NASA officials have talked for years about using the moon as a stepping stone to explore Mars. But now the space agency is finally reorganizing its administration to crystallize that aim in its bureaucratic structure. At the end of March, NASA established the new Moon to Mars Program Office at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.
This office will unify an array of programs already under way: This includes the goals of NASA’s Artemis Moon mission, such as creating spacesuits for lunar astronauts as well as the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which successfully flew the uncrewed Artemis I test flight in November. These projects will be more formally linked to developing technologies and operations for future human journeys to Mars.
“This new office will help ensure that NASA successfully establishes a long-term lunar presence needed to prepare for humanity’s next giant leap to the Red Planet,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.
In the 2022 NASA Authorization Act, Congress mandated that NASA create the Moon to Mars Program Office to ensure that each Artemis lunar mission “demonstrates or advances a technology or operational concept that will enable human missions to Mars.” Following the successful Artemis I test flight, NASA aims to launch four astronauts on a lunar flyby mission for Artemis II in late 2024, and return humans to the moon’s surface in 2025 with Artemis III. Subsequent Artemis missions, at a pace of every other year, should allow astronauts to build a lunar habitat on the moon’s South Pole—with plans to stay for a while.
“We are going to the moon, we are demonstrating and executing a more sustained presence than we did back on Apollo, historically,” Lakiesha Hawkins, deputy manager of the new office, tells Popular Science. “The demonstrations that we’re doing are setting us up so that we can stay for a long duration; we can, in essence, live off the land.”
NASA astronauts will run experiments to obtain water from ice in lunar craters and to melt lunar regolith, or rocky material, to extract oxygen. They’ll also practice operations and procedures as if they are on Mars, with intentionally prolonged delays in communications to Earth and help all but unavailable. On the moon, these explorers will test the reliability of life support and other systems with an eye toward the Red Planet. “The further we go, the less and less we’ll be able to look back to any capabilities of the home planet in order to help us,” Hawkins says.
At the moment, the Moon to Mars Program Office is still getting set up and hiring for key roles, according to Hawkins, but some changes have already begun.
“One of the things that I think is an obvious change is, we used to have three different divisions,” she says, one division for SLS, Orion, and ground systems; another for a planned lunar space station called Gateway, a lunar lander spacecraft, spacesuits, and lunar surface technologies; and then a third division focused on Mars technologies and capabilities. Those are now merged under the Moon to Mars Program Office. Aligning these offices is “going to help set us up for future success,” Hawkins says.
And while the changes so far are largely administrative, Hawkins sees the Congressional mandate as vindication of NASA’s approach to our nearest extraterrestrial neighbors. “We seem to have a clear strategy that has survived and works. It worked its way through now multiple presidential administrations,” she says. “We are no kidding, returning to the moon.” And after that, eventually, on to Mars.