By Laura Donnelly-Smith
At the Humans2Mars Summit held in Lisner Auditorium last week, Explore Mars Inc. and the George Washington University brought together some of the brightest thinkers in the aerospace field to discuss the challenges inherent in getting humans to Mars by the 2030s.
The event featured a keynote presentation by Buzz Aldrin, an Apollo XI and Gemini XII astronaut and the second human to walk on the moon. Dr. Aldrin, who was the first astronaut with a doctorate, recently published a book, “Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration,” outlining his blueprint for success in what he called “permanence at Mars.”
GW’s Space Policy Institute in the Elliott School of International Affairs was a co-sponsor of the summit. Scott Pace, director of the SPI and a professor of practice in international affairs, said that despite NASA’s well-documented financial difficulties, important space exploration work is ongoing.
“NASA funding for exploration has been volatile and declining in recent years, but the H2M Summit is an example of continuing broad and deep interest in human space exploration,” Dr. Pace said. “Mars continues to be an ultimate destination goal for human missions, despite current economic uncertainties.”
The H2M summit included discussions on the technical, scientific and policy-related hurdles that stand between the United States and a successful Mars mission. Speakers included representatives from NASA and the aerospace industry as well as advocates from the emerging commercial space industry.
John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs and founder of GW’s Space Policy Institute, called the H2M summit an important opportunity for these diverse players to exchange ideas.
“Sending humans to Mars has captured the interest of people for decades, and remains the declared goal of U.S. space policy,” Dr. Logsdon said. “NASA is working on many fronts to develop the capabilities to undertake human missions to Mars in the 2030s, most especially developing a very large rocket to power those missions. Meanwhile, there are several private groups that hope to send private citizens to Mars, largely without government funding.”
Dr. Aldrin’s address focused on what he called his “unified vision” for Mars exploration. He said he is frequently asked why it’s even important to put humans on Mars. The answer goes beyond national pride—though that is an important component, he said.
“We feel good about ourselves and the future of our country, and by venturing into space, we improve life for everyone here on Earth,” he said. “The scientific advances and innovation that come with this kind of research provide products and technology that improve our daily lives. Cell phones, TV, GPS…all of these wouldn’t be possible without the investments in our space programs.”
Dr. Aldrin emphasized that although the United States must work to maintain its role as the human space transportation leader, international cooperation will be critical to a successful Mars mission. The United States needs to capitalize on the commercial space market and create a runway landing system for a U.S. “highway to space,” he said, and should also create an International Lunar Development Authority, similar to the organization created to coordinate international communication satellites.
But in Dr. Aldrin’s eyes, there is one ultimate goal: to establish a permanent human presence on Mars by the 2030s. The goal is actually more doable than many people believe, he said.
“We’re now ready to send humans beyond the moon—we have, or can affordably develop, the technology to send humans on missions toward Mars and especially the Martian moons,” he said.
Dr. Aldrin has developed plans for some of that technology himself. He shared a slide with his concept for an Aldrin Cycler Interplanetary Vehicle, a spaceship that would follow a specific trajectory to encounter Mars and Earth at set times. This particular coinciding orbital trajectory, which Dr. Aldrin first described in the mid-1980s, has become known as the Aldrin Cycler. About every 26 months, the two planets are in the correct orbital location for a Mars landing, he said.
Dr. Aldrin’s idea includes manned and unmanned missions to Martian moons, particularly Phobos. He envisions a return-capability ship launched ahead of time to Phobos, so that when a crew lands there, they know that they’ll have a ride home waiting. In Dr. Aldrin’s plan, the United States will establish a long-term presence on Phobos and send crews there for 18-month stints. During that time, they’ll oversee robotic construction of an international Mars base.
But before any of this can happen, the United States needs leaders who strongly support Mars exploration and young people dedicated to excellence in “STEAM” subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, plus the arts.
“You don’t want just a bunch of geeks,” Dr. Aldrin said. “Arts have a valid place in the equation. But what we need most is the next generation to be motivated to push technological boundaries.”
Dr. Aldrin said the United States is at “an inflection point” in its space exploration history.
“We can choose to do what’s easy and safe, or we can decide to do what’s hard and make a difference,” he said. “[With the Apollo program] we did choose the harder, and we did succeed. The choice to me is absolutely clear. There is no other choice than to commit to permanence at Mars.”
Watch a video of Dr. Aldrin’s presentation.