A human mission to Mars is feasible over the course of the next 20 years, experts say.
At a three-day conference starting Monday May 6 in Washington, D.C., Buzz Aldrin and key officials from the U.S. space agency will discuss the issue. NASA chief Charles Bolden has stressed the urgency of going to Mars.
"If we started today, it's possible to land on Mars in 20 years," said G. Scott Hubbard of Stanford University, who served as NASA's first Mars program director. "It doesn't require miracles, it requires money and a plan to address the technological engineering challenges."
The Obama administration's 2010 "National Space Policy of the United States of America" requires Bolden to set forth a number of goals that include, "by 2025, begin crewed missions beyond the moon, including sending humans to an asteroid. By the mid-2030s, send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth."
The policy does not require an actual Mars landing, which would be exceptionally difficult, given that the planet has no air. Landing a spacecraft on Mars without crashing poses a difficult challenge.
"Can we do it? Yes," NASA's associate administrator for space technology Michael Gazarik said. "It depends on your level of risk. You can send people many places. It is a question of risk."
Despite the risks, the American populace appears to be in favor of sending humans to Mars, as indicated by a recent survey from Boeing and the nonprofit group Explore Mars. Conducted in March, the poll indicates that 71 percent of Americans believe that humans will land on the planet by 2033.
Two of the problems facing NASA right now are funding and technology. Currently NASA receives 0.5 percent of the U.S. federal budget, as opposed to the 1960s, when the agency received four percent. Technological challenges include the landing as well as protecting astronauts from radiation as they travel through space.
"We have a number of incremental steps and missions ahead of us that will get better defined as we prepare to go to Mars," agency spokesman Allard Beutel said in an email.
Meanwhile, private space companies are making their own plans to send humans to the red planet. Although those agencies may be willing to take more risks than NASA, their challenges remain similar.