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Image: Mars station in orbit
Is this how the first human missions to Mars will unfold? NASA’s chief favors an approach for extended operations from Martian orbit, rather than starting out with a crew landing on the surface. (Credit: NASA)

The first humans to reach Mars almost certainly won’t go down to the surface, but will manage fleets of rovers from Martian orbit.

That’s the view of Andy Weir, the author behind a wildly popular space saga titled “The Martian.” But it’s also the view of NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, and lots of other mission planners. NASA’s current plan calls for the first crews to set up shop around Mars and its moons in the 2030s.

The landing vs. orbiting issue came up today during a space-themed session at Transformers, a daylong conference organized by The Washington Post in the nation’s capital. Weir’s novel (and the movie it inspired) focuses on an astronaut left behind on the Red Planet’s surface, but the engineer-turned-author said the initial flights to Mars would probably follow a safer storyline.

He noted that robotic missions to Mars, such as the ones involving NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, require a long latency period between sending commands and getting back the results coming out of those commands. That’s due to the distance between the rovers and their controllers on Earth.

“The biggest benefit to having an astronaut on the surface, in terms of the science, is that that astronaut has a brain,” Weir said. “An astronaut doesn’t have a five- to 20-minute latency in communicating what he or she wants to do on the surface of Mars. So the very first humans-to-Mars-area mission, I suspect, will be a whole bunch of rovers on the surface of Mars, and humans in orbit controlling them. What do you think?”

“Andy’s absolutely right,” Bolden replied. He said NASA’s mission planners are generally reluctant to talk about the precise architecture of human missions to Mars, “because you get in trouble, to be quite honest.” But he acknowledged that the rovers-first approach made sense.

Keeping the humans in orbit for the first missions would give crews a chance to make use of robotic explorers, virtually in real time, while putting off the costs and risks associated with sending humans down to the surface and then bringing them back into Martian orbit for the trip back home.

Bolden suggest that the crews staffing a Mars orbital outpost could direct the robotic construction of landing facilities and habitats on the Martian surface for eventual human use.

The rovers-first concept is a part of the Mars mission architectures proposed by the Planetary Society and researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and by Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. Those architectures suggest that Phobos, a low-gravity moon of Mars, could serve as a base for orbital operations.

This week, Lockheed Martin said it was feasible to put a “Mars Base Camp,” staffed by six astronauts, in orbit around the Red Planet by 2028.

Such concepts would delay the Apollo-style moment associated with taking that first footstep on Mars, but backers argue that the approach provides a more reliable, more affordable path toward the human exploration of Mars.

How does that square with the plans being laid by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who wants to send thousands of human settlers to Mars? We’ll find out in September, when Musk is due to share his vision for future Mars missions at the International Aeronautical Congress in Mexico.

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