President Barack Obama signed into law on Monday a plan for the U.S. space program. NASA's chief praised the president and Congress for the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that sets a course for Mars.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the legislation supports the president's plan for innovation and discovery in space.
President Obama outlined his vision for NASA in April.
"By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth, and a landing on Mars will follow," the president said.
In a written statement, Bolden said the plan is to foster a growing commercial space transportation industry that will allow NASA to focus on developing heavy-lift vehicles to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit. That means the focus will be on traveling to places such as asteroids and ultimately Mars, as opposed to the Bush administration's plan to return to the moon before venturing to the Red Planet.
Congress approved the bill last week. It authorizes $58 billion for NASA programs during the next three years. Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida says that the funding has yet to be finalized, which he notes could be difficult because of the mounting federal budget deficit.
The legislation adds one more space shuttle flight before the shuttle fleet is retired next year, and it extends the life of the International Space Station through at least 2020.
Critics say NASA could find itself in a precarious situation when the shuttle fleet is decommissioned because the United States will need to rely on - and pay - international partners such as Russia to transport astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station.