NASA still faces several hurdles in its quest to launch a human mission to Mars by the 2030s, officials said Tuesday.
NASA officials spoke at an event commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Mars landing of Curiosity, a NASA robot. The Mars rover has made some significant discoveries since it survived "seven minutes of terror" before its landing, including an ancient streambed that suggests water flowed freely on Mars billions of years ago and may have supported life.
The next step is to send astronauts on a two-way trip to Mars to further study its surface, determine whether life once existed there and prepare for potential habitation, said Sam Scimemi, director of NASA's International Space Station Program.
"It takes a year or more for a robot to do what a person can do in a matter of days," he said.
However, a human Mars mission presents technological and financial challenges, the officials said.
NASA scientists continue to study methods for landing a 40-ton spacecraft traveling at a speed of 13,000 miles per hour on Mars. The Mars rover weighed just one ton.
"We’re landing a car right now," said Prasun Desai, acting director of strategic integration for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. "We need to send a two-story house."
Once the astronauts arrive on the red planet, they will need to "live off the land," Desai said. That would include extracting oxygen from the atmosphere for rocket fuel and using 3D-printing technology to make food.
"I think we’ll get there eventually, but there’s still a lot of work to do," said Karen Nyberg, an astronaut studying the potential for Mars habitation at the International Space Station (ISS). Nyberg spoke at the event via teleconference from the ISS.
Funding for NASA’s proposed Mars mission is also far from certain. Congress has pushed back against cuts by President Barack Obama’s administration to NASA’s planetary science program, but funding levels remain the lowest they have been in years.
Uncertain public funding could pave the way for a one-way Mars mission by private companies. Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp addressed about 50 prospective Mars travelers at George Washington University Saturday concerning a proposed $6 billion trip in 2023.
NASA officials said they have been partnering with groups like SpaceX and other private initiatives, but a mission led by the administration remains the ultimate goal.
"We stand in jeopardy of not being the great nation we’ve always been," said Charles Bolden, NASA administrator. "Doing things like deep space exploration require willpower."