How soon will we get to Mars?

NASA says we're closer than ever to sending a manned mission to the red planet. 

European Space Agency/Reuters
This hand out image taken from the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft shows the Martian north polar ice cap with layers of water, ice and dust for the first time in perspective view.

Fiction and reality are intertwining, as humanity edges closer to launching a manned mission to Mars.

Before the International Space Station crew enjoyed their advanced screening of "The Martian," a film about an astronaut stranded on Mars, the story’s novelist Andy Weir attended a NASA event in which administrator Charles Bolden said we are now closer than ever to setting foot on the Red Planet.

"We are farther down the path to sending humans to Mars than at any point in NASA's history," Bolden said at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Thursday. "We have a lot of work to do to get humans to Mars, but we'll get there."

At the Thursday event, the space agency’s personnel discussed details of the Mars mission, including the development of the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System megarocket, the most powerful launch vehicle to date. The two are will fly together as part of an unmanned test flight in 2018.

Some preliminary work will be conducted by NASA’s next Mars Rover, to be launched in 2020. The rover will carry the Mars Oxygen ISRU experiment, or MOXIE, which turns carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into breathable oxygen and carbon monoxide. in addition to allowing humans on Mars to breathe, the oxygen could also be used as fuel for the flight home.

“We’re going to make oxygen on another planet – the first time ever to make oxygen on another planet,” said NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman. "These experiments – they’re real, they’re here."

NASA projects that humans will arrive on Mars sometime in the 2030s. The journey would involve more than a dozen major components, beginning in low-Earth orbit in the International Space Station, where astronauts recently grew and ate lettuce as part of an experiment to better understand the production of food crops away from Earth. The space station allows for a better understanding of how the human body changes in space and what health risks for which to prepare.

The next step is deep space, where NASA plans to send a solar-electric powered robotic spacecraft to capture a near-Earth asteroid. Then, the asteroid will be taken to the Lunar Distant Retrograde Orbit, a stable orbit at an altitude about a fifth of the distance between the Earth and the moon. This portion of the journey is called the Asteroid Redirect Mission and will help NASA test new systems and capabilities, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, a project involving high-power technologies designed to support a variety of spaceflight activities.

There’s even a possibility that a precursor mission will be made to Mars’s moon, Phobos. The first human flight to Mars might land there initially to prime future crews in plummeting into the planet's gravity well.

Regardless of the technical objectives ahead, the prospect of going to Mars has been etched into popular and political culture. According to a 2013 poll commissioned by Boeing and the nonprofit Explore Mars, 75 percent of Americans want to double NASA’s budget so humans can get to the Red Planet. For NASA to meet the goal of its proposed mission, it says Congress would need to approve President Obama’s proposed budget of $18.5 billion for the 2016 fiscal year — a $500 million increase from 2015.

The journey to Mars won’t be like the space race of the mid-20th century, but currently there are several private and public entities that have Mars expeditions in mind. SpaceX, for instance, believes it could send people to Mars by 2026.

Whatever the case may be in 15 years, the future has never been so near.

"[Putting] boots on Mars is possibly the most exciting thing humans will ever do," Bolden says. "I have no doubt that we can accomplish what we have set our minds to do."

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