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Mars as seen from Phobos
An artist’s conception shows as astronaut’s-eye view of Mars from Phobos, one of its moons. (Credit: Planetary Society)

The nonprofit Planetary Society has laid out a detailed blueprint for sending astronauts to the Martian moon Phobos in 2033 and then touching down on Mars itself beginning in 2039.

The blueprint released Tuesday is based on a “Humans Orbiting Mars” workshop that was conducted in April – and it’s probably already out of date, due to last month’s announcement that NASA’s first crewed flight of the Orion deep-space capsule is likely to be put off until 2023. Nevertheless, the Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier says the full study can serve as a realistic yardstick for NASA’s Mars exploration timetable.

“Right now we don’t have a metric to apply to NASA’s progress,” he told GeekWire.

The study’s proponents, including experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, say it’s more affordable to send astronauts to Phobos’ low-gravity environment first, and then down to the Martian surface. They say the 25-year sequence of missions can be structured to fit within NASA’s current budget, adjusted for inflation.

NASA says it intends to send astronauts to Mars and its moons starting in the 2030s. The space agency’s “Journey to Mars” plan covers roughly the same time frame as the “Humans Orbiting Mars” plan – but it isn’t nearly as detailed.

Critics, including NASA Watch’s Keith Cowing, say the Planetary Society’s “orbit-first” blueprint is too timid and relies on hardware that NASA has not yet budgeted for. “I am trying to picture how Congress is going to fund a program for 20 years that almost puts humans on Mars,” Cowing wrote on Tuesday.

Phobos hardware
A graphic from the “Humans Orbiting Mars” website shows the components that would be required for a mission to Phobos. The elements would be sent toward Mars using NASA’s yet-to-be-flown Space Launch System. (Credit: Planetary Society)

Dreier, however, was doubtful that a more accelerated schedule would draw enough political support. “It’d be great if we could do it in 10 years,” he said. “But that will take a lot of money over not a lot of years, and I don’t see any pathway to making that happen.”

Check out the full report at Former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver will discuss the future of space exploration and the opportunities for commercial space ventures in Seattle on Thursday at the GeekWire Summit.

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