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By Andrew Follett
A space station could be circling the Red Planet by 2028 to serve as a “Mars Base Camp” for wayward explorers, according to plans published by a major NASA contractor.
Lockheed Martin plans to construct a 132-ton space station around Mars capable of hosting six astronauts for a year, according to plans released by the company Monday. For comparison, the International Space Station (ISS) weighs about 440 tons.
The six astronauts at the Lockheed station would remotely operate rovers, analyze samples of dirt and rock and even make short trips to Mars’s two moons. Having humans in an orbiting station would simplify rover operations and eliminate the delay of up to 24 minutes of sending a signal between Earth and Mars.
One scientist, however, is skeptical the station’s benefits will be enough to justify building the station.
“It might make sense to do a Mars orbital mission, or even a Mars flyby mission, before a Mars landing, to mature the flight technology, in the same sense that Apollo 8 was a useful prelude to the Moon landing,” Dr. Robert Zubrin, who helped design plans for NASA’s manned mission to Mars and wrote the “The Case For Mars,” told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“But it does not make sense to devise a human Mars exploration program around basing humans in Mars orbit to operate rovers on the surface,” Zubrin said. “Human explorers are needed on the surface of Mars, not in orbit.”
Lockheed Martin claims a space station around Mars would be affordable, but the company did not include any cost estimates for the program. The station could be reused and serve as a staging point to collect imagery and scientific data from multiple sites.
Zubrin told TheDCNF astronauts will be going to Mars in either a search for knowledge or as a prelude to eventual human settlement. Determining if Mars has or has had life would require a human astronaut on the surface, he said.
“A human explorer on the surface of Mars can do a thousand times as much as a robotic rover, regardless of from where the rover is being controlled,” Zubrin said. “In short, if you want to go to Mars, you need to go to Mars. Hanging out in orbit doesn’t cut it.”
NASA plans to send astronauts on several missions to orbit the moon in the 2020s to help train astronauts for a manned mission to Mars. Zubrin previously told TheDCNF that if given proper direction by President Trump, NASA could probably send astronauts to Mars by the end of his second term, as opposed to 16 years in the future.
Trump vowed to “unlock the mysteries of space” in his inaugural address and has met with billionaire Elon Musk, who founded the private space company SpaceX.
Vice President Mike Pence met with Apollo 11 astronaut and Mars mission advocate Buzz Aldrin in March to talk about the future of U.S. space programs.
Trump’s Mars and moon missions will likely utilize the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. President Barack Obama tried for years to eliminate the SLS, but Congress kept money flowing to the project.
Obama took money from space exploration programs to fund earth science and global warming programs. Trump could free up money for his space plans by slashing the more than $2 billion NASA spends on these programs.
The U.S. is better prepared to visit Mars than it was to visit the moon in the 1960s, according to a study by NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Current plans to send astronauts to Mars are projected to cost about $35 billion by 2025 to arrive at the Red Planet in 2030.