As NASA gears up for more Artemis missions, which will send astronauts to the moon and then to Mars, the agency’s Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche stated it is “very realistic” that humans will be on Mars in the next 20 years.
“The program that NASA has is moon to Mars, and so that is definitely what our goal is—to get to Mars,” Wyche said at a Washington Post Live event on Tuesday.
She noted that the agency’s Artemis missions will help NASA learn what is needed for further space exploration and for longer-duration missions. Moreover, NASA is looking at the moon as a test bed for further space exploration.
The first mission under the Artemis program was an uncrewed flight, and the agency used it to test systems—making sure they could survive the environments and journey in and out of space—and learn for future missions, according to Wyche.
“One of the large things for us to learn was how the heat shield would perform, making sure that we could actually reenter into the Earth’s atmosphere,” Wyche said.
Now, NASA will continue to conduct post-flight testing and instrumentation—or looking at the spacecraft during its journey and return. The agency will also examine technology like the heat shield—which protects the spacecraft during its reentry of Earth’s atmosphere—to ensure there are no issues or concerns.
Artemis II, which will return humans to the moon, is expected to launch by the end of 2024.
It is important to explore the moon, Mars and space because of the scientific knowledge that can come from it, according to Wyche.
A journey to the moon takes about three to six days, a much shorter endeavor in comparison to the several months required to travel to Mars. As a result, Wyche indicated that using more thorough exploration of the moon to test space technologies will be beneficial for space exploration to places further away like Mars.
“We went to one particular area of the moon,” she said. “We have not gone to every area of the moon, so, with Artemis, we’re going to go to the polar regions.”
The lunar ice and “other volatiles” located in those regions could potentially be used to make propellant or fresh oxygen, according to Wyche, expanding humans’ knowledge of how to live on another planetary body.
“Those are the things that we need to know in order to go further into the solar system—so to go to Mars—or go even further than that,” she said.
However, Wyche stated that there are technology gaps that the agency is trying to study to allow for longer-duration missions. Wyche noted that NASA is utilizing the International Space Station to help with some of these studies.
“From a technology standpoint, how do we make sure that our crews have all of the proper water? How do they have the proper environments for when they’re on these long duration journeys? One of the things that we do on the International Space Station is reclamation of water. So, we’re not able to carry all of the water that we’re going to need to go on a very long journey. And so, we’ll need to be able to reclaim the water that the crews use during their activities. We have technology that we’ve been using to do that,” Wyche said.
Technological limitations—such as time delays in communications between Earth and Mars—also necessitate humans being on Mars missions, according to Wyche.
“Human robotic operations working together will allow us to actually do further excavations,” Wyche said. “[It] will allow us to be able to use the human to assist robot[s] and mak[e] decisions, finding and doing discoveries.”
There could even be a permanent base on the moon one day. Wyche noted that the Johnson Space Center is looking at creating the Gateway—a small habitat in lunar orbit—to use as a jumping off point for lunar and space exploration, as well as to use as a home base for studies.