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By , Mike Wall
Published April 28, 2016
The first NASA astronauts to set foot on Mars will aim to establish a research-and-operations base, not a permanently inhabited colony, agency officials say.
According to NASA's current plans, the Mars outpost — which NASA hopes to set up by the end of the 2030s — will serve as a hub that accommodates astronauts on a temporary basis, said Ben Bussey, the chief exploration scientist in NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
A colony is "a long way down the road. No one's thinking of, on the NASA side, like a permanent human base," Bussey said Wednesday (March 16) during a presentation with the space agency's Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group. [Red Planet or Bust: 5 Crewed Mars Mission Ideas]
"The idea here is that you would have your exploration zone that you set up for the first crew," Bussey added. "And that crew would leave, and then you send another crew at the next good launch opportunity. So it isn't permanently occupied, but it is visited multiple times." A permanently occupied Mars settlement may eventually grow out of NASA's crewed activities. But for several other organizations, a Red Planet colony is the explicit goal.
One of these groups is SpaceX, the American spaceflight company founded in 2002 by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk. Musk has stressed many times over the years that he established SpaceX primarily to help make humanity a multiplanet species.
Musk envisions thousands of people living on the Red Planet in the not-too-distant future. The key to making this happen, he has said, is to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets, which could slash the cost of spaceflight by a factor of 100 or more.
So SpaceX has been conducting a series of increasingly ambitious reusable-rocket tests over the past few years. For example, the company has repeatedly attempted to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket back on Earth during launches.
Most of these tries have been near misses. On multiple occasions, the rocket stage successfully hit the deck of its target "autonomous spaceport drone ship" in the ocean but ended up toppling over and exploding. But a Falcon 9 stage did land softly on terra firma at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station this past December — the first time this had ever been done during an orbital launch. (Blue Origin, the spaceflight company established by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, has also pulled off rocket landings, but so far, only during suborbital launches.)
The Netherlands-based nonprofit Mars One is also shooting for a Red Planet colony. The group aims to land four pioneers on Mars in 2027 and then send more settlers every two years thereafter. (There are no plans at the moment to bring anyone back to Earth.) Mars One aims to pay for these activities by staging a global media event around the colonization process.