Yesterday, during a conference in Washington D.C., NASA Administrator Charles Bolden once again made it clear: a human mission to Mars is currently the ultimate destination in the solar system and a priority for NASA. Assistant Professor James Wray, a member of the Curiosity science team, thinks it's possible to land humans on the Red Planet in 20 years...if we get started now and increase the budget.
The biggest risk, in my mind, for an expensive, discretionary budget item with a long-delayed payoff is potential cancellation by politicians who did not initiate it. So, widespread bipartisan support in Congress (where folks can have longer careers than in the White House) would be essential, I think.
The science case is there: we send more missions to Mars than anywhere else beyond Earth these days because it is a fascinating and mysterious place that has much more to teach us about how solid planets work in general. It also teaches us what is needed for life to form and survive on other planets and even on our own. A team of human explorers could complete science and exploration tasks perhaps 100 times faster than the rovers can -- a good thing considering that a human landed mission would probably cost more than 100 Curiosity's. But, of course, there are other reasons to go too: the inspiration of humanity coming together to achieve a most challenging and hugely positive goal, while developing technologies that would surely find uses back on Earth. And I'm certain there'd be no shortage of volunteers, including highly qualified individuals, willing to ignore any cancer risks and, in some cases, perfectly open to a one-way trip.
Anyway, it is important to bear in mind that what NASA and the President are actually suggesting, based on the current budget, is a trip to "the Martian environment" in around 20 years. The idea is that the first humans to go would probably not land on the surface, since doing so adds substantially to the cost and risk. Instead they might visit one of the Martian moons, perhaps operating rovers down on Mars' surface in "real-time" from that platform. This is one reason why visiting a near-Earth asteroid--perhaps even one that we capture and bring closer to Earth--is being discussed as a valuable stepping stone, where technologies could be tested much closer to home. Mars' two moons are very asteroid-like.
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