If you look back over my previous Space Matter columns, I talk about going to Mars like it’s an inevitability—and to me, it is. Whether it’s NASA or SpaceX or another private company that gets us there first, humans will set foot on Mars in the next two decades.
But when that will happen is harder to predict. And recent news from NASA hasn’t been encouraging.
NASA has been developing a new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which, when finished, will be the most powerful rocket ever constructed. It will be the rocket that takes NASA’s astronauts to Mars. They’re also simultaneously working on a crew vehicle, Orion, that returns to the capsule technology of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo after testing out something new with the Space Shuttle. Orion won’t take a crew all the way to Mars; the interior space is much to small to support a crew for the nine-month journey to the red planet.
The Mars Curiosity rover takes a self-portrait on Mars (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
Instead, the organization envisions a deep space transport system that will make multiple journeys to and from Mars, ferrying crew and equipment between our sister planet and the Moon. That’s right, we’re going to establish a lunar base It won’t be occupied full time, unlike the International Space Station, but it will provide a jumping-off point for further exploration of the solar system. Orion will ferry astronauts to this Moon base, and the organization will construct it in space using SLS’s lift power. NASA plans to begin this process in 2023—but I wouldn’t count on that date. Given recent announcements from the organization, that is likely too aggressive of a timeline.
Two weeks ago, a collective groan went around the science and space communities, as NASA announced that the first test flight of the SLS rocket (with Orion atop it) would be delayed—again. The sort-of-original plan, back in 2016, was for a…