I get the impression that NASA has done alot to make a crewed landing on Mars possible. Not as a focused mission like Apollo, but piece by piece in spite of the lack of dedicated and lasting political commitment. I think that maybe most people who are lucky enough to work with human spaceflight probably prefer to help a mission to Mars when they can, and maybe manage to do so partly in the shadow of other pretexts. Now, my claims above may be "opinionated", and may be edited out, but as a matter of fact, the question is:

How much of what is needed to land humans on Mars has been investigated and prepared today?

Below are my own impressions to begin with, I hope for better versions of these hypothetical answers:

+) What has been, or is being, done:

  • LDSD, a way to land heavy payloads on Mars. For what if not humans?
  • Suitports, spacesuits which avoid toxic dust and bio contamination.
  • Athlete, the mobile Mars rover/habitat concept.
  • Mars 2020 rover oxygen ISRU demonstration. Obviously just for human purposes.
  • Orion, together with a habitat module it'd be quite useful for a trip to Mars.
  • SLS, huge and expensive rocket, but if financed would be great for a Mars mission.
  • Rovers and orbiters to Mars, quite a set of robotic precursors.
  • NASA has at least investigated a communication satellite at Mars.

-) What remains to be done:

  • Artificial centrifugal gravity, in order for astronauts to arrive healthy.
  • Fully (water) recycling life support systems. The ISS is only partly there.
  • The travel habitat on route to Mars. But, they do invite Bigalow to dock with the ISS next year!
  • The forward bio contamination issue. Would the exobiologists destroy the data they look for upon arrival?

(My linked sources are mostly Wikipedia, because I'm anyway not quite competent to qualify the usefulness of sources on this topic beyond what most who read and comment here can do themselves)

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    $\begingroup$ I have no idea what "prepared" means, nor to what degree something needs to have been "investigated" to qualify. Everything has been investigated to some extent. Absolutely nothing is prepared in the sense of being ready to fly. I think you'd need to clarify the question significantly to get any sort of meaningful answer. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Aug 20 '14 at 1:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Adler I am sorry that you do not understand common words. Perhaps someone else does. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Aug 20 '14 at 3:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Adler Considering that NASA doesn't have any humans-to-Mars mission, they seem to have done some of the work already. It is my impression that if they get a go ahead, they wouldn't have to start from scratch. But it is maybe overhyped, maybe those pieces were dead ends or aren't suitable to combine to a mission. I'm in no position to judge that, if there are devils in the details. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Aug 21 '14 at 7:37
  • $\begingroup$ ATHLETE is designed for the Moon, not Mars. $\endgroup$
    – TylerH
    Aug 26 '14 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ @TylerH Yes it seems to be so. I somehow got the impression it was a Mars gadget. Maybe it has been advertised as a "Can do Mars too" product. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Aug 26 '14 at 16:14

To address some concerns and add my own:

Artificial gravity, full water recycling, and a lovely travel habitat (I don't imagine needing more than two docked Orion MPCV capsules) for a Mars mission are probably not totally necessary. While there would certainly be non-zero health consequences to launching without a comprehensive astronaut/marstronaut health solution in place, I believe existing fitness routines, reasonable water reuse, and a moderate degree of living room would probably be enough to keep human cargo within reasonable health range for recovery. Considering historical naval conditions and pharmaceutical advances, I think we can overcome a lot of problems derived from humans being organic. I, for one, am in favor of extensive drug use on a single crew member to allow toleration of sub-optimal conditions, and possible reduce cabin fatigue and metabolism.

Bio contamination doesn't seem particularly solvable, so I have no real recommendations on that front, other than some personal confusion over why we take so much care to preserve when Earth is regularly destroyed, often without any reason. Something something break eggs to make omelets something something.

I know one of the biggest concerns with using Orion for Mars landing specifically is that we have absolutely no mechanism in place getting back out of the gravity well (or even land in it but that's a much easier task). At least, there's nothing that I've heard of anywhere ever that represents a practical solution (that is, passes scientific and political muster). For now, at least, there's no provision for a return trip and while that doesn't bother me personally, it is part of the current program charter for the Orion mars mission ("safe return").

The Mars mission that'd I'd expect to be possible by 2020 range would be using two docked Orion capsules for one or two crew members to drift through a transit orbit to and back from Mars, mainly using discipline and tolerance to endure lack of artificial gravity and living space. Metabolism would be the main concern here, but even just using two capsules provides a reasonable amount of hybrid living space/storage area.

Of course, we could always drop 500 billion dollars on nuclear rockets and do the whole trip in a month (with a landing) but then we get to do fun things like find ways to launch nuclear material with international law and get Congress to actual do something, so in the present political environment I'd say finding a way to land and relaunch Orion is the easiest 'hard' problem.

  • $\begingroup$ Commenting only fractions of your first paragraph, I happen to believe that there are no consequences of microgravity where microgravity does not exist. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Aug 11 '14 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for "historical naval conditions". People has NO IDEA how bad it was, and how people did just fine. $\endgroup$ Jan 13 '17 at 22:39

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