The journey to Mars begins with the moon. And, this time, it will be about setting up a long-term, cost-effective presence rather than “flags and footprints” then coming home.
That is the vision of Lockheed Martin, whose plan for humanity’s first trip to another planet lacks the audacious glamour of Elon Musk’s recent announcement but, it says, has the virtue both of practicality and of coming from an organisation that has already sent 11 spacecraft to Mars, rather than none.
The company, which often works with NASA, wants to use an orbital moon base as a staging post to construct a craft that can reach the orbit of Mars, which will itself be a staging post for a later craft that can take people down to the surface. In doing so, it hopes to create the infrastructure for making Mars a routine and even perpetual outpost of humanity, instead of an Apollo-style one-off.
It is not alone. Last month Mr Musk, the PayPal billionaire, unveiled his own plans to send a rocket codenamed BFR (Big F***ing Rocket) to Mars within seven years, carrying a crew. Unlike Musk, Lockheed Martin intends to work with NASA, and its is one of the more serious proposals for how the US could achieve its policy goal of having humans on the Martian surface before the early 2030s.
Tim Cichan, from Lockheed Martin, said that there were few barriers to reaching the planet. “In order to have someone orbiting Mars in 2028, it’s not technology that is the issue,” he said. “We don’t need to invent anything new. We just need to take the technology we have, continue the development path NASA has laid out and get flying.”
Plans are already in place to build the Deep Space Gateway, NASA’s name for the orbiting lunar station that would be a jumping off point for other missions. Lockheed’s “Mars Base Camp” plans involve a craft that would leave there carrying two of almost every component, a recognition that in the months it takes to reach Mars there would be no hope of rescue. “Even at the moon, if you have a bad day you can get home in six to seven days at most,” Mr Cichan said. “That’s not possible with Mars.”
Once it has been shown it can reach Mars’s orbit, the next stage is to bring a reusable lander, to operate surface missions of more than a week in duration. Then, like in Antarctica or on the International Space Station, and unlike the Apollo missions, a permanent presence could be established.
“The foremost goal of Martian human exploration should be to establish a sustainable long-term human presence at Mars,” explained Mr Cichan and his colleagues in a paper detailing their plans, presented at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Australia. “Flags-and-footprints missions – where a crewed landing has no viable follow-on without the development of an entirely new architecture – lead to large post-mission gaps and are to be avoided. Each mission should instead be designed fundamentally as a stepping stone on a path to longer surface missions rather than an end unto itself.”
Part of the reason for the mission is scientific. Having a human present to control a rover, for instance, means that you don’t have to deal with the 20-minute delay when mission control is on Earth. But as with Apollo there is also simply a recognition that getting to Mars could be an end in itself.
“When president Kennedy spoke of the Apollo programme in 1962 he famously said we choose to go to the moon because it is hard,” Mr Cichan said. “In other words, the finding of a solution to the seemingly impossible is an end in and of itself, particularly in inspiring the next generation of students.”