After the Space Policy Directive really blasted off at the end of last year, the agency plans to make three momentous leaps off Earth within the next several decades. Mars isn’t the only destination. We need to get boots on the moon again and reimagine the space industry. The NASA Exploration Campaign has a laser focus on continuing human presence in low Earth orbit, establishing an outpost in lunar orbit and exploring the moon’s surface, and from there flying to the rusty horizons of the Red Planet.
NASA’s objective is 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 the directive states. This is going to do more than just turn us into aliens.
Low Earth orbit objectives include transitioning out of the ISS and merging the public and private sector so commercial operations can support both NASA and the emerging market for spaceflight and other off-Earth products and services (think asteroid mining and satellites that are entirely 3D-printed in space). ISS partnerships will be expanded before it finally goes defunct in 2025, and partnering with new nations will give more astronauts a chance to get on board the floating space station.
Next stop: our satellite. The first uncrewed SLS/Orion flight should be zooming to the moon sometime in 2020, with a crewed flight ready for takeoff in 2023. Making the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway a reality will allow astronauts from Earth to touch down and eventually use it as a launchpad to fly to and from Mars. It will also be an anti-gravity science lab for examining samples of regolith and moon dust as well as analyzing the usefulness of lunar resources, plus a tech hub for testing out robots that will bring space exploration to the next level.
Mars won’t be too far away after that. It will still be almost 40 million miles from Earth, but much more approachable for robots and eventually humans after the Mars 2020 rover scours the arid surface for samples worth putting under a proverbial microscope and possible signs of long-extinct life. Mars 2020 will be followed by a robotic mission on a round trip to Mars and back from the lunar gateway. NASA will also strengthen partnerships and investments that will eventually get humans to the Red Planet and even deeper into space.
While this all sounds like the type of futuristic awesomeness you could only experience in a movie theater not that long ago, let’s be sure we can do things like perform emergency surgery in space before we start thinking about Mars.