Humans Orbiting Mars - A Practicable First Step?

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'Humans Orbiting Mars' Workshop Report Released

Would you go all the way to Mars just to circle around the planet before returning home?

The Planetary Society thinks we should.

The Planetary Society is  the world’s largest citizen-based space advocacy organization in the world. Last spring, they held a workshop in Washington, DC to explore how NASA could structure a program of human exploration of Mars that is sustainable, affordable, and executable.

This last week, they released a report on that workshop titled “Humans Orbiting Mars: A Critical Step Toward the Red Planet”. 

The workshop, chaired by Professor Scott Hubbard of Stanford University and Professor Emeritus John Logsdon of George Washington University and consisting of leading scientists and space thought leaders looked at an exploration architecture  first developed by a study group at JPL - and now incorporated into NASA's Journey to Mars plans.

Humans Orbiting Mars Exploration Timeline

Timeline for Mars Exploration Program. (Source: Hoppy Price, John Baker, and Firouz Naderi. “Humans to Mars: Thoughts Toward an Executable Program – Fitting Together Puzzle Pieces and Building Blocks.” Presented at the Humans Orbiting Mars Workshop, Washington, DC, March 31, 2015)

Related: Journey to Mars​

The idea?  Orbit Mars first - before sending any crewed missions​ to the surface.

Orbit first

The JPL study group’s proposal demonstrated that humans orbiting Mars as the first step to sending humans to Mars is not only feasible, but is financially more preferable.  

Their reasoning is that an orbital mission, particularly one that lands on Phobos, would provide ample opportunity to not only advance our scientific understanding of Mars and its moons, but would also test technological capabilities while at the same time engaging the public with unprecedented adventure.

After all, orbiting Mars would mean humans would travel farther, stay longer, and assume more risk than at any other point in NASA’s history.

But is it practicable? Would taxpayers actually welcome a mission that goes 99% of the way to Mars but not actually land?

The workshop report believes they would. 

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Proof of Concept

​The architecture presented by the JPL study team is by no means the only way to get humans to Mars --  nor was it meant to be.  In reality, it represents a “proof of concept” -- a possibility  that NASA could employ.

And what makes it so compelling is that it could be done in a reasonable timeframe and without a major increase in budget, a critical factor in developing  a sustainable human exploration program at Mars.

Humans orbiting Mars - a first step on our Journey to Mars

Credit: NASA

The orbit-first idea is under study by several groups within NASA who are developing mission architectures to the Red Planet and appears to have been built into their Journey to Mars architecture.

What do you think? Should we be orbiting Mars first​ -- before actually landing on the surface? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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