We have a lot to learn before we actually try to shoot a human being off to the Red Planet, and NASA believes some new missions to cislunar space could be just the thing to work out some technology kinks in the mid-2020s.
NASA is developing a series of missions to cislunar space (basically the area between the moon and Earth, in orbit around the moon) that will serve as a “Proving Ground” for eventual manned missions to Mars. Though still in the early stages, the missions could potentially involve commercial (i.e. SpaceX) partners, as well as other countries. The goal is to try out everything from habitation modules to other tech that could come into play for a long-term mission.
"The concepts that we're working on today call for us to begin in the early '20s with a set of missions involving Orion to get some early experience in cislunar space, leading to a series of longer missions," said Skip Hatfield, manager of the Development Projects Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center, during a session of the Humans to Mars Summit here May 6.
Not surprisingly, the biggest part of this proposal will focus on habitation tech. Since, you know, we’ll need somewhere to live that isn’t in the deadly vacuum of space. NASA is considering two approaches at the moment, the first of which would launch modules in several separate pieces, essentially piggybacking on already scheduled missions. The other option, which would likely be a faster one, is to have approximately two dedicated launches for habitation and send it all up in two big bunches.
As we continue to wait for NASA to make a strong move toward a manned Mars mission, this could be the closest thing toward a big step. Aside from the International Space Station, it’s been a long time since we've actually sent people into space and tried out new travel and exploration technology. Cislunar missions could play a crucial role in a future Mars expedition, and we can’t wait to have a whole new set of humans flying around up there.