A version of this article appears in the May 12 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

After years of flailing its way into the post-space shuttle era, NASA is beginning to get its arms around just what it will take to explore deep space with human beings. This includes tapping all of its resources to develop a realistic engineering approach to deal with the hazardous environments beyond the Van Allen Belts—and up the street on Capitol Hill—where it operates. 

Having accepted that it won’t receive a blank check to plant the flag on Mars—the only destination that makes sense for human exploration right now—NASA has adopted a space-based crawl-walk-run approach that could get humans to the red planet in 20 years, with a lot of help from international and commercial partners, and only a “modest” increase in U.S. funding (AW&ST April 28, p. 20).

“Earth-reliant” work is well underway on the International Space Station, in the form of life sciences research and flight-test engineering for more-distant human missions. A two-man U.S.-Russian team is training to conduct exploration experiments on themselves and their hardware during a year-long Mars analog mission set to launch to the station next year.

If anything goes wrong while in orbit, Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko will be able to jump in their Soyuz lifeboat and be back on Earth in a few hours. That will change in the coming decade, when NASA wants to conduct longer and more distant “proving-ground” missions in the vicinity of the Moon. From there, it would take days instead of hours to get back to Earth. Beyond that, Mars will grow larger and larger in the windows of the Orion capsule as it takes “Mars-ready” crews to the planet’s moons and, ultimately, its surface. Whether they land on Mars or not, those crews must be ready to survive in nominal and off-nominal conditions for months before they can reach home.

One way to do that is with in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), an old concept that in deep space means using the materials at hand to live and to get back to Earth at the end of a mission. NASA has studied it in terrestrial laboratories for decades, producing concepts like the robotic rover for processing water from lunar resources (see illustration). Now, as managers find some room to start moving humans beyond low Earth orbit, NASA is beginning to look for ways to study ISRU in space.

While the U.S. has no plans to build a lander to put humans back on the Moon, ISRU is one of the drivers in a competition in which three U.S. companies have been selected to negotiate non-funded Space Act agreements for use of  NASA’s expertise as they develop robotic lunar landers for commercial applications. One application is prospecting for resources on the Moon that could support the push deeper into the Solar System.

“Robotic missions to the Moon have revealed the existence of local resources, including oxygen and water, which may be highly valuable for exploration of the Solar System,” says Jason Crusan, director of the agency’s Advanced Exploration Systems Div. “The potential to use the lunar surface in partnership with our international and commercial partners may allow these resources to be characterized and used to enable future exploration and pioneering.”

Crusan’s organization set up the “Lunar Catalyst” effort, which it hopes will lead to privately funded robotic lunar landers. Astrobotic Technology Inc. of Pittsburgh, Masten Space System Inc. of Mojave, Calif., and Moon Express Inc., based at Moffett Field, Calif., will be able to use NASA experts, software and hardware, and test facilities as they develop their prototypes. All three have participated in the Google Lunar X-Prize competition, which offers a total of $30 million to teams that can soft-land on the Moon and send back video. Beyond that prize money, robotic lunar landers could provide a way to pinpoint and eventually exploit the water and other resources with commercial potential.

Longer term, NASA is likely to include an ISRU experiment on the nuclear-powered robotic rover it plans to send to the red planet in 2020. Crusan says the instruments selected for the next rover—essentially a reprise of the Curiosity rover now exploring Gale Crater at the planet’s equator—will include hardware funded by NASA’s human exploration organization that will evaluate the feasibility of extracting oxygen from the carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere.

“A good mass fraction of your vehicle to take back off the surface is your oxidizer, so we’re looking at the oxygen, specifically, and separating that from the atmosphere of Mars,” Crusan says.

The work could have a profound effect on the design of human missions to Mars, according to Crusan’s boss. “We’re looking at ISRU very early in this sequence, because it [can have] a dramatic change in the way we do business . . . whether we can generate propellant on Mars for the return flight; what can we use from the Moon; how easy is it to do that,” says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations.  “Once we know the answers, they can dramatically affect the architecture and affect the mission scenarios we put together in the future.”