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Humans on Mars 'closer than ever': NASA chief

CNBC CNBC 12/04/2016 Trent Gillies

© Provided by CNBC In the movie, "The Martian," Matt Damon was a fictional astronaut stranded on Mars. In reality, the head of NASA says astronauts could set foot on the Red Planet within the next twenty years. 

"We think we're on the right trajectory to get humans to Mars in the 2030's," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told CNBC's "On the Money" in an interview this week.

He should know: Prior to assuming NASA's top job in 2009, Bolden was himself an astronaut for 14 years, commanding two space shuttle missions during that time. The U.S.'s top space official says he's confident the agency's "Journey to Mars" goal can be accomplished, building on years of space exploration.

"If we were just starting out, I would have doubts," Bolden explained. "But we've been sending precursor missions to Mars for almost 50 years now."

Now in his seventh year as leader of the space agency, Bolden told "On The Money" that a big part of his legacy will involve "making sure we're on a steady path to Mars and that we can get there in the 2030's. We're a lot closer than ever before."

This year marks the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's 58th birthday. It was in 1961 that President John F. Kennedy pledged Americans would land astronauts on the moon. That ambitious goal was ultimately accomplished in 1969, as millions of Americans watched Apollo 11's moon landing live from their living rooms. 

Decades later, Bolden believes a mission to Mars has become the modern day equivalent of a trip to the moon. Reaching the Red Planet is "critically important," he said.

Mars "is similar to Earth, we think, and its history will help us understand our own planet better," Bolden added.

According to NASA, Mars is a cold desert world that's half the diameter of Earth. However, it has nearly the same amount of dry land as our planet, with seasons, weather, volcanoes and canyons.

Although no liquid water is believed to exist on the planet's surface, the agency says "evidence for water now exists mainly in icy soil and thin clouds." The atmosphere, however, could be a nightmare for the weather sensitive: Temperatures range from 70 degrees Fahrenheit to 225 degrees below zero.

There's one more box that a Mars mission needs to check. "The ultimate reason ... is the fact that we want to know whether there is life elsewhere in the universe."

Unlike the original space race against Russia with Cold War implications, the agency hopes this space race will foster global cooperation in space exploration, not competition.

"That's one of the things most important to get people to understand," Bolden said to CNBC. "This is truly an international venture. It will be absolutely essential to have international partners with us."

The International Space Station (ISS) is an example of that partnership. Since 2000, people from 18 countries have visited the microgravity laboratory. Last month, NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly returned from a record-breaking 342 days in orbit on the ISS.

"Scott's mission was critical," Bolden said. "It's not the longest humans have ever been in space, but it's the longest an American has been there over a sustained period of time."

The lessons learned from Kelly's nearly year-long mission will help scientists figure out what challenges astronauts could face on further space journey.

"It's going to help us in our never-ending quest to understand how the human body will function for long periods of time in the microgravity environment of space," Bolden said.

Kelly actually arrived back on Earth about two inches taller, but the height increase was temporary.

Bolden explained that's because "gravity is taken out of equation. You're going around Earth so rapidly that centrifugal force overcomes gravity and you have this sensation you call floating. So everybody grows by fractions of inches and unfortunately for short people like me, you go back to normal, within days after you come back to Earth."

NASA is getting help in building the new spacecraft and systems to get astronauts further in space. As part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, the agency has already partnered with Boeing and Tesla founder Elon Musk's SpaceX to launch astronauts to the ISS.

"The commercial partners that we have [are] absolutely incredibly important to NASA," Bolden says. "They're good for NASA and the nation, primarily because they help us to bring launches back to American soil, whether it's for cargo or people. "

For the mission to Mars, those commercial partnerships will continue. NASA is working to build the next generation rocket to take astronauts to deep space. Called SLS for Space Launch System, the program will include a core rocket being built by Boeing.

The Orion crew exploration spacecraft is being built by Lockheed Martin.

Bolden says those two systems are crucial to the Mars mission. "The SLS and Orion, that's going to be our deep space vehicle to carry our astronauts back into the area around the moon and eventually on to Mars."

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