Skip to Content
Uncategorized

Stepping Stones to Mars?

Asteroids and the moons of Mars could lay the foundations for humans to explore the surface of the red planet.
August 12, 2009

New Scientist is reporting that the Augustine Commission, chartered to make recommendations on the future of the US human spaceflight program, may suggest that NASA embark on a series of deep-space rendezvous and flyby missions before attempting to land astronauts on Mars.

The asteroid Ida is about 55 kilometers long. It is one of thousands of asteroids in the asteroid belt, a region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA

Flying to an asteroid would be a natural stepping point between an expedition to the Moon (a roughly 10-day mission) and one to the surface of Mars (a roughly 1,000-day mission). Flybys of Mars and Venus would help to further build up deep-space experience, possibly culminating in a penultimate mission to the surface of Phobos, Mars’ largest moon. These would be exciting missions that could finally move NASA’s human spaceflight program beyond low Earth orbit for the first time in nearly 40 years.

These ideas are not new–in 2000, for example, NASA published a strategic plan that focused on a similar scheme, dubbing such stepping missions “design reference points.” And the idea of conducting manned flybys of Mars prior to a landing dates back to Wernher von Braun. And this is part of the problem–the truth is that the Augustine Commission is unlikely to propose any option for going to Mars, or anywhere else, that hasn’t already been proposed, possibly several times (a monograph published by the NASA history office, titled Humans to Mars: Fifty Years of Mission Planning, 1950-2000, makes for depressing reading: in the minds of optimistic mission planners, sending astronauts to the red planet is always just a few years away–like the end of the rainbow, forever just out of reach).

This lack of originality is not in itself a drawback–what’s important is an engineering solution that works, and if that happens to be an idea dreamt up in 1965, fair enough. The question is, if these ideas couldn’t garner congressional support, or survive NASA’s internal bureaucracy, when they were first proposed, will they really make a difference now, even if wrapped in the bright packaging of a new Commission report? In 10 years time, will we still be debating when we should retire the shuttle, and how we should escape low Earth orbit for the first time in nearly 50 years?

Keep Reading

Most Popular

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot
Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot

It will soon be easy for self-driving cars to hide in plain sight. We shouldn’t let them.

If they ever hit our roads for real, other drivers need to know exactly what they are.

crypto winter concept
crypto winter concept

Crypto is weathering a bitter storm. Some still hold on for dear life.

When a cryptocurrency’s value is theoretical, what happens if people quit believing?

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.