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Human Mission to Mars Likely to Happen in Increments

Florian Commans, crew biologist and greenhab officer, of Crew 153, studies a collection of rocks near the Mars Desert Research Station, in Hanksville, Utah, April 18, 2015.

"We need to stimulate the [American] public to be supportive” of a U.S. mission to Mars, Buzz Aldrin told the Human to Mars Summit 2015 this week.

The veteran astronaut, who became the second man to walk on the Moon in 1969, said it was unlikely that simply announcing “a space program that is going to go to Mars” could work, saying the program needs to evolve in series of stages over the course of several years.

According to NASA engineer Bret Drake, that is more or less the approach offered by several industry partners.

Lockheed Martin, for example, has proposed a Stepping Stones plan. It calls for initial flights to the International Space Station using today’s launch vehicles and Orion spacecraft that build increasingly towards America’s long term goal of exploring Mars.

Drake explained Lockheed Martin envisions the first landing on Deimos, the closer of the Red Planet's two moons.

Mars matters

We know that at one time Mars had conditions suitable for life and what we learn about the Red Planet may tell us more about our own home planet’s history and future.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says Mars “just might help us to unravel the age old mystery about whether life exists beyond Earth.”

Bolden added NASA is “on pace to reach the goal President [Barack] Obama articulated five years ago at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida: To (land) American astronauts [on Mars] in the 2030s.” And he believes “a new consensus is emerging around this timetable and around this goal.”

Over the past four years, the agency has been implementing the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, enacted with broad bipartisan support and reflecting agreement between the Congress and the Obama administration on the nation’s next steps into space.

The Act calls on NASA to develop and evolve the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew vehicle and to expand human exploration beyond low Earth orbit to space destinations as far away as the Earth’s moon, leading eventually to the international exploration of Mars.

Probing Martian secrets

That pioneering exploration is already underway. The Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity are moving across the Martian surface, sending photos and data back to Earth. They have shown the planet exhibits conditions that could have supported microbial life in the past.

Curiosity’s sensors measured the radiation environment both in transit to Mars and on the surface.

The Mars Reconnaissance orbiter and Mars Odyssey orbiter are examining the planet's surface and climate in great detail, and their imagery may one day identify the first human landing sites.

The MAVEN and InSight missions will study Mars’ atmosphere and interior, respectively, allowing us to peer into Mars’ past and its future.