President Obama reinforces commitment to manned Mars mission

In an op-ed published by on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama reconfirmed his commitment to send Americans to Mars within the next few decades while also emphasizing a desire to see humanity travel beyond the Red Planet sometime in the foreseeable future.

“One of my earliest memories is sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders, waving a flag as our astronauts returned to Hawaii,” the President wrote. “I still have the same sense of wonder about our space program that I did as a child. It represents an essential part of our character – curiosity and exploration, innovation, and ingenuity, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and doing it before anybody else.”

“We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time,” he added. “The next step is to reach beyond the bounds of Earth’s orbit. I’m excited to announce that we are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space.”

Making it to Mars, President Obama explained, would “require continued cooperation between government and private innovators.” Within the next two years, he wrote, private-sector firms would be sending astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), and NASA would also be partnering with non-governmental companies to create new habitats for long-duration missions (a possible allusion to the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships or NextSTEP program, according to

His column came just days before he is expected to meet with some of the country’s leading scientists and engineers at the White House Frontiers Conference, which begins on Thursday in Pittsburgh. The goal of the conference, the President noted, will be  to discover ways to improve scientific research and technological innovation in all corners of the US.

NASA chief details how the agency plans to accomplish the goal

In response to the President’s op-ed, NASA administrator Charles Bolden and chief White House science and technology advisor John Holdren announced a pair of new initiatives which they said would help the US space agency “build on the President’s vision” and take advantage of “public-private partnerships to enable humans to live and work in space in a sustainable way.”

The first involved the advancement of the NextSTEP program, an initiative which invited private companies to submit advanced propulsion, satellite and habitat concepts to be considered for use in future NASA projects, to Phase 2. The work was “promising,” Bolden and Holdren wrote, and in August, six companies were selected to create prototypes for deep space habitat modules.

The second initiative involved NASA’s invitation to private sector companies to come up with ideas for how to use an available docking port on the ISS. One potential use of said port, Bolden and Holdren wrote, would be to prepare future commercial stations to take over for the ISS when the station’s mission ends sometime in the 2020s.

Those companies “responded enthusiastically, and those responses indicated a strong desire by US companies to attach a commercial module to the ISS that could meet the needs of NASA as well as those of private entrepreneurs,” they said. “As a result… this fall, NASA will start the process of providing companies with a potential opportunity to add their own modules and other capabilities to the International Space Station.”

“Make no mistake, the Journey to Mars will be challenging, but it is underway and with each one of these steps, we are pushing the boundaries of exploration and imagination,” wrote Bolden and Holdren. Such programs ideally will bring NASA closer to fulfilling the President’s desire to one day be the man hoisting his grandchild on his shoulders, looking up towards the sky, “but instead of eagerly awaiting the return of our intrepid explorers, we’ll know that because of the choices we make now, they’ve gone to space not just to visit, but to stay.”


Image credit: NASA/Hubble