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Late morning, red skies over Mars, and the first human interloper emerges from her landing craft to review the dusty expanse.

Losing robots is dramatically less costly—both existentially and financially—than losing humans, hence the push to design robots here on Earth capable of performing in harsh environments considered to pose an unsatisfactory risk to humans.

Advocates of a Martian human spaceflight goal—such as Elon Musk, Explore Mars Inc, and The Mars Society—are pushing for a human presence on the Red Planet by the 2030s, arguably underestimating the difficulty of achieving such a horizon in just two decades, and offering little to no justification for colonization other than the vague hero myth of manifest destiny.

At the very least, if we’re to send our covered wagons rolling and ruining across a new celestial frontier, should we not first qualify why the $1010 it’d likely cost wouldn’t be better spent on further robotics-lead research missions?

NASA’s primarily interested in understanding how future missions to Mars might use robot technology to generate resources like water and oxygen, create usable fuel for spacecraft, conduct in-space and extraterrestrial manufacturing and construction, and other operations relevant to making a future Martian colony work. It’s clear NASA see the moon as a mere technological proving ground, a springboard to Mars.

Taking the time and resources to first establish a permanent moon base might push back the timeline for manned Mars missions, but offers a multitude of advantages in the long run: it’s a cheaper, safer, more achievable goal, closer to home, that can potentially offer a blueprint to how human-robot interaction might evolve outside of Earth’s protective shield.

can empathise with the visceral, reflexive response I provoke in fellow enthusiasts—akin to chewing on sour cud—when I allude to the notion that humans shouldn’t necessarily emigrate to a dead and deadly desert planet just yet.

Artemis program

Artemis would be the first step towards the long-term goal of establishing a sustainable presence on the Moon, laying the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy, and eventually sending humans to Mars.

In 2017, the lunar campaign was authorized by Space Policy Directive 1, utilizing various ongoing spacecraft programs such as Orion, the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway space station, Commercial Lunar Payload Services, and an undeveloped crewed lander.

On 15 April 2010, President Obama spoke at the Kennedy Space Center, announcing the administration's plans for NASA and cancelling the non-Orion elements of Constellation on the premise that the plan had become unviable.[33] He instead promised $6 billion in additional funding and called for development of a new heavy lift rocket program to be ready for construction by 2015 with crewed missions to Mars orbit by the mid-2030s.[34]

The Trump administration's first budget request kept Obama-era human spaceflight programs in place: Commercial Crew Development, the Space Launch System, and the Orion crew capsule for deep space missions, while reducing Earth science research and calling for the elimination of NASA's education office.[5]

On 11 December 2017, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, a change in national space policy that provides for a U.S.-led, integrated program with private sector partners for a human return to the Moon, followed by missions to Mars and beyond.

The policy calls for the NASA administrator to 'lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.'

The effort intends to more effectively organize government, private industry, and international efforts toward returning humans on the Moon and laying the foundation of eventual human exploration of Mars.[2]

Implementation of the Artemis program will require of additional programs, projects, and commercial launchers to support the construction of the Lunar Gateway, launch resupply missions to the station, and deploy numerous robotic spacecraft and instruments to the lunar surface.[10]

In March 2018, NASA established the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program with the aim of sending small robotic landers and rovers mostly to the lunar south pole region as a precursor to and in support of crewed missions.[11][12][13]

The Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway (LOP-G) is a future space station in lunar orbit intended to serve as a solar-powered communications hub, science laboratory, short-term habitation module, and holding area for rovers and other robots.[36]

As of 2018, work on crewed landers was intended to be supported under a new budget line called 'Advanced Cislunar and Surface Capabilities' included in the fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, which seeks $116.5 million for the program.

In May 2019 NASA announced 11 contracts worth $45.5 million in total for studies on transfer vehicles, descent elements, descent element prototypes, refueling element studies and prototypes.[51]

One of the requirements is that selected companies will have to contribute at least 20% of the total cost of the project 'to reduce costs to taxpayers and encourage early private investments in the lunar economy.'[52]

The rovers would land on the first and fourth lander missions, collecting samples and loading them on the ascent module, then traversing the hundreds of kilometers between landing sites on the lunar surface to rendezvous and load the next lander.[55]

The aim of the project is the development by ESA of a reusable lunar ascent engine, four of which could be clustered to power a reusable crewed or robotic lander in the future, alongside the development of Gateway telecommunication command and control technology.

ESA envisages that HERACLES could be approved in 2019, allowing a sample-return on the fourth or fifth Orion flight in the 2026-2030 timeframe, generating an early scientific return for the station and robotic surveying of the conditions that will be encountered at future crewed landing sites several years in advance.

A stripped down version of the Orion spacecraft was launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, and its reaction control system was tested in two orbits around Earth, reaching an apogee of 5,800 kilometers (3,600 mi) before making a high-energy reentry at 32,000 kilometers per hour (20,000 mph).[61][62]

The crewed Artemis 4 through 7 would launch yearly between 2025 and 2028, testing in situ resource utilization and nuclear power on the lunar surface with a partially reusable lander.

Future of Spaceflight

Test launch video from inside the cabin of Blue Origin’s New Shepard shows off breathtaking views of our planet and a relatively calm journey for its first passenger, a test dummy cleverly dubbed “Mannequin Skywalker.” The New Shepard is expected to have its first manned launch later this year.

SpaceX Mars transportation infrastructure

The design includes fully reusable launch vehicles, human-rated spacecraft, on-orbit propellant tankers, rapid-turnaround launch/landing mounts, and local production of rocket fuel on Mars via in situ resource utilization (ISRU).

SpaceX intends to concentrate its resources on the transportation part of the Mars colonization project, including the design of a propellant plant based on the Sabatier process that will be deployed on Mars to synthesize methane and liquid oxygen as rocket propellants from the local supply of atmospheric carbon dioxide and ground-accessible water ice.[4]

In October 2012, Musk articulated a high-level plan to build a second reusable rocket system with capabilities substantially beyond the Falcon 9/Falcon Heavy launch vehicles on which SpaceX had by then spent several billion US dollars.[15]

In August 2014, media sources speculated that the initial flight test of the Raptor-driven super-heavy launch vehicle could occur as early as 2020, in order to fully test the engines under orbital spaceflight conditions;

On September 27, 2016, at the 67th annual meeting of the International Astronautical Congress, Musk unveiled substantial details of the design for the transport vehicles—including size, construction material, number and type of engines, thrust, cargo and passenger payload capabilities, on-orbit propellant-tanker refills, representative transit times, etc.—as well as a few details of portions of the Mars-side and Earth-side infrastructure that SpaceX intends to build to support the flight vehicles.

In addition, Musk championed a larger systemic vision, a vision for a bottom-up emergent order of other interested parties—whether companies, individuals, or governments—to utilize the new and radically lower-cost transport infrastructure to build up a sustainable human civilization on Mars, potentially, on numerous other locations around the Solar System, by innovating and meeting the demand that such a growing venture would occasion.[5][6]

A key driver of the new architecture is to make the new system useful for substantial Earth-orbit and cislunar launches so that the new system might pay for itself, in part, through economic spaceflight activities in the near-Earth space zone.[28][29]

The Super Heavy is designed to fulfill the Mars transportation goals while also launching satellites, servicing the ISS, flying humans and cargo to the Moon, and enabling ballistic transport of passengers on Earth as a substitute to long-haul airline flights.[30]

SpaceX's Mars objectives, and the specific mission architectures and launch vehicle designs that might be able to participate in parts of that architecture, have varied over the years, and only partial information has been publicly released.

The SpaceX Mars architecture, first detailed publicly in 2016, consists of a combination of several elements that are key—according to Musk—to making long-duration beyond Earth orbit (BEO) spaceflights possible by reducing the cost per ton delivered to Mars:[33][34][35]

SpaceX has articulated that a completely new, fully reusable, super heavy-lift launch vehicle is needed, and is developing designs that consist of a reusable booster stage and a reusable integrated second-stage/long-duration-spacecraft.

the first stage, or booster, of the SpaceX next-generation launch vehicle is 63 meters (207 ft) long and 9 m (30 ft) in diameter and expected to have a gross liftoff mass of 3,065,000 kg (6,757,000 lb)[40]

In 2024, the mission concept would have four more Starships follow: two robotic cargo flights, and two crewed flights will be launched to set up the propellant production plant, deploy the solar park and landing pads, and assemble greenhouses.[52]

For a sustainable base, it is proposed that the landing zone be located at less than 40° latitude for best solar power production, relatively warm temperature, and critically: it must be near a massive sub-surface water ice deposit.[52]

The overall unit conversion rate expected, based on a 2011 prototype test operation, is one metric ton of O2/CH4 propellant per 17 megawatt-hours energy input from solar power.[53]

Alternatively, extrapolating from recent NASA research into fission reactors for deep space missions, it is estimated that sufficient fission-reactor based electric power infrastructure might mass between 210 and 216 tonnes, requiring at least two BFRs for transport.

As of September 2017, SpaceX stated that their next-generation launch vehicle, Super Heavy (formerly BFR), will be used to replace the existing SpaceX launch vehicles—Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy—as well as the Dragon spacecraft, and that is the launch vehicle that will be used to support the SpaceX Mars space transport architecture.[38]

When their earlier concept, then-named 'Mars Colonial Transporter,' was initially discussed in March 2014, no launch site had yet been selected for the super-heavy lift rocket and SpaceX indicated at the time that their leased facility at historic Launch Pad 39A would not be large enough to accommodate the vehicle as it was understood conceptually in 2014, and that therefore a new site would need to be built in order to launch the >10-meter diameter rocket.[59]

As envisioned in 2016, the first crewed Mars missions might be expected to have approximately 12 people, with the primary goal to 'build out and troubleshoot the propellant plant and Mars Base Alpha power system' as well as a 'rudimentary base.'

Equipment that would accompany the early groups would include 'machines to produce fertilizer, methane and oxygen from Mars' atmospheric nitrogen and carbon dioxide and the planet's subsurface water ice' as well as construction materials to build transparent domes for crop growth.[10]

The early concepts for 'green living space' habitats include glass panes with a carbon-fiber-frame geodesic domes, and 'a lot of miner/tunneling droids [for building] out a huge amount of pressurized space for industrial operations.'

As of 2016 when publicly discussed, SpaceX the company is concentrating its resources on the transportation part of the overall Mars architecture project as well as an autonomous propellant plant that could be deployed on Mars to produce methane and oxygen rocket propellants from local resources.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is championing a much larger set of long-term Mars settlement objectives, ones that take advantage of these lower transport costs to go far beyond what the SpaceX company will build and that will ultimately involve many more economic actors—whether individual, company, or government—to build out the settlement over many decades.[5][6]

In addition to explicit SpaceX plans and concepts for a transportation system and early missions, Musk has personally been a very public exponent of a large systemic vision for building a sustainable human presence on Mars over the very long term, a vision well beyond what his company or he personally can effect.

The growth of such a system over decades cannot be planned in every detail, but is rather a complex adaptive system that will come about only as others make their own independent choices as to how they might, or might not, connect with the broader 'system' of an incipient (and later, growing) Mars settlement.

Musk sees the new and radically lower-cost transport infrastructure facilitating the buildup of a bottom-up economic order of other interested parties—whether companies, individuals, or governments—who will innovate and supply the demand that such a growing venture would occasion.[5][6]

The overview presentation on the Mars architecture given by Musk in September 2016 included concept slides outlining missions to the Saturnian moon Enceladus, the Jovian moon Europa, Kuiper belt objects, a fuel depot on Pluto and even the uses to take payloads to the Oort Cloud.[37]

The early missions are planned to collect essential data to refine the design, and better select landing locations based on the availability of extraterrestrial resources such as water and building materials.[25]

Musk announced additional capabilities for the BFR, including Earth missions that could shuttle people across the planet in under an hour (most flights would be less than half an hour), Lunar missions, as well as Mars missions, that would aim to land the first humans on the planet by 2024.[1]

Mars Exploration

In 1971 the Soviet space program scored a major success by putting the first spacecraft into Martian orbit and even touching a lander vehicle down on its surface.