NASA's former Mars leader says the agency is 'keeping their eye' on a crewed mission to the Red Planet

  • NASA said its return to the moon would be a step toward a crewed Mars mission.
  • “It’s something I hoped I would see,” said Scott Hubbard, a former Mars program leader. 
  • NASA last week flew a helicopter and produced oxygen on Mars, good signals for future missions. 
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When NASA announced its partnership with SpaceX to return to the moon by 2024, Scott Hubbard, who formerly led the agency’s Mars program, was hoping there would be some news about future crewed trips to the Red Planet. 

He wasn’t disappointed. The press release from NASA mentioned Mars a few times, positioning the trip to the moon as an important step toward an eventual Mars mission.

“It’s something I hoped I would see,” Hubbard, who is also a SpaceX advisor, said in a phone interview on Thursday. “So that it’s clear … that they’re keeping their eye on the Mars goal and working toward it in this interim fashion.”

NASA’s announcement about the moon mission came amid a flood of news about Mars, where the agency landed its Perseverance rover earlier this year.

On Monday, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter made history with the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. The same helicopter later converted carbon dioxide into oxygen for the first time. Both events were seen as small steps toward a crewed trip to the Red Planet. 

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has often said he wanted to get people to Mars as soon as possible. He expected to have 1 million people on Mars by 2050, he said last year.

This year, he said he was confident the first crewed mission would happen in 2026 but some experts expressed skepticism. At a press briefing on Friday, Musk said the first trip could be in “a couple years.”

Moving quickly in space exploration brings with it a great risk. Musk seemed to acknowledge this, saying at another event this week that “a bunch of people will probably die” as crews venture toward the Red Planet. This would be similar to any prior danger associated with exploration, he added. 

NASA is taking incremental steps, said Hubbard. First, the agency’s going to learn to live and work on the moon. Setting up a permanent base on the moon will be a learning experience, which will help when crews eventually land on Mars.

It takes about three days to get to the moon but about seven months to get to the Red Planet. Hubbard said he was enthusiastic about Mars, but also wanted astronauts to be able to return to Earth. 

“There’s been talk about one-way trips,” Hubbard said with a laugh. “I’m not a fan of that, but some people are.” 

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