Oct. 2, 2008 -- NASA chief Mike Griffin has outlined the punishing lunar endurance mission that would have to be completed before NASA could ever consider sending humans to Mars.
Speaking on NASA's future mission priorities at this week's International Astronautical Congress in Glasgow, Scotland, Griffin said that Mars is not automatically the next destination simply because humans have already been to the Moon (see NASA urged to focus on sending people to Mars).
He believes that we have too little knowledge of the Moon to head straight for the Red Planet.
"The total human experience on the Moon is less than 27 human working days – on a world that is the size of Africa," he says. "So whether the Moon is a stepping stone to Mars or a place of interest in its own right depends on knowledge we don't have yet."
To improve that knowledge, and to test the logistics and human factors of potential Mars missions in the bargain, Griffin proposes an elaborate lunar mission experiment. It would mimic the travel and landing time of a Mars mission by using the International Space Station as a mock Mars spaceship – and the Moon as a surrogate Mars.
"The experiment would consist of placing a crew on the space station for say seven or eight months, then taking them from the station and landing them on the Moon and asking them to survive there for nine months to a year, with no further assistance other than what they have brought," says Griffin.
"After that, return them to the space station for another six or seven months and then back to Earth. All with no extra assistance – because that is what it will be like when we go to Mars," Griffin continued. "Unless we can do that experiment successfully, the first crew to go to Mars will not come back."
Griffin is not alone in this uncompromising view. A raft of space agencies, such as the China National Space Administration and the European Space Agency, want to cooperate on crewed Mars missions in the future, potentially using the ISS and the Moon as staging posts.
"I fully agree with what Mike says," says Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of ESA. "We need to know much more about the Moon and Mars and how humans can use the resources in situ, not launch every kilo of stuff they will ever need. That's why in the meantime a lot of robotic missions to both the Moon and Mars are so very important."