"The Martian" offers a tantalizing — if harrowing — glimpse into what the future of space exploration for hold, but how close are we really to commencing manned missions to the red planet? NASA's Planetary Science Division Director,Dr. Jim Green, lays out what it will really take for us to get our asses to Mars.
Getting to Mars:
"What you probably aren't really aware of is we're developing a whole series of technologies, not only from the technology organization at NASA but the Science Organization and Human Exploration Organization. They each have various aspects of the journey to Mars, to be able to meet at the end and make something happen in the 2030s and 2040s," Green says. "For instance, Human Exploration is building the SLS, the space launch system, which is even more capable than the Saturn V. That will get, with the Orion capsule, the astronauts to Mars. In addition to that, from a scientific perspective, we have a whole variety of missions to Mars, and we're going to continue to do that over the next couple of decades. With those missions, we look at various areas that would support habitats and what we would do in living and working on Mars. And so we're really moving ahead in finding out everything we can about Mars that would support human exploration in addition to understanding Mars as a terrestrial planet.
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"And then in the technology area they're building the ion engines. They're building these 25 kilowatt ion engines that will haul tens of tons of material back and forth to Mars. And a lot of that technology is being built right now but you're just not aware of it. But that's where we're going. We're going to Mars. We're at the stage where Mars actually is our next step."
But these things take time:
"History repeats itself in many ways, and there was a hiatus between the time we stood down on the Saturn Vs and actually when we got the shuttle going," Green explains. "And it's because NASA has a certain budget and it has a certain phasing that has to go on, and you have to be able to retire something to be able to free up the additional money to be able to invest in and build and complete the next set of things that you're doing, and that's true with SLS."
But we still love the moon, don't worry:
"The moon, as an important part of our solar system and our earth, is really a staging ground. It's an area where we're going to approve a variety of technologies before we go to Mars," Green says. "It will probably be an area where we're going to go back and forth to Mars and we'll have a small way station, if you will, at the moon. So the moon will still play a very important part of our steps. So it's not like we're going to ignore it."
Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter: @nedrick