Ever since The Eagle landed upon the Sea of Tranquility back in 1969, the next big mission on everybody's mind has been to conquer Mars, the red planet. After nearly 40 years, billions of dollars and countless scrapped plans, we seem to have hit a dead end. The dedicated teams of scientists and engineers at the space agency are nothing if not tenacious, and are determined to put an astronaut on the fourth rock from the Sun. But a trip to Mars and back would surely be the most ambitious and historic feat of design, planning and astronavigation ever attempted - and even the technological advances of past decades would not guarantee the safety of the appointed astronauts. So the best course of action is to plan ahead and employ the Moon as a base of operations.
According to NASA, a number of their astronauts will potentially spend up to a year in orbit around the Moon in the late 2020s as part of NASA's plan to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. This will allow NASA to test its deep space exploration system; including its Orion spacecraft and a flexible lunar deep space infrastructure. The last time astronauts visited the surface of the Moon was the Apollo 17 mission back in 1972.
At the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington DC, Greg Williams, NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Policy and Plans in the Agency's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, claimed that NASA aims to establish a so-called "deep-space gateway" around the moon to serve as a testing ground for operations and technology needed on the touted red planet mission. This lunar base will serve as a launch pad for the spacecraft that will take humans from the Moon to Mars in a later mission, planned to begin sometime after 2030.
However, before that mission commences, there will be at least five planned missions, four crewed and one automated, to deliver crucial hardware to the surface of the Moon. The last piece of delivered hardware will be the famed Deep Space Transport vehicle which will later be used to carry crew to Mars. Williams stated: "If we could conduct a yearlong crewed mission on this Deep Space Transport in cislunar space, we believe we will know enough that we could then send this thing, crewed, on a 1,000-day mission to the Mars system and back."
He added: "We're trying to lead this journey to Mars with a broad range of partnerships. One of the things we'll be doing over the next few years is, putting that package together: what players want to provide what -both nationally and internationally- and how we can together, with NASA in an orchestrating role, really move out on these crewed missions to Mars."
Allegedly, there are also plans in place for NASA to launch a new heavy-lift rocket (the Space Launch System) early in 2018. This unmanned flight would see the SLS spend approximately three weeks flying around the Moon, before swiftly returning home, in an open demonstration of the deep-space hardware. Three to five years later EM-2, this mission, manned by astronauts, would follow and would repeat EM-1’s flight profile in order to test the craft's effect upon human pilots covering a relatively short distance.
Mike Sarafin, EM-1 mission manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington, stated: "This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known. It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission."
When Orion is finally launched in order to orbit to the Moon, propelled by a service module provided by the European Space Agency, it will pass through the Van Allen radiation belts and then fly past our own GPS satellite constellation, as well as a host of other communication satellites orbiting planet Earth. The astronauts on board will communicate with mission control in Houston via the Deep Space Network. The trip to the moon will take several days, and after time engineers will have the opportunity to evaluate the spacecraft’s electrical and digital systems. Orion will fly approximately 62 miles (100 km) above the surface of the Moon, and then exploit the weak gravity in order to propel itself into a new retrograde orbit about 40,000 miles (70,000 km) from the Moon's surface.
Why has it been such a long time since NASA's last mission to the moon? Ultimately, it comes down to the issue of government funding (NASA has approximately a third of the budget it had in the 60s when adjusted for inflation) and changing policies on space travel. Since the end of the Cold War, space travel has been less of a priority than it was at the height of nuclear deterrence.
However, the Trump administration has shown an interest in promoting more missions into space. Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, has apparently been trying to convince Trump to invest in new space programmes as part of his pledge to "make America great again". Only time will tell us whether Trump will end up associated with space flight in the same way that Nixon and Kennedy were.