NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says a manned mission to Mars will happen in the 2030s, but unlike the Apollo moon missions in the 1960s and '70s, it will take an international coalition -- including Russia and China -- to get there.
America remains the unquestioned leader when it comes to space exploration, but in a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations Thursday, Bolden said future efforts will look like the International Space Station, an international effort that has kept humans continuously living and working in space for the past 15 years.
"Yours will be a future where human beings, as President Obama has said, have pushed farther into the universe, not just to visit but also to stay. To me, public diplomacy and cooperation in space go together like peanut butter and jelly," Bolden said.
That diplomacy, with NASA leading the charge, is important for the next phase of space exploration. Obama laid out the ambitious plans for NASA in an address from the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 15, 2010. The roadmap to Mars includes the return of manned launches to the U.S., the development of a deep space spacecraft and the Asteroid Redirect Mission.
The mission to Mars will require additional commercial and international support. Boeing and SpaceX have been tasked with bringing manned launches back to the United States. The first commercial crew astronauts are training for the first flight to the ISS, with crew flight tests scheduled for 2017.
SpaceX and Orbital ATK are currently sending cargo to the space station with the former's Dragon being the only craft capable of returning science investigations back to Earth. Despite individual launch failures, Orbital ATK in 2014 and SpaceX in 2015, the two companies are preparing for cargo missions in December.
Aside from the Apollo missions, human exploration of space has been Earth-reliant -- astronauts have spent most of their time in space in low-Earth orbit, Bolden said. That will change in the 2020s when NASA attempts to capture a boulder from an asteroid and place it in a stable lunar orbit. The cislunar -- athe area between the Earth and the moon -- phase of space exploration will take astronauts around the moon, but also serves as a test for international support.
"When we go up to cislunar space, it’s going to give our international partners an opportunity to be with us, because no venture into deep space is going to be done by one nation. It’s just too difficult, it’s too expensive," Bolden said. Going to Mars would make space exploration Earth-independent for the first time since the Apollo missions.
Despite the U.S.' current tensions with Russia, NASA and the Russian Space Agency -- Roscosmos -- continue to have a strong working relationship. Through the funding of the ISS -- along with NASA's reliance on Roscosmos to send astronauts to low-Earth orbit -- the two space agencies continue to work cooperatively. That relationship could change once NASA becomes less reliant on Russia -- the space agency agreed to pay $81.6 million per seat aboard the Soyuz for six flights in 2018 -- with the launch of its commercial crew program, but Bolden said he's committed to the partnership.
Conspicuously absent from NASA's international partners is China. Politics have stymied this relationship following a ban included in the 2011 U.S. Federal budget. There are some loopholes that have allowed Bolden to collaborate with the Chinese Academy of Science on Earth science research. NASA also provided China with lunar imagery that helped the Chang'e 3 mission select a landing site. Air traffic management is another area of cooperation. "It’s critical to partner with China," Bolden said.
Space exploration is peaceful, but the area above Earth could become a source of contention as more countries send satellites into orbit. More partnerships would lead to a safer orbit.
"If we’re partnered with the Chinese, as we are with other nations, I think they would be much less prone to do something that puts low-Earth orbit in jeopardy, like, you know, anti-satellite stuff. Now, that may be a naïve thought, but I think that's what gives me hope, that the more we can have many nations working toward a common goal, the better off we’ll be," Bolden said.