All space pathways lead to humans on Mars - according to a new report. Credit: NASA/JSC

All space pathways lead to humans on Mars – according to a new report.
Credit: NASA/JSC

An important new report advocates that America should pursue a disciplined “pathway” approach – executing a series of intermediate steps along the way – that lead to the “horizon goal” of planting the first human footprints on Mars.

“All long-range space programs, by all potential partners, for human space exploration converge on this goal,” the report explains.

The congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council (NRC) was released today, titled Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration. The study was sponsored by NASA.

A 17-person NRC Committee on Human Spaceflight wrote the report. The blue-ribbon group wrestled with such issues as: Why do we go there? How to assess the technical and affordability aspects of human exploration pathways? What are public and stakeholder attitudes?

NOTE: Members of the authoring committee will present the report’s findings and recommendations and respond to questions at a public briefing today beginning at 11 a.m. EDT, at the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, D.C.

A live webcast of the event is at

Wanted: steadfast commitment

While the “horizon goal” of putting humans on Mars is urged in the report, the success of this approach, the study adds, would require a steadfast commitment to a consensus goal, international collaboration, and a budget that increases by more than the rate of inflation.

Additionally, the committee asserts that the “enduring questions” motivating human spaceflight are these:

* How far from Earth can humans go?

* What can humans discover and achieve when we get there?

The study underscores that, over the years, rationales for human spaceflight and those sparking public interest are: economic benefits; contributions to national security; contributions to national stature and international relations; inspiration of students and citizens to further their science and engineering education; and contributions to science.

Also identified in the report is a set of “aspirational rationales: the eventual survival of the human species (through off-Earth settlement) and shared human destiny and the aspiration to explore.

The report flags the finding that public opinion about space has been generally favorable over the past 50 years, “but much of the public is inattentive to space exploration and spending on space exploration is not a high priority for most of the public.”

New study evaluates different pathways to reach the planting of human footprints on Mars. Credit: NRC

New study evaluates different pathways to reach the planting of human footprints on Mars.
Credit: NRC

Pathways to Mars

The study evaluates three different pathways to illustrate the trade-offs among affordability, schedule, developmental risk, and the frequency of missions for different sequences of intermediate destinations. 

All the pathways culminate in humans landing on the surface of Mars — which is the most challenging yet technically feasible destination — and have anywhere between three and six steps that include some combination of missions to asteroids, the moon, and the moons of Mars.

In one of the committee conclusions, the group noted that, given the magnitude of the technical and physiological challenges, should the nation decide to embark on a human exploration program whose horizon goal is Mars, NASA would need to begin to focus right away on the high-priority research and technology investments that would develop the capabilities required for human surface exploration of Mars.

The most challenging of these will be (1) entry, descent, and landing for Mars; (2) in-space propulsion and power; and (3) radiation safety (radiation health effects and amelioration.

Re-look at returning to the Moon

The wide-ranging report serves up some zingers, such as:

“It is evident that U.S. near-term goals for human exploration are not aligned with those of our traditional international partners. While most major spacefaring nations and agencies are looking toward the Moon and, specifically, the lunar surface, U.S. plans are focused on redirection of an asteroid into a retrograde lunar orbit, where astronauts would conduct operations with it.”

As argued in one of the report’s chapters, “if humans are eventually to land and operate for extended periods of time on Mars, the capabilities required are best developed and tested on the lunar surface as well as in cislunar space.”

“The history of exploration of our own globe carries a lesson that the ones who follow the first explorers are the ones to profit from the accomplishment. Such a lesson would suggest that the United States relook at its disinterest in the lunar surface as a site for human operations.”

China is rapidly developing robotic and human spaceflight skills.  Credit: CMSE

China is rapidly developing robotic and human spaceflight skills.
Credit: CMSE

Playing the China card

“It is also evident that given the rapid development of China’s capabilities in space, it is in the best interests of the United States to be open to its inclusion in future international partnerships.”

The NRC committee identified some specific important issues that the nation will need to grapple with should it choose to embark on a renewed effort in deep space exploration involving humans.

One of those issues is the prohibition on NASA speaking to Chinese space authorities, a prohibition that has left open opportunities for collaboration that are being filled by other spacefaring nations.

“The committee is concerned that current U.S. law is impeding the nation’s ability to collaborate with China where appropriate, while traditional U.S. international partners have not imposed on themselves such restrictions.”

NOTE: Find the full report here:

2 Responses to “New Report Flags U.S. “Horizon Goal” – Humans to Mars!”

  • This report offers some confusing recommendations, depending on how you interpret it. They don’t like the “flexible approach” (which has no specific destination) and suggest the focus should be on Mars. But then they propose a flexible path to get there. If one interprets the recommendation as adding a focus on Mars as a specific long term goal using a “flexible approach” to get there, that is more palatable to me. The thing that would concern me (and I’d have to read the entire report to look for this) is if they recommend a very tight focus on Mars and Mars only. In many circles the way to create a long lasting space industry is one that develops an infrastructure that can be used for all future destinations. If the technology focuses on Mars only, that may leave out the developments needed to create a sustainable cislunar space economy.

  • Leatt Brace says:

    Music started playing anytime I opened this internet site, so irritating!

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