Lockheed Martin Wants to Orbit People Around Mars by 2028

Orbital research platform could let astronauts scour the surface using flying robots.

Mars Base Camp
Lockheed Martin

NASA set the basic mission parameters for a manned Mars mission some time ago. It went like this: Land people on Mars; preferably soon. But while the space agency has outlined the broad strokes, it's been less precise when it comes to many of the details. We'll get there, okay? Don't sweat the small stuff.

In the meantime, Lockheed Martin has taken it upon itself to begin filling in the gaps. The aerospace giant, which is working with NASA to develop the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that will ferry people to the red planet, announced a plan at this week's Humans to Mars Summit that would send astronauts looping around Mars years before mankind takes that first small step on the planet's surface.

"We think that orbiting Mars is a necessary precursor to landing humans on the surface," former astronaut and Lockheed Martin chief technologist for civil space exploration Tony Antonelli said to Popular Science.

The program, called Mars Base Camp, would send six astronauts across the intrastellar gulf to Mars by 2028, where they would spend roughly 10 or 11 months orbiting the planet and conducting research. From there, the crew could observe the surface without the pesky 20-minute lag time that affects transmissions from Mars-based probes to Earth-based controllers, enabling them to operate flying drones and other devices that require quick response time. Mars's low gravity might even make it possible to launch samples from the surface up to the station, enabling firsthand analysis right aboard the ship.

Lockheed Martin

"We think that putting scientists with laboratories right there in Mars orbit will allow them, in just a few months, to accomplish more science than we've been able to accomplish in the past 40 years," Antonelli said.

As Lockheed currently outlines it, the Mars Base Camp ship would be comprised of two Orion crew capsules—one main, one for emergencies—connected to a series of habitat and lab modules, while solar panel arrays would be installed for power. Since the complete ship would be too fragile to withstand a launch from Earth, Lockheed Martin says the craft would be lofted to lunar orbit in pieces, and then assembled there. Additional supplies could be delivered to Mars orbit in advance, and the base could be used as a space station for future missions to the planet's surface—or as a way home when the mission is complete.

While Lockheed Martin came up with the Mars Base Camp concept of its own volition, the company says it hopes NASA will consider its plan, as it could give the space agency a way to reach the planet years ahead of the current time frame of somewhere in the 2030s or 2040s. Considering the manned Mars mission is basically the Second Avenue Subway of space travel, we say the sooner we get this done, the better.