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The dust from the liftoff of Apollo 17’s lunar module had barely settled back onto the Moon on Dec. 14, 1972, before the finality of the mission became clear. If there were to be no more Apollos, would we ever return to the Moon? And what about Mars, that tempting target that in the heady days of the early space program seemed to be the natural next step? Is it truly a feasible destination?

The answer turns out to be complex, involving not just monolithic space agencies but commercial companies vying for their share in space. Mars still stands as the ultimate prize for this generation of space-goers, but reaching it will involve plenty of work near the Earth as well as the Moon as we refine our technology and answer critical questions about health and survivability both en route and on the Martian surface. 

For NASA’s part, Mars looms as a destination that informs the operation of many small projects as well as the construction of some very large hardware, like the Space Launch System (SLS), the booster rocket that could enable the agency’s astronauts to reclaim the space initiative. In October, President Barack Obama renewed NASA’s commitment to get humans to Mars in the 2030s, calling for “continued cooperation between government and private innovators” and praising the space program’s curiosity and exploration.

But just what is involved in that cooperation? Making a Mars mission involves tapping the burgeoning commercial space market. In August, for example, NASA astronauts installed a new dock on the International Space Station (ISS) allowing it to receive spacecraft built by Boeing and Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX. Private firms are to begin sending astronauts to the ISS within the next two years, although, ironically, savings from the cancellation of NASA funding for the ISS may be needed for a Mars mission. The station will operate until at least 2024, according to current NASA policy. At least one NASA mission, a proposed Mars orbital flight being developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, might be squeezed into the NASA budget if the station is shut down.

Looking beyond low-Earth orbit, NASA has also begun a series of collaborations with commercial partners on the habitats that will make flight into deep space possible. Whether it’s an extended stay on the Moon or months en route to the Red Planet, astronauts will need to be shielded from radiation and provided with modules that allow them to live and work at optimum efficiency. NASA has selected six companies to develop concepts and build ground prototypes, including Boeing, Bigelow Aerospace, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK.

One conception of a Mars habitat that will protect astronauts on the surface of the Red Planet. This is one of three winners of a habitat design contest conducted by NASA exploring the uses of 3D printing in creating structures. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Such habitats will be tested in near-Earth orbit as well as near the Moon before being used for a Mars mission. But there is no underestimating the magnitude of the challenge. We need to learn a great deal more about how the human body reacts to long periods in space, which is one reason why NASA sent Scott Kelly aboard the ISS for an entire year, to measure his physiological reactions compared to his twin brother here on Earth.

Kelly’s flight ended in March of 2016. Data from it will complement what we already know, that weightlessness can cause bone density loss even as muscles atrophy. For this reason, rotating tethered spacecraft producing centrifugal force as a kind of “faux” gravity are being considered.

But the journey itself is fraught with perils, including everything from maintaining air quality to shielding against cosmic rays, which can significantly increase the risk of cancer. Unlike the relatively close Moon (239,000 miles away), Mars averages 140 million miles distant, making this a multi-year journey reliant on life support systems that are completely self-contained. A British-Dutch company behind a project called Mars One has promised to send astronauts to create settlements on Mars, though a lack of technical details, especially about life support, has dogged the unusual venture, which has now delayed its proposed first mission to 2031.

The technologies we develop to solve health concerns will be applicable to lunar bases or crews working on asteroid mining missions, but it’s Mars that has captured the attention of Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, who speaks of dying one day on the planet, “though not on impact.”

In September, Musk outlined his plan to build 400-foot tall rockets that could each accommodate 100 passengers as a way of establishing and growing a colony on Mars. Musk thinks his estimated $10 billion rocket could fly as early as 2024, but like Obama, SpaceX’s CEO realizes that making it happen will demand public-private partnerships.

The funding issue is a complicated one for Musk, just as it is for NASA. Musk made his fortune on the Internet (he created PayPal) and has applied much of it to rocket development, creating the Falcon 9, which now hauls cargo, and eventually astronauts, to the ISS. Thus far, SpaceX has secured over $10 billion in contracts from its various clients, including NASA itself, which has tapped the firm for ISS supply missions. Even so, two launch failures within the past year demonstrate the dangers and difficulties in reaching even Earth orbit.

NASA, meanwhile, walks a continual political tightrope, working off a budget that once hit 4.4 percent of GDP at the height of Apollo, and has now dwindled to about 0.5 percent ($19.3 billion this year). Changing directives from Congress lead to shifts in emphasis for NASA programs. In 2010 the Obama administration canceled the Constellation program that was developing hardware for a return to the Moon. Congress would later revive the Orion crew capsule and instruct NASA to develop the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket.

But will it fly, and will it eventually be used for Mars? The first flight of the SLS is scheduled for 2018, carrying the Orion crew capsule the agency tested in 2014. The plan is to test both the spacecraft and crew habitat facilities in near-lunar space as a warm-up for future Mars missions. Meanwhile, government and commercial space jockey for position, collaborating even as some argue that NASA’s new rocket will be made redundant (and too expensive) by companies like SpaceX, which is developing its own heavy lifter called the Falcon Heavy.

Nor is SpaceX alone. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin this year announced at least two new rockets, the suborbital New Shepard (with a string of successful early tests) and a 270-foot New Glenn vehicle that, with a third stage (and reaching 313 feet), could operate beyond Earth orbit. New Glenn is scheduled for first flight by the end of this decade. Bezos believes Blue Origin will begin test flights with human crews as early as next year.

SpaceX and Blue Origins have already engaged in a spirited contest involving landing a spent booster rocket for potential re-use, a feat both companies have achieved. Although Blue Origin has yet to produce a commercial launch, SpaceX prices its Falcon 9 at $60 million per launch. Moving to fully reusable boosters could reduce that cost by as much as 30 percent.

Competing for low launch costs will be critical to both companies going forward as they fight for credibility and cash for any future Mars mission. Always looming for travels beyond Earth orbit is the question of funding for NASA’s SLS as a new administration takes office. Meanwhile, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will carry an instrument called Moxie that will attempt to retrieve carbon dioxide and oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. Techniques like this could eventually allow rocket propellant for return missions to be produced on the surface.

Back in the 1950s, space legend Wernher von Braun unveiled a massive Mars project that involved an entire fleet of exploration craft he hoped would one day reach the Red Planet. Today we know that while Mars is reachable, major questions of cost, crew safety along the way (not to mention survival long term in any Martian colony) and public support dog potential missions. Reaching Mars is unlikely to be the result of a monolithic government push. Indeed, the difference between today’s Mars thinking and Apollo is that we’ll be relying on intricate collaboration between government and commercial space to make the Mars landing happen.

Paul Gilster

Paul Gilster is a longtime technology and aerospace writer with a fascination for how we use computers.

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