On March 21st, President Donald Trump signed a new law that mandates NASA send people to Mars by 2033. A week later, NASA responded with a five-phase plan that will get us safely to the Red Planet. The plan doesn’t include the most glamorous of conditions for our astronauts, but it will get them there and back in one piece.
Of the five-phase plan, we’re currently in Phase 0. This includes conducting tests at the International Space Station (ISS) and continuing NASA’s partnership with private space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin.
Phase I will begin in 2018 and continue until 2025, during which NASA will launch and test six SLS rockets. These SLS rockets are 321-foot tall behemoths that are meant to rival the Saturn V rockets that sent astronauts to the moon, and will be the largest ever built. Four of these SLS rockets will be responsible for delivering components to the Deep Space Gateway (DSG), which is a new space station that will be built near the moon. The space station will act as a service station for astronauts en route to Mars, and help facilitate future lunar and deep space missions. As stated by NASA Associate Administrator William H. Gerstenmaier, “the gateway could move to support robotic or partner missions to the surface of the Moon, or to a high lunar orbit to support missions departing from the gateway to other destinations in the Solar System.”
Phase II will then launch a new Deep Space Transport (DST) tube towards the lunar station in 2027. Then, in either 2028 or 2029, four astronauts will spend 400 days locked in the tube as they orbit the Moon. This will allow them to make sure the DST works properly, and that there aren’t any critical flaws.
If the DST proves to be free of problems, Phase III will begin in 2030. Another SLS flight will resupply the ship with fuel and supplies, and yet another will deliver four fresh astronauts to the tube. These astronauts will be the first to visit Mars. A two-to-three year flight will then commence, which will most likely take them around Venus in a slingshot trajectory and then off to Mars for a short stay in orbit.
Phase IV would happen post-2033, but it is fairly unclear at this point. As outlined in documents provided by Gerstenmaier, it could include things such as development and robotic preparatory missions, the delivery of habitats and supplies to the surface of Mars, and an eventual human landing mission.
Whether NASA can pull off this ambitious plan is in doubt though, as congress has capped their budget in recent decades. During the Apollo moon missions, NASA was allocated 4 percent of the US budget. Today, they sit at only half a percent.