Obama Reveals Details of NASA's Plan to Get Humans to Mars

NASA/John Frassanito and Associates

In the final months of his term, President Barack Obama is doubling down on his administration’s commitment to deep space travel. He announced Tuesday that NASA will be working with American companies to build habitats that will transport people to Mars, and keep them alive once they get there.

“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,” Obama wrote for CNN in a post published Tuesday.

“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. These missions will teach us how humans can live far from Earth — something we’ll need for the long journey to Mars.”

NASA and private aerospace groups will gather in Pittsburgh this week to talk about plans and ambitions. The country now boasts more than 1,000 companies working on space-related initiatives, the president said.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden expanded on the space agency’s commitments in a blog post for the agency’s website, noting that six companies have been commissioned to build human habitats that could support space life for extended periods, and could be converted into vehicles for extraterrestrial travel.

The president’s reaffirmation of the importance of NASA’s role in space exploration could be a rebuttal to Donald Trump, who seems to prefer a vision where government steps out of the way in favor of encouraging private space enterprise.

What the Republican nominee doesn’t seem to get is that an American space industry only exists because of technologies built out of federal investment, not to mention direct funding through government contracts. SpaceX may be profitable, but that’s thanks to $4.2 billion in NASA contracts. Private space companies and federal investment in space tech are part of the same ecosystem — you can’t support industry by defunding NASA.

Obama’s announcement comes after growing speculation that SpaceX will beat NASA to get humans to Mars. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been clear about his goal to send a crewed mission to the Red Planet by 2025, putting the company well ahead of NASA’s projected date of around 2033.

It could be that the president’s words are a gentle reminder that we’re all in this together, and whoever gets there first, it will be thanks to the significant investments in space flight technology by the American government since John F. Kennedy announced a bold plan to land a human on the moon.

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