If anything is going to get us to Mars next to a spacecraft that can withstand the journey (and the Red Planet’s almost complete lack of atmosphere), it’s the National Space Exploration Campaign, which is NASA’s answer to Space Policy Directive-1.
This is a response to the directive’s call “to lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities,” as NASA states on their website. The space agency plans to take us beyond this planet with robotic and human exploration missions that were once only possible in sci-fi movies. It will also seek to advance technology such as robotics and make commercial expansion in space take off.
“Overall, the Exploration Campaign focuses on a transformative approach that includes the development of technologies and systems that enable a series of human and robotic lunar missions that are extensible to Mars,” says NASA's website.
To take those groundbreaking steps on Mars, NASA will first need to transition human spaceflight in low-Earth orbit to the commercial sector. The ISS isn’t going to be turned into cosmic trash. The space station has been a platform for research that has been developing advanced tech and investigating ways to keep humans alive on a barren, rocky planet with extremely thin air (and eventually on deep space missions), and it will be gradually be turned over to commercial entities. NASA recently challenged 12 companies to figure out new concepts for using the ISS to put the U.S. at the forefront of the commercial industry in low-Earth orbit.
Flying to the moon from there will involve the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, which will orbit Earth elliptically every six days for the easiest possible access to our satellite. The Gateway will not only be used as a launchpad to the moon but also as a testing ground for new technologies and capabilities that will make Martian and deep space missions possible. Microgravity and killer radiation are just two of the brutal forces that astronauts will have to contend with in an extraterrestrial environment, which is why their effects will need to be studied in depth on the Gateway, which will also be used for assembling payloads and spacecraft, like a reusable lunar command module.
We need to take advantage of the moon if we want to get to Mars. Lunar missions will not only advance our scientific understanding of what lies beneath the moon dust, but also act as prep for much more distant missions.
Mars will only have human boot prints on it if NASA is positive astronauts will get there and back alive. Advanced life-support systems for extended spaceflight are being developed and tested as part of the Exploration Campaign. NASA is also the leading force in robotic exploration of the Red Planet, with its InSight mission landing in November to study the Martian interior and its 2020 rover designed to search for evidence of past life while testing out fuel production and other needs for human exploration and collecting samples to return to Earth. Expect a mission to Mars by the 2030s.
While we wait, at least InSight might be able to tell us for sure whether or not Mars had any ancient aliens.