leading to a landing in 2039 for a short stay on the Red Planet, Hubbard said. Along the way, orbital crews could guide remote-operated robots on the Martian surface or on the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos.
Hubbard said missions to the moon, including a landing, could be among the preparatory steps for Mars missions — but the plan does not call for extended stays on the lunar surface. For now, the plan also incorporates NASA's mission to bring a piece of an asteroid back to high lunar orbit for study in the mid-2020s, but that could change, veteran space policy analyst John Logsdon said.
The plan assumes a two-launch-per-year flight rate for NASA's Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket that is currently due to have its first test launch in 2018. "It's important to keep the Space Launch System rocket on track, and to allow competition from SpaceX and Orbital and Boeing and the other corporations making big rockets," Nye said.
Hubbard said it wasn't too early for NASA to flesh out its plans for 2033. "I think that you would need to begin to study and adopt a strategic framework within ... now," he said. The Planetary Society said the detailed mission architecture, which was developed and discussed during sessions that were closed to the public and the press, would be released later this year.
Other Mars mission architectures are in the works as well: By the end of this year, Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of the SpaceX launch venture, plans to release his own vision for getting humans to Mars. The privately backed Inspiration Mars effort has laid out a scenario for a two-person Mars flyby, and the Dutch-based Mars One venture has been working on a plan to send crews on one-way missions to Mars.
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