As NASA builds a blueprint for exploration throughout the solar system, the agency is doing it with staying power in mind.
In April 2023, NASA released a lengthy document with the outcomes of its first Architecture Concept Review, the agency’s new analysis process designed to align its Moon to Mars exploration strategy and codify the supporting architecture. The document provides a deep dive into NASA’s Moon to Mars architecture approach and development process and is written for a technically informed audience with interest in the finer details of the agency’s forward plan.
The driving force behind NASA’s concept review process is a relatively new set of 63 Moon to Mars Objectives, which enable NASA to explore synergies between the United States and other nations’ objectives for lunar and Martian exploration, including potential opportunities for collaboration.
In contrast to a capabilities-driven approach to exploration, this objectives-based approach focuses on the big picture, defining the “what” and “why” of what NASA should be doing as part of its deep space exploration efforts before defining how to do accomplish those tasks, such as prescribing a specific technology or acquisition approach. In essence, NASA now is identifying the goals of exploration throughout the solar system upfront and creating an integrated plan to achieve those goals, rather than building capabilities and then matching those technologies to goals that may change over time.
The Moon to Mars Objectives cover four board areas: science; transportation and habitation; lunar and Martian infra-structure; and operations. Together, they provide the connective tissue between deep space human exploration destinations and the capabilities required to accomplish goals at the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
The science-focused objectives address fundamental questions in several key areas including heliophysics, biology, and planetary science that are best accomplished by astronauts on and around the Moon and Mars, aided by robotic systems on the surface and in orbit, and focus on developing ways humans and robotic assets can work together.
The lunar and Martian infrastructure objectives are designed to create a global lunar infrastructure where U.S. industry and international partners can maintain continuous robotic and human presence on the lunar surface for a robust lunar economy without NASA as the only user and create essential infra-structure to mount an initial human Mars exploration plan.
The transportation and habitation objectives include those intended to develop and demonstrate an integrated system of systems to conduct a slate of human exploration mission to the Moon and Mars, while living and working on the lunar and Martian surface, with safe return to Earth.
The operations-focused objectives cover using a gradual build-up approach to conduct mission on the surface of the Moon and around it, followed by mission to Mars.
From the beginning, NASA brought a thoughtful and inclusive approach to developing the objectives themselves. In November 2021, leaders began working on the objectives in coordination with an agency cross-directorate Federated Board, whose purpose is to ensure NASA’s focus is integrated with common strategic goals and direction across the agency’s mission directorates. Nine top-level goals and 50 draft and intentionally broad objectives were released to the public and the NASA workforce in May 2022 with a request for comments a month later.
NASA received more than 5,000 inputs, with some responses encouraging the agency to be even broader in some areas and more specific in others. Leaders modified many of the objectives and added new ones, holding workshops with both industry and international partners to continue refining the goals.
The objectives are designed to serve as guideposts for shaping NASA’s investments, as well as those of the agency’s industry and international partners. While they are comprehensive, NASA intends to revisit them in the years ahead as its architecture matures, new knowledge and technological capabilities emerge, and more stakeholders come to the table.
While the agency is focused on achieving its Artemis missions, and recently named the four astronauts who will venture around the Moon late next year as part of its Artemis II flight test, our Moon to Mars Objectives ensure there is a comprehensive framework in place to support all of NASA’s exploration goals in the future.
Following the success of an uncrewed Artemis I mission in December 2022, NASA remains committed to returning humans to the Moon, establishing a cadence of missions that will enable a long-term presence in lunar orbit, all in an effort to inform future exploration of farther destinations, including Mars, and other destinations in the solar system.
This article was written by Kurt (Spuds) Vogel, NASA Director of Space Architecture. For more information, visit here .