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Casey DreierApril 2, 2015

A New Path to Mars?

A new workshop suggests humans to the Mars system might be affordable after all

The Planetary Society has spent a lot of time and energy on advocating for NASA’s robotic program over the past few years. Not only was it a strategic way to focus our efforts, but it was a program that truly needed a public advocate. And we’ve seen some real dividends from this decision in the form of the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been added to the robotic planetary program over the past three years and the addition of two major planetary science missions: Mars 2020 and the Jupiter-Europa orbiter.

But, historically, The Planetary Society is more than just robotic planetary exploration. Go back to nearly any point in our history, and you see an active role in promoting a vigorous, scientific program of human planetary exploration. And specifically, the human exploration of the planet Mars.

Hubble's view of Mars on October 19, 2014 (color)

NASA / STSci / Ted Stryk

Hubble's view of Mars on October 19, 2014 (color)
Ted Stryk created this rough RGB-processed version of a Hubble Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) image of Mars taken on October 19, 2014, during the flyby of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring.

So I’m pleased to announce that we’re starting a new initiative within our Advocacy program focused on getting humans to Mars. We will pursue a two-pronged approach to our advocacy and policy: promoting a sustainable, executable, and affordable pathway for humans to Mars, as well as maintaining our existing focus on a vigorous, balanced, exciting program of robotic solar system exploration. Both efforts share the same core vision of promoting space science and exploration, expressed in different ways.

It’s very exciting.

As our starting point for our new advocacy initiative, we convened a workshop with diverse group of representatives from the aerospace industry, scientific community, policy world, and NASA itself.

We called it “Humans Orbiting Mars,” which, as you might guess, explored the idea of taking an orbit-first approach to an extended program of human exploration of the red planet. This isn’t orbit-only, but looking at the idea of intermediate steps within a long-term program as a way to constrain the cost. The questions we were exploring during the event: is it possible that this approach is affordable within a plausible NASA budget for the next 15 years (i.e. 2% - 3% growth to match inflation)? Would it be valuable scientifically? Would people find it engaging?

We believe we have initial answers to these (yes, yes, and yes), but it’s just the start.

This workshop itself was chaired by two highly respected individuals in the space community: Dr. Scott Hubbard, former Director of NASA’s Ames Research Center and the first Mars Czar at NASA who proposed the hugely successful “follow the water” strategy, and Dr. John Logsdon, the founder and first Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. Of course, Bill Nye, our CEO, and Dr. Jim Bell, our President, helped lead key parts of the workshop.

Ultimately, we were able to achieve a group consensus that yes, an orbit-first approach (which includes an opportunity to land/dock with the martian moons) is viable both politically and monetarily.

More details of this are in our press statement, which includes links to the workshop program, and the key consensus points reached by the end of the workshop. I recommend reading this, particularly the consensus points.

I also recommend browsing through our workshop program (linked to at the press statement) which shows the amazing lineup of speakers and panelists we had, as well as the general topics we talked about. (The workshop itself operated under Chatham House Rules: everyone is free to discuss the content of the workshop, but without attribution to the individuals without explicit approval—a rule crucial for an environment of open, engaging, and exploratory thought).

Over the next few months, we will work to publish as much of the content presented at the workshop as we can. And later this year, we will release a report based on the discussions and feedback from this meeting formalizing our thoughts and ideas on this path forward.

But that’s just the start. We’re not doing this to drop off a report and then walk away—this is the beginning of a long process of engagement on the human spaceflight question. And that process will include a substantial level of outreach and feedback from the most important group: the members of The Planetary Society. Members will be hearing a lot more from me later in the year.

I feel that we are at a truly exciting time. I think you may feel this, too. There’s something in the air. The vast potential presented to us by a new generation of private and public launch systems and crew vehicles, new technology, new space-faring countries and potential international partners, and a growing public consensus that NASA and others should explore deep space. There are challenges, absolutely. But we should begin to face them head on.

We, as members of The Planetary Society, should take this opportunity to guide and nurture these new opportunities to achieve the full potential we see before us. It’s an exciting time.

There is much, much more to come. In the meantime, if you have questions or thoughts about Mars, email me at casey.dreier@planetary.org or leave me a comment below.

Read more: Space Policy, Future Mission Concepts, events and announcements, human spaceflight, Planetary Society Political Advocacy, Mars

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Casey Dreier

Director of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
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