Want Humans on Mars? Start With a Martian Space Station.

Lockheed Martin just announced an audacious concept to put humans in orbit around Mars by 2028. Here’s how it would work.

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An image of Mars taken by NASA orbiters shows a wealth of surface features, including the huge canyon Valles Marineris.

A major aerospace company just jumped into the Mars fray: Lockheed Martin has announced its plans for getting humans to the red planet by 2028. Rather than going right to the surface, this scheme would put a spacecraft in Mars orbit that would do a solid impression of the International Space Station.

The concept—unveiled on May 18 at the Humans 2 Mars Summit in Washington, D.C.—is the latest effort to envision a doable, cost-effective Mars mission for NASA, which is pushing forward on its agency-wide Journey to Mars initiative.

“What we’re presenting is a vision,” Wanda Sigur, Lockheed Martin’s vice president and general manager of civil space projects, said during the announcement. It’s not boots on Mars, she admits, but it does take advantage of many of the components being designed for putting humans on another world.

The company’s plans, laid out in a slickly produced video, lean heavily on NASA’s existing hardware commitments, particularly the Orion deep-space crew module, which Lockheed Martin is building for the space agency.

The plan calls for Orion to first venture beyond low-Earth orbit, with an uncrewed moon mission in 2018 and a crewed moon flyby reminiscent of Apollo 8 in 2021. Through 2025, the agency would tackle increasingly ambitious missions at moonlike distances, culminating in a Mars “dry run” that would keep the crew within about three days’ travel time from Earth, allowing for a quick emergency return. The actual travel time from Earth to Mars would be at least six months.

In 2026, according to this proposal, NASA would place a structure in orbit around Mars made up of uninhabited modules and solar arrays. Incoming humans would dock with this outpost two years later, forming what the company has dubbed the Mars Base Camp—a laboratory and six-astronaut habitat that would serve as a gateway for future missions.

Bold but Vague

Like many ideas for getting humans to Mars, the latest plan is audacious, requiring the flawless execution of Orion’s first penciled-in missions, not to mention substantial political support and technical progress.

“I give them kudos for being bold,” says Scott Hubbard, director of Stanford University’s Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. “This would really require a lot of things to play right.”

It’s also not the first mission proposal to call for a Martian outpost on a tight time line.

“This doesn’t look terribly new in terms of a 12-year time line,” says David Portree, an archivist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center and author of Humans to Mars. “In 1963, NASA engineers were seeing if they could land on Mars in 1971.”

And in 2015, the nonprofit Planetary Society workshopped a similar-looking plan based on a Jet Propulsion Lab study that aimed to get humans orbiting Mars—perhaps with jaunts to Mars’s moons Phobos and Deimos—by 2033.

Hubbard, who co-led the Planetary Society workshop, points out that it’s difficult to evaluate the plan without more details. “All I see is that the nice video says 2028,” he says. “I can’t really get a definitive answer without knowing [Lockheed Martin’s] specific assumptions.”

Making Tradeoffs

In theory, at least, the idea of sending an orbiter before a surface mission would let NASA flex its Mars muscles while buying crucial time to develop descent and landing technologies, says space policy expert John Logsdon of George Washington University.

“It gives one the opportunity to check out all navigation, life support, [and] radiation protection—all the things you need to get to Mars and back without also accepting the risks that come with going to the surface,” says Logsdon. “There are good parallels between Apollo 8 and Apollo 11.”

What’s more, a crewed orbiter would allow for real-time control of Mars rovers, a potentially huge help to scientists, who currently face up to 45-minute communications delays. An orbiting lab could also process samples robotically launched from Mars’s surface, helping future astronauts’ efforts and advancing the search for past—or present—Martian life.

Another plus? Spreading out costs. While the details have not been released, Lockheed Martin spokesperson Allison Rakes says that the company’s estimates would work within NASA’s existing exploration budget, assuming annual increases to adjust for inflation.

The catch is that such a mission would invariably come with tradeoffs. The JPL study also works within NASA’s existing budget—but requires that NASA cut off its support of the International Space Station by 2028, and preferably by 2024, to free up three billion dollars in NASA spending.

“There’s no way to have two major space programs at once,” says Hubbard.

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