Mars via the moon

Summit to discuss lunar mission as a catalyst

Some attendees at the upcoming Human to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C., might be surprised by how much focus will be on the moon.

The nonprofit organization Explore Mars Inc. has been studying the scientific, technical and policy challenges around sending humans to Mars since 2013 with this annual event, which will be held May 14-16. Some of this year’s programming will examine how NASA’s proposed 2024 moon landing can be a catalyst for Mars missions.

“We’ve never been opposed to going to the moon, but we’ve always been very cautious about how we say it,” said Chris Carberry, Explore Mars Inc. co-founder and CEO. “If we go to the moon, we have to do it in such a way that is affordable and will not delay Mars by decades.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine views the moon as a “proving ground” for reaching Mars, but even he has expressed concern about meshing the two goals. Maintaining urgency for a Mars landing will be difficult “if we don’t have active leadership attempting to make that next great leap,” he said in an Aerospace America interview earlier this month.

Carberry shares the concern. “If we can build this momentum, keep it up, we have to make sure we’re not letting down the Mars community,” he said. “Otherwise once again things will fall into a pattern that is basically easier in the short term but complicates matters, complicates Mars, in the long term.”

As for the timing of a human mission to Mars, the 2017 NASA authorization act established a 2033 deadline for launch. However, in April, an influential think tank in Washington, D.C, questioned the feasibility of that date. Given NASA’s “current and notional plans for human exploration,” the soonest a Mars landing might be attempted is 2037, said the report from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, part of the not-for-profit Institute for Defense Analyses.

Carberry continues to think 2033 is still doable. In his view, the report was based on a “very specific set of circumstances” that don’t take the most current Mars landing proposals into account.

“There are challenges to overcome, and we don’t want to dispel that because it was a good report in many respects, but if we go about this properly there is no reason we can’t at least have somebody orbiting Mars in 2033,” he said.

Next week’s Human to Mars Summit will present more updated plans, Carberry said.

As for the lunar plan, NASA has yet to submit its amended 2020 budget request to Congress that will provide a cost estimate for the 2024 landing. In a Wednesday congressional hearing, NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier stressed that many of NASA’s “hardware development efforts are tied together, and they all support building systems that will allow us to build human presence in the solar system.”

“By taking the long view, we can keep the individual activities linked,” said Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for human exploration and operations, according to a video of the hearing. “We do not have the time or funds to build unique, one of a kind systems.”

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Human Spaceflight

Mars via the moon