Credit: Subcommittee on Space, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology/Screengrab

If you want boots on Mars by 2033, forget it.

A new study has found that a 2033 departure date for a Mars orbital mission is “infeasible under all budget scenarios and technology development and testing schedules.”

However, 2035 may be possible under budgets that match 1.9 percent real growth, but carries high risks of schedule delays due to complex technology development, testing, and fabrication schedules for the Deep Space Transport.

Mars ship.
Credit: National Geographic TV

“2037 is the earliest the mission could feasibly depart for Mars,” the report states, “assuming a small budget increase or smoothing budgets over two time periods in the 2030s, with 2039 being a more realistic timeframe.”

Credit: Bryan Versteeg

Mandated study

The study — Evaluation of a Human Mission to Mars by 2033 — was carried out by the Institute for Defense Analyses’ Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI).

The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 mandated that NASA ask an independent organization to study a Mars human spaceflight mission to be launched in 2033, including an evaluation of technologies, schedules, estimated costs, and budget profiles for the mission to Mars and its precursor missions.

NASA requested STPI to conduct this analysis and base the study’s schedule for human spaceflight on NASA’s current and notional plans leading to a mission to Mars orbit.

The research work was done under a National Science Foundation contract.

Phobos, the larger of Mars’ two moons as seen by the High-Resolution Imaging Sciences
Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in March, 2008. The illuminated portion of the
image is some 21 km across and objects as small as some 6-meters across can be resolved. Courtesy of
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

High-level recommendations

In summary, the report’s findings have led to three high-level recommendations.

  • First, given that there is near-certainty that NASA cannot meet the 2033 goal, and 2037 and beyond is a more realistic timeline, NASA has time to consider a mission with value greater than that obtained from just orbiting Mars and returning. For example, NASA could consider making the first Mars mission a journey to one of the Martian moons, Phobos.
  • Second, regardless of what the specific mission to Mars is, the organizational challenges of managing combined developments and missions to the International Space Station (ISS), the Gateway (a small human-tended station in orbit around the Moon), the lunar surface, and Mars are significant and should be addressed. If Congress would like NASA to abide by a specific timeframe in which to reach Mars, a goal not unlike Apollo, there may be value to creating an Associate Administrator position in charge of the Mars missions, with discrete budget authority over the required Mars elements (distinct from Associate Administrator oversight of the Gateway and the ISS).
  • Lastly, from the point of view of human health risks, given the knowledge gaps, NASA may benefit from developing a unified research plan intended to prioritize its approach to fill in gaps in knowledge, especially on the combined effects of radiation, microgravity, and isolation that may be encountered on a human mission to Mars and precursor missions.

To read the full report — Evaluation of a Human Mission to Mars by 2033 – go to:

https://www.ida.org/idamedia/Corporate/Files/Publications/STPIPubs/2019/D-10510.pdf

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