Obama: NASA Will Land on Mars in the 2030s

The President revisits NASA's achievements over the past six years while reaffirming the goal of getting boots on the Martian surface in the near-future.

In a patriotic and emotional op-ed for CNN Tuesday morning, President Barack Obama reaffirmed NASA's aim to land and return astronauts on the Martian surface by the 2030s, "with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time."

To take this next giant leap into interplanetary space, Obama added, NASA will partner with private companies to make this vision a possibility.

"Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we're already well on our way," he writes. "Within the next two years, private companies will for the first time send astronauts to the International Space Station."

Since NASA's inception, the space agency has contracted private companies to provide hardware for space exploration and NASA currently contracts private space launch companies to deliver equipment and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), invigorating a new race to commercialize space.

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Now the space station is, in part, supplied by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences and these partnerships are set to continue and expand to the delivery of astronauts to the orbiting outpost. So it may not come as a surprise that NASA will seek partnerships in the private sector to make a Mars mission possible.

Six years ago, on Oct. 11, 2010, Obama signed into law a redirection in NASA's road map to Mars, skipping the moon and developing the technologies to visit an asteroid and then send a human mission to the Red Planet. And in his op-ed, Obama reflects on the achievements NASA has made in the past six years to drive forward investment in the private sector, while boosting the economy and inspiring the nation. But now, NASA aims to push humanity beyond Earth orbit.

"I'm excited to announce that we are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space," he writes. "These missions will teach us how humans can live far from Earth -- something we'll need for the long journey to Mars."

In response to the President's remarks, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that NASA is primed to test technologies that will allow astronauts to live in space for days or weeks away from Earth, rather than hours.

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"For example, in the mid-2020s, NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission will send a robotic spacecraft to a nearby asteroid to test out important exploration technologies such as solar-electric propulsion, conduct scientific and planetary defense experiments, and then return a boulder from the asteroid to an orbit around the Moon for astronauts to study," Bolden writes. The Asteroid Redirect Mission -- known as "ARM" -- will be an opportunity to prepare and refine technologies for missions to Mars and beyond.

In his statement, Bolden provided some detail on what NASA is doing now to make these aims possible, including the "NextSTEP" program that is asking private enterprises to come up with new and innovative designs for space habitats.

In addition, Bolden discussed the possibility of adding a "commercial module" to a special port on the space station in "preparation for one or more future commercial stations in Low Earth Orbit, ready to take over for the Space Station once its mission ends in the 2020s." In response to this challenge, private companies have responded "enthusiastically," he writes.

NASA continues to develop its next powerful rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule that will be used to get astronauts to asteroids and Mars, but in the background, private companies are developing their own, independent plans for getting to Mars.

Notably, in September, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced his company's plans to create an in-space infrastructure to set up a sustainable human presence on the Red Planet, ultimately getting a million people there within the next 100 years. Musk's timeline, however, is a lot shorter than NASA's, with the aim of launching the first hopeful colonists within the next decade.

Should the SpaceX plan become a reality, it will be interesting to see how NASA evolves its plans for Mars exploration. If there's already private spaceships shuttling people to and from Mars in the 2030s, why would NASA bother to launch its own rocket?

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