First Mars crews will steer robots from orbit

Image: Mars orbital habitat
Is this how the first human missions to Mars will unfold? NASA’s chief favors doing extended operations from orbit, rather than starting out with a crew landing on the surface. (Credit: NASA)

The first humans to reach Mars almost certainly won’t go down to the surface, but will manage fleets of rovers from Martian orbit.

That’s the view of Andy Weir, the author behind a wildly popular space saga titled “The Martian.” But it’s also the view of NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, and lots of other mission planners. NASA’s current plan calls for the first crews to set up shop around Mars and its moons in the 2030s.

The landing vs. orbiting issue came up today during a space-themed session at Transformers, a daylong conference organized by The Washington Post in the nation’s capital. Weir’s novel (and the movie it inspired) focuses on an astronaut left behind on the Red Planet’s surface, but the engineer-turned-author said the initial flights to Mars would probably follow a safer storyline.

He noted that robotic missions to Mars, such as the ones involving NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, require a long latency period between sending commands and getting back the results coming out of those commands. That’s due to the distance between the rovers and their controllers on Earth.

“The biggest benefit to having an astronaut on the surface, in terms of the science, is that that astronaut has a brain,” Weir said. “An astronaut doesn’t have a five- to 20-minute latency in communicating what he or she wants to do on the surface of Mars. So the very first humans-to-Mars-area mission, I suspect, will be a whole bunch of rovers on the surface of Mars, and humans in orbit controlling them. What do you think?”

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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