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Mars Base Camp concept
A recent Lockheed Martin concept for a human Mars mission. Can setting a specific date, like 2033, help create the urgency needed for the mission to happen? (credit: Lockheed Martin)

Martian deadlines

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Attendees of the recent Humans to Mars Summit in Washington got the usual assortment of materials in their registration packet: conference information, a copy of an annual report on Mars exploration efforts by conference organizer Explore Mars, and miscellaneous documents.

“It will give us a goal and a point to work towards. And if you have that, things start moving,” Perlmutter said. “Until then, it’s just kind of amorphous.”

There was also, though, a bumper sticker tucked away in the folder. It featured an image of Mars and the words “2033: We Can Do This.” It’s familiar to those who follow space policy: Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), a member of the House Science Committee, frequently shows it off at committee hearings to make his point that the nation needs to set a firm, and near-term, deadline for sending humans to Mars.

Perlmutter was one of the first speakers at the three-day conference, appearing in an on-stage interview with Scott Hubbard, NASA’s former “Mars czar.” As the event started, Perlmutter and Hubbard called for some audience participation: they asked attendees, spread out through the oversized auditorium, to move to the center and hold up those 2033 Mars bumper stickers for a group photo.

Mars advocates were at least organized enough to carry out that group photo. But, would they rally behind a 2033 date for going to Mars? After everyone returned to their seats, Perlmutter made his case for setting that date, beyond the fact that it is a particularly favorable launch window for doing so.

“We have in our DNA a desire to explore, to know what’s on the other side of that hill,” he said. “It’s time to get going.”

NASA officials he’s talked with, he said, concluded that a human mission to Mars, in one form or another, was feasible in 2033. “It will give us a goal and a point to work towards. And if you have that, things start moving,” he said. “When you do that folks start having a similar vision. Until then, it’s just kind of amorphous.”

For now, US space policy lacks a specific date, be it 2033 or something else. Space Policy Directive One, signed by President Trump in December, directs NASA to return humans to the Moon as a step towards going to Mars. However, the policy lacks any dates for either the return to the Moon or the first mission to Mars.

“My personal feeling is that there’s going to be a time when we have to put some kind of target date down. I don’t think that time is right now,” said Zurbuchen.

The audience at the conference was willing to support a 2033 deadline enough to rally for a photo op, but there was no clear consensus that 2033 should be the date for a human Mars mission (keeping in mind SpaceX has talked about sending humans to Mars as soon as 2024, a date company CEO Elon Musk has acknowledged as “aspirational”), or even if there should be a deadline at all.

The panel at the conference that followed Perlmutter tackled the question of a 2033 goal—or any other date—for a Mars mission. (Disclosure: the panel was moderated by the author.) No one seemed willing to strongly endorse the 2033 deadline espoused by the congressman.

“I don’t like getting locked into dates,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. Companies in the commercial space industry, he acknowledged, have made promises of dates for new launch vehicles, only to see those dates slip. He called for “sound policies and funding” to enable human Mars missions, “whether it’s 2033 or 2027 or 2040.”

“My personal feeling is that there’s going to be a time when we have to put some kind of target date down. I don’t think that time is right now,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science.

“The simple reason for that is that it is the most important challenge we have to bring humanity out of low Earth orbit into deep space,” he explained. That requires more thinking about how to do it, in cooperation with international and commercial partners. “My hope is that in two to three, perhaps four years, we’ll know what the plan can really be. There’s a number of forks in the road. We just really don’t know.”

“It will be needed,” he said of an ultimate date to serve as a goal for human Mars missions. “I don’t think we’re there.”

“Yes, we need a target date. I’m waffling whether it’s now or later,” said Peter McGrath, director of business development for Boeing’s space exploration division. “I would argue that we wouldn’t have gotten to the Moon if Kennedy didn’t stand up and say we’re going to get to the Moon in this decade. It drives a sense of urgency and focus.”

“The biggest concern is that if you don’t put something out there, you don’t have focus on what you define in terms of the plan,” he added. “If you make it so open-ended, we may never get beyond the Moon.

“I can tell you right now from all the analysis I’ve done on numerous Mars architectures, I’ve never seen one reach $1 trillion,” said Radcliffe.

McGrath, though, saw downsides to a date as well, similar to Stallmer. “We put these dates out there, and they’re targets. They are not firm commitments,” he said. “And they will move, because funding is never exactly the way it’s projected, administrations change, things happen.”

There are plenty of options, from a technical standpoint, for dates. A panel session at the conference the next day discussed several different mission architectures. One, discussed by Hoppy Price of JPL, could get humans to Mars orbit—but not the surface—in 2033. Landing missions would follow in 2037 and 2041, followed by longer missions later in the 2040s.

Two other alternatives were more ambitious in scope, but not in schedule. One would set up a “Mars surface field station” with permanent infrastructure that could be visited by successive missions. The other would establish a permanent settlement. The field station, though, would not be ready until some time in the 2040s, and the permanent base even later in the 2040s.

Budgets, of course, are always an issue. Price said his architecture could fit into NASA’s current budget for the International Space Station, adjusted for inflation. “The total cost is no more than what the space station was for 20 years,” he said.

Another panel downplayed the expense of a human Mars mission, such as claims such an effort would cost $1 trillion. “I can tell you right now from all the analysis I’ve done on numerous Mars architectures, I’ve never seen one reach $1 trillion,” said Torrey Radcliffe of the Aerospace Corporation.

He added, though, that wasn’t the right question. Instead, he said, the right question was the “affordability” of any Mars architecture: “whether or not we can do it under what we believe is an appropriate budget.” He said he was pleased by recent growth of NASA’s human spaceflight budget at twice the rate of inflation, a growth needed to support exploration plans. “The message I get out of that is that Congress, and the will of the people, are willing to support exploration initiatives and a pathway to Mars.”

But, for now, that pathway is unclear, with no clear plan to get humans to Mars, and no deadline for doing so. In their on-stage interview, Hubbard sought some advice of Perlmutter: “What can the Mars community, citizenry, working with their representatives, do to advance this trip to Mars?”

Perlmutter’s response: “Well, I mean, hold conferences like this.”

There are, of course, no shortage of conferences that discuss Mars exploration, from Humans to Mars to this week’s International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles. And if all it took to advance human Mars exploration was a combination of conferences and reports, there would likely be a thriving human outpost there today.

The urgency of human Mars exploration has always been lacking, despite the vast array of plans for such missions developed over decades. Would setting a specific year, like 2033, as a goal really change that?

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