To the Moon and Mars

In January 2004, President George W. Bush announced the ambitious goal of putting humans on Mars. The first stage involves returning to the Moon by the year 2020 and establishing a base there. Two staffed lunar missions per year would have crews conducting long-term research on the effects of extraterrestrial living on the human body as well as training astronauts for the grueling Mars missions. NASA director Michael D. Griffin is a gung-ho supporter of the program, although he is critical of the cost, estimated at $217 billion through 2025.

With the problem-plagued space shuttle program slated to be retired in 2010, a new system is being developed. Two rockets are planned for the Moon trips: one for cargo and one for the human crew. A booster rocket using some beefed-up shuttle technology would take off with the new Earth Departure Stage and the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). The Earth Departure Stage would hurtle the CEV and a lunar lander into orbit around the Moon. The CEV would stay in orbit while the lander descended to the surface carrying four astronauts. The base would have living quarters, a power plant, and communication systems; crews would explore in vehicles akin to dune buggies and airlocks would permit moonwalks.

After chalking up a few years of lunar living experience, next stop is the Red Planet, possibly by 2030. Prior to the six-person crew landing on Mars, NASA plans to send the base’s structures on ahead and land them by remote control. The astronauts’ trip to Mars would take about six months; the team would then spend 500 days on the planet itself before another six-month journey home.

The United States isn’t the only country planning to visit Mars. The European Space Agency (ESA) has the Aurora mission to put humans on Mars, also by 2030. In July 2005, the Russian space agency announced they were looking for six volunteers to lock themselves in a mock space capsule for 15 months in preparation for a Mars mission in 2015.

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