(CBS) NASA is serious, very serious, about launching the most difficult mission ever attempted by the human race - putting an astronaut on Mars. The voyage will cover hundreds of millions of miles and take two-and-a-half years roundtrip. It sounds like science fiction.
To make it scientific fact, the United States needs to first flex its deep space muscles again on familiar terrain - the moon.
It’s been nearly 40 years since Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind and almost as long since the American public was truly captivated by the space program. You may not know it, but as 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon reports, the journey to send humans back to the moon and beyond has already begun.
From the mountains of Utah to the factory floors of Cleveland, from the space center in Houston to the marshes of Virginia, spacesuits are being tested, rockets are being fired, and capsules are being designed. The United States is once again aiming to launch astronauts to the moon and yes, even, to Mars.
"What’s impossible? What can’t we do if we wanna do it badly enough?" says Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. He calls his trip on Apollo 17 a visit to God’s front porch. He says anything seemed achievable in those days.
"When I came back from the moon in ’72, [I] stood on my soapbox and said, ‘We’re not only going back to the moon, we’re gonna be on our way to Mars by the turn of the century.' I believed it with my whole heart. But my glass has been half empty for the last 30 years. Now, it’s half full."
It’s half full because NASA is returning to what Cernan calls the romance of space: dramatic human missions to other worlds.
What will propel the astronauts is the new Ares rockets, but they won’t be ready until 2015.
Dr. Rick Gilbrech is NASA’s exploration chief.
"A lot of people don’t understand. They say, ‘Why can’t we go to the moon, we've already been there.' Well, we can’t really roll up the garage door and dust off the Saturn V rockets. That whole infrastructure was dismantled after the Apollo program."
The decision to dismantle Apollo and to cancel possible future trips to places like Mars was made during the Nixon era. Dr. Mike Griffin, NASA's current director, says that was wrong. "It has to rank as one of the colossal mistakes in history," he says.
And that mistake, Griffin says, led to the Space Shuttle, which he believes doesn’t generate as much excitement because it never leaves the Earth’s orbit. Griffin says Americans are bored by the space program because NASA has run a boring space program. The Space Shuttle will finally be retired in two years. In its place: the new exploration program called Constellation.
There is no question Mars is the ultimate goal, but why return to the moon? Why not go straight to Mars? "If we didn’t have a moon, we would. And we could. But it would be much riskier," Griffin says.
To get to Mars, the astronauts will need to travel several hundred million miles before landing. If something goes wrong along the way, the astronauts would never make it back to Earth.
Mars is a tough place to do business; Steve Squyres should know. He is the principal investigator for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Squyres and everyone at NASA were greatly relieved when they landed safely on the red planet four years ago.
The rovers have been a huge success in exploring Mars and transmitting rare pictures from there. Prior to their landing, roughly two-thirds of all missions to the planet had failed. Squyres calls Mars a spacecraft graveyard.
"The accuracy with which you need to target a landing site on the surface is like throwing a basketball from New York to Los Angeles and having it go through without touching the rim," he explains.
If the astronauts make that shot, if they land on Mars, they will face a deadly environment - radiation from solar flares, dangerous dust and temperatures that average 60 degrees below zero. And they’ll have to do it for up to 18 months. That’s how long it will take before the Earth and Mars align properly again for a faster return home. No astronauts have ever spent that amount of time on another world. Neil Armstrong was on the moon for less than a day.
"And I think it’s more responsible for us to go to the moon, check out these systems, make sure the life-support systems, the space suits, the little things we need for these long voyages, work properly," Gilbrech explains.
The new lunar missions will be about more than putting flags in the sand. This time, NASA wants its astronauts on the moon for weeks, even months, to work out any kinks.
"And going to the moon, staying for months, wearing the space suit all the time?" Simon asks.
"No," says Gilbrech. "We have planned to have habitats so that they’ll have short-sleeve environments." He says the goal is to have towns on the moon.
To help essentially colonize the moon, NASA is trying out a new generation of rovers.
During Apollo, the furthest the astronauts could ever venture out on their lunar rovers was six miles. NASA hopes the new rovers will let the astronauts explore 60 miles from their spacecraft. Technological advancements will help in another way. Think about this: There is more computing power in your average cell phone today than there was on any of the Apollo spacecraft that took the astronauts to the moon.
Another example of how the new missions might be different is the
robonaut, which looks like a cousin of C-3PO. It’s an early model of a robot that might assist the astronauts with mundane and sometimes dangerous tasks on the moon.
The astronauts who set up towns on the moon will need to learn to adapt. At the
Glenn Research Center near Cleveland, engineers are testing a machine that simulates one-sixth gravity.
"No matter how many times you see astronauts walking on the moon, you have no idea what it feels like," says Simon while walking on the vertical treadmill, a surreal machine that simulates the feel of walking on the moon.
Without exercise in space, the astronauts could lose significant bone mass and also see their muscles atrophy.
NASA isn’t using the moon just to train for Mars. Next year, it will launch orbiters around the moon and then essentially blast the lunar surface. In the midst of the debris field, NASA hopes to find evidence of hydrogen, which could one day help fuel trips home for the astronauts. But will there be any missions for the astronauts at all?
The biggest obstacle NASA faces is money. One critic has called the Constellation program "Apollo on food stamps." During the 1960s, 4 percent of the entire national budget was spent on space. Today one-sixth of 1 percent goes to NASA.
"The average American’s bill, if you will, for the space program, is 15 cents per person, per day," says Griffin. "I don’t know about you, but I spend more than that on bubble gum."
And there are worries there could be further cuts. Constellation is a tempting target in a difficult economy. The money squeeze is the main reason why the U.S. won’t set foot on the moon until 2020. A Mars landing won’t take place until about 2030. To defray costs for the trip to Mars, NASA may need an international partner. If it's up to Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., who tried to halt the Mars program, Americans won’t be part of any human missions to the planet. So what does he have against Mars?
"I don’t have anything against a lot of things I don’t wanna spend hundreds of billions of dollars on," says Rep. Frank. "Sending human beings there for the sole purpose of proving that we can do it and bringing them back requires an enormous amount of money at a time when we have a serious deficit, when we are not adequately funding a lot of very important needs right here at home."
Others wonder why NASA doesn’t simply continue to send rovers like Spirit and Opportunity to Mars. Miraculously, they not only survived the landing, they have survived for four years on the Martian surface. The rovers were originally supposed to last only three months. The rovers are cheaper and don’t put humans at risk. But what rovers can do in a day, humans could do in a minute. And manned missions to Mars could intensify a very important search, according to Squyres, the lead scientist for the rovers.
"We’re exploring Mars, fundamentally, because it may once have harbored life," he says. "So, by going to Mars we can address basic questions like, 'How did life first come to be? Is life common or rare throughout the universe?' These are big questions."
Discoveries by the rovers have given hints to the possibilities of life on Mars. Perfect, blueberry-like spheres on the surface are made of a mineral that is often formed in water on Earth. Last year, white dirt appeared in Spirit’s tracks. It was silica. The presence of water is required to produce such a high concentration. And inside what’s known as the Victoria Crater, Opportunity is finding proof that water once saturated the sub-surface of Mars. Water is the essential ingredient for life. Which brings up an if?
"This is a big if," Squyres says, "but if you could show that life arose independently on two different planets just in this one solar system, when you consider the multitudes of solar systems that there are out there, it takes no great leap of logic or faith or anything else to believe that life might actually be commonplace throughout the universe."
And if that isn’t enough to think about, the real issue may not be whether there was or is life on Mars, but whether there will be life on Mars.
Griffin says "I think Mars will figure prominently in the future of the human race. Well, I think Mars is in, in the distant future, is another home for human beings."
Human settlements on Mars: is it all just a dream? Will the American public even support traveling to places humans can barely imagine? That may be the biggest question of all.