How NASA plans to complete Trump’s goal of planting a US flag on Mars by 2033

Chris Riotta

Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on the moon 20 July 1969, commemorating the historic moment by placing a US flag on Earth’s natural satellite.

Exactly 50 years later, NASA is once again attempting to push the boundaries of space with a lofty goal: to have a manned mission reach Mars by 2033.

The plan defies analysis from independent experts who say the timeline is unfeasible, but NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine hasn’t given up just yet.

In his testimony to the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Thursday, the official described a range of possibilities that could allow the space agency to reach the Red Planet by 2033.

“There are technologies that can be developed that accelerate the path and there are new approaches that I don’t think are being considered,” Mr Bridenstine told the politicians. “I think if we could do that, I think we can accelerate the timeline.”

“I have said publicly I am not willing to rule out the 2033 timeline,” he added.

Earlier this month, Donald Trump addressed the nation during Independence Day celebrations in Washington and described the Apollo 11 moon landing as an example of what the country was capable of.

“For Americans, nothing is impossible,” the president said. “Exactly 50 years ago this month, the world watched in awe as Apollo 11 astronauts launched into space with a wake of fire and nerves of steel, and planted our great American flag on the face of the moon.”

Mr Trump then spoke directly to Gene Kranz, the Apollo program flight director, adding: “Gene, I want you to know that we’re going to be back on the moon very soon, and, someday soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars.”

The lofty promise arrived at a critical point for NASA: the agency has been planning to create a long-term human presence on the moon with the ultimate goal of enabling astronauts to reach the Red Planet.

No humans have launched from US soil since the space shuttle programme ended in 2011.

Using NASA’s Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket being built for a debut flight in late 2020, the agency is aiming to return humans to the moon by 2024 in an accelerated timeline set in March by the Trump administration.

NASA officials say exploration of the moon and Mars is intertwined, with the moon becoming a test-bed for Mars and providing an opportunity to demonstrate new technologies that could help build self-sustaining extraterrestrial outposts.

Technologies that can mine the moon’s subsurface water ice to sustain astronaut crews, but also to be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for use as a rocket propellant, could be crucial for missions to Mars.

The planet is reachable in months-long missions when at its closest orbital approach of 35.8 million miles from Earth.

“It’s utilisation versus curiosity,” says roboticist and research professor at Carnegie Mellon University William Whittaker, comparing the Artemis program, as the new lunar mission has been dubbed, with Apollo. Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the moon in Greek mythology.

Other technological feats are also set to expand the US’s presence in space, including a plan by a NASA-funded lab in Colorado to send robots to the moon to deploy telescopes that will look far into our galaxy, remotely operated by orbiting astronauts.

The radio telescopes, to be planted on the far side of the moon, are among a plethora of projects being undertaken by the US space agency, private companies and other nations that will transform the moonscape in the coming decade.

“This is not your grandfather’s Apollo programme that we’re looking at,” says Jack Burns, director of the Network for Exploration and Space Science at the University of Colorado, which is working on the telescope project.

“This is really a very different kind of programme and, very importantly, it’s going to involve machines and humans working together.”

The work in Boulder and elsewhere underlines NASA’s plan to build a lasting presence on the moon, unlike the fleeting Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s.

Vice president Mike Pence in March announced an accelerated timeline to put humans on the moon in 2024 “by any means necessary”, cutting the agency’s previous 2028 goal in half and putting researchers and companies into overdrive in the new space race.

Additional reporting by Reuters