The United States and NASA can lead the way in sending human explorers to Mars by the 2030s, but it's going to take a sustained commitment to the incremental steps that will get them there.
A working group of scientists, scholars, astronauts, aerospace industry veterans, and other experts have published the findings of a workshop at George Washington University in a report titled, "Affording Human Exploration of Mars." Participants in the workshop, hosted by Explore Mars Inc. and the American Astronautical Society, explored such ideas as using the International Space Station as a launching platform for more complex Mars missions, "stepping stone" missions using robotic probes to pave the way for manned missions, possible international and private sector partnerships to advance the goal of exploring Mars, and more.
The experts also tried to come up with "a usable definition of affordability and sustainability" in the decades-long task of developing and paying for the necessary capabilities for sending humans to Mars. That endeavour would "require a policy and appropriate budget commitment over multiple US congressional and presidential elections," the workshop participants concluded.
The current NASA budget wouldn't do the trick, advised the group of about 60 experts from more than 30 government, industry, academic, and other organisations, Space.com noted in its summation of the report. Instead, a NASA-led manned mission to Mars would only be feasible "if the space agency's budget is restored to pre-sequestration levels," the site said.
Still, NASA's current proposed funding of $17.7 billion (£10.7 billion) for 2013, down about $60 million (£36.5 million) from the previous year, is "not far off from what we need" to viably begin pursuing manned missions to Mars, Explore Mars executive director Chris Carberry told Space.com.
"Sending humans to Mars is far less an issue of cost than it is of commitment," the expert group wrote in the concluding notes to its report, an idea Carberry elaborated on in talking to the site.
"To be able to make it feasible and affordable, you need a sustainable budget. You need a budget that is consistent, that you can predict from year to year, and that doesn't get cancelled in the next administration," he told Space.com.
The working group said the goal of landing crews on Mars by the mid-2030s would require extensive study of past successful space programs like the ISS. NASA would and should lead the way according to the group, but cooperation with the Department of Defense, the private spaceflight industry, and international space agencies—the "stakeholders" in advancing human spaceflight—would also be crucial.
The group also laid out the case for why sending humans to the Red Planet and beyond is "critical to national prosperity, security, scientific and technological progress, and leadership, as well as a demonstration of cultural leadership."
Images courtesy of: Nexus and Mars Society