The U.S. space agency's head of human space exploration has outlined broad brush plans to put humans on Mars in the 2030s.
William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, likened the steps the agency is taking to the Mercury and Gemini programs, both of which were building blocks toward putting men on the Moon with the Apollo missions.
Wednesday, before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee, Gerstenmaier said NASA is taking steps to "that will allow us to make sustained progress toward a human presence on the surface of Mars."
"There is real hardware in manufacture for the path to Mars," Gerstenmaier told senators.
In 2017, for example, the agency plans an unmanned test of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle, which will be used to take astronauts to Mars.
These initial steps toward Mars are comprised of "Earth-reliant" missions, such as the International Space Station, landing on an asteroid in lunar orbit, and finally, a "Mars-ready" mission.
During the first stage, NASA, along with international partners and private entities, will conduct research on how to keep space crews safe and productive on long duration spaceflights.
The joint effort will also explore how to transport cargo and crew affordably into low Earth orbit.
The second major stepping stone was approved by House subcommittee yesterday.
That mission calls for NASA to redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit, land astronauts on the asteroid, and return them safely to Earth.
"We're going to grab a piece of the solar system, we're going to deflect it around the moon and insert it into a distant retrograde orbit around the moon where our crews can go visit," said Gerstenmaier.
The mission he said would develop skills and techniques needed to "push the human presence into the solar system."