The Trump administration’s new push to return humans to the Moon will not come at the expense of efforts to send American astronauts to Mars, according to NASA's new leader.
While NASA recently released a draft solicitation seeking industry help in sending payloads to the Moon, that step should not be interpreted as a sign that the agency is deemphasizing Mars, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said May 9 at the Humans to Mars Summit.
“If some of you are concerned that our focus in the coming years is the Moon, don’t be,” he told the audience. “The president’s vision has emphasized that our exploration campaign will establish American leadership in the human exploration of Mars. We are doing both the Moon and Mars in tandem, and the missions are supportive of each other.”
Bridenstine said that returning to the Moon will prove out advanced technologies needed to go to Mars as well, including precision-landing systems, methane-fueled engines, orbital and surface habitation, surface mobility and long-duration life support.
The administration announced in October that it intends to send astronauts to the Moon to lay groundwork for manned missions to Mars and other deep-space destinations (Defense Daily, Oct. 5, 2017). NASA aims to dispatch humans to the Moon by the late 2020s and to Mars in the 2030s.
Bridenstine told the summit that NASA continues to pursue Mars-focused activities that will support manned missions to the Red Planet. For example, he noted that InSight, a recently launched Mars lander, is designed to provide a better understanding of the Red Planet by studying its seismic activity, wobbles and interior heat flows.
“InSight is going to help us better understand the risks to humans, so that when we go, we’ll be better informed and better prepared,” he said.
InSight, which Lockheed Martin [LMT] Space built for NASA, lifted off on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket May 5 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It is expected to reach Mars in late November.
NASA's Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled for a July 2020 launch, will also support sending humans to Mars. It will include the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), “a critical human-mission precursor payload” that “will demonstrate for the first time our ability to process oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere," Bridenstine said.
Mars 2020, which will lift off on an Atlas 5 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, will also include hardware to prepare for an eventual Mars sample-return mission. Returning Martian samples to Earth will aid human exploration of the Red Planet, Bridenstine said.
Bridenstine, a former congressman, became NASA administrator in late April, replacing acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot (Defense Daily, April 23).