NASA Expects to Land Astronauts on the Red Planet by the Early 2030s

Mars explorers Image by NASA

This scene painted by space artist Pat Rawlings for NASA depicts two astronauts exploring the Martian surface with their rover.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

NASA is charting a bold course that could have humans exploring the Martian surface by the early 2030s.  

That was the vision John Connolly, who heads the Mars Study Capability Team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, shared with more than 150 faculty members, students and guests during a symposium held recently at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center in downtown Lowell. Connolly is studying and planning the space agency’s human mission to the Red Planet.

Why go to Mars? “Because it’s the next logical step,” Connolly said, noting that throughout history, people have always strived to push the envelope and explore new boundaries, from summiting Mount Everest to landing on the Moon. “We are born to explore,” he said. “It’s in our DNA.”

John Connolly Image by Edwin L. Aguirre

In his keynote, “How Close Are We to Mars?,” John Connolly of NASA’s Johnson Space Center explains the complexities of a human mission to the Red Planet.

He added that the release of the Hollywood movie “The Martian” in 2015 had sparked public interest on the Mars mission. “Visits to the NASA website increased by the thousands,” he noted.

A roundtrip mission to Mars, which averages 140 million miles away from Earth, could take up to five years, or more, so the astronauts would have to be self-sufficient and self-reliant. “It’s a daunting task technologically and logistically,” said Connolly. That is why astronauts are experimenting how to grow vegetables aboard the International Space Station and are training how to “live off the land, just like in The Martian.”

The two-day symposium, called “Space Exploration in the Upcoming Decade: The Domestication of Space,” was presented by the university’s Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology (LoCSST) and the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium.

“The meeting commemorates the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1 and the dawning of the Space Age,” said LoCCST director and physics Prof. Supriya Chakrabarti, who organized the event together with MIT professor and former NASA astronaut Jeff Hoffmann.

James Abrahamson Image by Edwin L. Aguirre

Former NASA Associate Administrator James A. Abrahamson talks about the future of space enterprise and the unstoppable force of space commerce.

The symposium featured keynote talks by former NASA space shuttle astronaut Cady Coleman, Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana, Space Telescope Science Institute Director Kenneth Sembach and former NASA Associate Administrator James A. Abrahamson. There were also panel discussions from space industry experts from Raytheon, BAE Systems, OmniEarth, KinetX Aerospace, L-3 Communications-SSG, Axiom Research, BoldlyGo Institute and other companies, as well as researchers from India, Bulgaria and the United Arab Emirates.

The Commercialization of Space

Abrahamson noted that federal funding to NASA has been decreasing steadily over the years, which has led to the rise of more commercial ventures in space exploration. Private companies like SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, Orbital ATK, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and Sierra Nevada are now taking over some of NASA’s former domain. A number of them plan to not only deliver cargo and transport crew into Earth orbit but also eventually carry space tourists.

Robert Cabana Image by Edwin L. Aguirre
Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana discusses how NASA is transforming the Cape Canaveral launch complex into a multi-user spaceport.
In 2014 alone, the global space industry generated $330 billion in direct and related revenues. “The future of space commerce is already assured,” said Abrahamson.

“We are doing everything we can to make spaceflight more efficient and affordable,” said Cabana, who is a former space shuttle astronaut. “We have transformed the Kennedy Space Center in Florida into a multi-user spaceport, and we’re paving the way for NASA’s journey to Mars.”

He said NASA’s powerful new rocket, called the Space Launch System, and the next-generation Orion spacecraft, which will transport astronauts to Mars and back, are scheduled to undergo a test launch from Cape Canaveral in 2019.

“The Mars mission is already well under way,” said Cabana.