NASA disclosed new exciting details about its plan to send astronauts to the red planet in the 2030s at the 2017 Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, which took place this week, May 9-11.
The agency had already announced it intends to achieve this ambitious feat in a two-phase strategy.
Phase 1 involves building a "Deep Space Gateway" (DSG), a small space station orbiting the moon, and assembling a Deep Space Transport (DST) vehicle — a reusable spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to Mars and back.
Phase 2 requires completing the DST spacecraft and performing a Mars verification mission before the journey to the planet's system and the descent to the Martian surface.
The novelty is NASA is thinking of sending a manned mission ahead as part of Phase 2 to orbit the moon in the late 2020s. The mission is expected to last a year and will probably be launched in 2027.
Phase 1: Deep Space Gateway
Speaking at the summit on May 9, Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, explained the DSG mini-station would allow astronauts to test the technology they will be using to get to Mars.
This "deep space gateway" would be equipped with a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, docking capability, and an airlock, and would be serviced by logistics modules to enable research.
All this hardware is to be sent to the lunar orbit in four separate crewed missions between 2018 and 2026 as part of Phase 1 of the journey to Mars.
The lunar space station would also serve as a launching point for the DST vehicle, which could also be resupplied and refurbished here.
Both the SLS gigantic rocket and the Orion crew capsule were initially scheduled to fly together for the first time toward the end of 2018, but the date of the first mega rocket launch was delayed to 2019. Meanwhile, NASA is still weighing the risks of a crewed SLS mission on its integrated flight with the Orion spacecraft.
Phase 2: Deep Space Transport And Crewed Mission In Lunar Orbit
After sending the four crewed missions to drop off equipment to the DSG station, NASA will prepare for Phase 2 of the Mars plan, scheduled to start in 2027.
This second phase would begin with an unmanned flight of the SLS mega rocket to deliver the last piece of hardware to the lunar mini-station — the very DST spacecraft to undergo the journey to Mars.
Immediately after, NASA has scheduled the yearlong crewed mission around the moon, as well as several other flights that will supply the needed equipment for the 2030s' trip to Mars.
Why Astronauts Might Go Around The Moon For A Year
In a presentation for the summit, Williams details NASA's intention to conduct missions in cislunar space — the region between Earth and the moon, including orbits around the moon itself — within the first phase of the Mars plan.
The newly announced yearlong crewed mission has the same destination, with the goal to test the field before the first exploration mission to the red planet.
In other words, the astronauts' job is to validate the DST vehicle before it undertakes the journey to Mars.
"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 said.
According to Williams, the U.S. space agency plans to launch spacecraft not only on a single orbit around the moon, but to various locations in cislunar space.