NASA Aims for Mars Landings in 2035 While Building Support for Lunar Gateway

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is looking to land humans on Mars in the 2030s as he recruits partners of the International Space Station to help the agency land humans on the moon by 2024, according to his remarks at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC). 

“If we are accelerating the moon landing, we are accelerating the Mars landing,” Bridenstine said during a livestreamed panel discussion of space agency heads at IAC in Washington, D.C. “I suggest we can do it by 2035,” he added.

Bridenstine’s pledge is similar (with a later deadline) to promises he made in the spring. In April, in a hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, he suggested NASA astronauts could walk on Mars by 2033. In that meeting and also in May, Bridenstine added that pushing sooner for the moon would make it possible to bring astronauts to Mars faster, which is a long-term goal of the Trump administration.

Related: Astronauts on the Moon in 2024? US Can’t Do It Alone, NASA Chief Says

The unknown piece, however, is how NASA will marshal international support for that ambitious Mars goal. Planning for the mid-2030s sounds early stage now, but the technological obstacles facing Mars-bound astronauts are immense. Problems to solve include how astronauts will stay healthy during several months of travel in space, how they will have enough food on the Red Planet, or how to run a mission with several minutes of time delay in communications between Mission Control on Earth and the astronaut crew on Mars.

For the past few years, NASA has pushed forward an interim initiative called Gateway, which is a space station that would operate in lunar orbit and act as a staging ground for landing missions. Bridenstine has been recruiting all the partners of the International Space Station to collaborate on these moon missions, and the first sign-up came earlier this year when Canada agreed to provide a robotic arm

International partner interest

More commitments could be on the way shortly. The European Space Agency will hold a senior official (ministerial-level) meeting called Space19+ on Nov. 27 to 28. Both Bridenstine and ESA president Johann-Dietrich Wörner indicated at the IAC panel that Gateway would be a big topic at Space19+. 

“I’ll have to convince them,” Wörner joked of the ministerial audience, adding that it will be a bit different from talking to “the converted ones” who attend space conferences such as IAC.

The Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) made a commitment to undertake more lunar exploration in a meeting on Friday (Oct. 18). Bridenstine referred to the commitment in a keynote speech earlier in the IAC agenda, citing it as an example of NASA continuing to work with partners to support moon missions.

NASA’s biggest space station partner, Roscosmos, is looking at several options for its long-term spaceflight program – including possible moon landings. The agency plans to do a technical analysis on the space station to see if its life span could be extended to 2028 “or even beyond,” which would be four years beyond the current international agreement, said Director Dmitry Rogozin at IAC.

“The Russian moon program is still under development and will be done in collaboration with our partners,” he added. Rogozin suggested Roscosmos would build new human-rated spacecraft that could fly to the moon, or ferry cargo there. These missions could “provide capability to land humans on the moon in the future,” he added, without providing specifics.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) recently launched its own robotic moon mission, called Chandrayaan 2, under the leadership of Kailasavadivoo Sivan. Its lander crashed on the surface, but the orbiter is working well and sending data back to Earth. Sivan mentioned the new mission in his talk, but did not discuss Gateway; instead, he talked about the industry challenges India faces while gathering resources for its space program and its push to explore the moon.

“At the top [of the challenges] is human capital,” Sivan said, saying that India’s space organization is looking for more technicians. ISRO is collaborating with institutions of higher learning for recruitment, he said. Another large challenge is getting industrial support, since the sector for space exploration in India is much smaller than it is in the United States, he said. 

Canadian Space Agency President Sylvain Laporte received a question about an election going on in his country simultaneously with his presentation at IAC, and whether the results would affect his country’s commitment to Gateway. After joking that he needs to answer carefully, as no government official wants to be quoted on an election day, Laporte added that all indications are that Canada’s space strategy would be continued, even if another party comes into power. 

It was the current administration, headed by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, that agreed to the space plan in the winter while holding a majority in Canada’s Parliament (the equivalent of the United States’ House of Representatives.) As of Monday afternoon, most political pundits in Canada predicted a minority government of the Liberals or of the current opposition, the Conservatives.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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