WASHINGTON — NASA is taking advantage of a confluence of events, including the discovery of liquid water on the surface of Mars and the release of a Hollywood blockbuster about a Mars mission, to promote its long-term goal of sending humans there, even as it is slow to fill in the details about its plans.

A Sept. 28 press conference at NASA Headquarters, where scientists and agency officials announced new evidence that liquid water flows periodically on some regions of the planet’s surface, was one of the latest, and most visible, efforts by NASA officials to impress upon the public their long-term vision for human Mars exploration, called “Journey to Mars.”

“We are going to Mars. Our ‘Journey to Mars’ is a science-led expedition right now, but soon, I hope, we’ll be sending humans to the red planet to explore,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science.

Grunsfeld, a former astronaut, said he made a point of wearing his NASA flight jacket to the press conference to emphasize the link between science and human exploration. “It’s even more imperative that we send astrobiologists and planetary scientists to Mars to explore the question of, ‘Is there current life on Mars?’” he said.

The discovery, strictly speaking, had little to do with human exploration, but was instead part of the agency’s long-running robotic Mars exploration program. NASA, though, is increasingly tying its science and human exploration efforts together as part of its efforts to build support for human missions to Mars.

“We typically separated the science side of Mars from the human exploration side of Mars,” Ashley Edwards, communications integration manager in NASA’s human exploration and operations mission directorate, said at a Sept. 28 panel here organized by the advocacy group Explore Mars and alumni of International Space University. “Now, we have a communications campaign that is focused on integrating the technology, the science and the human spaceflight aspects of it.”

That “Journey to Mars” campaign has also been supported by the publicity for the film “The Martian,” which opened Oct. 2 in the United States. The movie, based on the Andy Weir novel of the same name, is about a NASA astronaut fighting to survive on Mars after being stranded there.

Jim Green, director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters, attends the world premiere for "The Martian” at the Toronto International Film Festival  on Sept. 11, 2015. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Jim Green, director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters, attends the world premiere for “The Martian” at the Toronto International Film Festival. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Jim Green, director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters, attends the world premiere for “The Martian” at the Toronto International Film Festival. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA provided advice for the movie’s producers and hosted several events in the weeks leading up to the film’s release that included NASA astronauts and scientists as well as the cast and crew of “The Martian.” NASA officials also attended the film’s world premiere in Toronto Sept. 11.

On the agency’s website, NASA is also highlighting what it calls “The Real Martians,” linking the technologies featured in the movie with those NASA is developing for human missions to Mars. Edwards said NASA also plans a “science fact versus science fiction” campaign to compare the movie with reality. “We can have a conversation about how things were portrayed in the movie and what we are doing right now in our space program to make this a reality,” she said.

The movie’s producers have reciprocated. Hours after the Sept. 28 press conference announcing the liquid water discovery, they released a brief video combining a clip from that event with one from “The Martian,” and another where the movie’s star, Matt Damon, congratulated NASA for the discovery.

That publicity comes, though, as NASA has offered few specific details about how it would carry out a mission like the one portrayed in the movie. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and others at the agency have repeatedly said it is too soon to describe how NASA would send humans to Mars in the 2030s, instead laying out a broad strategy of building up experience in what they call the “proving ground” of cislunar space before attempting expeditions to Mars.

“Those kinds of decisions are for the next administration, maybe two administrations away,” Bolden said in a Sept. 10 interview, referring to the specific technical approach to landing humans on Mars. “It is way too early to be planning that.”

Matt Damon at JPL
“The Martian” star Matt Damon smiles after making cement hand prints during a visit to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with Mars rover Curiosity project manager Jim Erickson (left) and NASA astronaut Drew Feustel.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Even those broad details, though, have been slow in coming. In a Sept. 2 presentation at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Space 2015 conference in Pasadena, California, Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said NASA was finalizing a report titled “Journey to Mars” that offered more details about its overall strategy.

“We have captured that strategy in a document which we plan to release around the middle of this month,” he said, showing a report cover dated September 2015. NASA, though, has yet to release the report. NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said Oct. 1 that NASA now planned to publish the document in early October.

Bolden expects that overall strategy to come together by the time the agency releases its 2017 budget proposal next February. “It is my hope that once we get through this next round of budget deliberations and we’re ready for the 2017 budget to roll out that we’ll have a pretty coherent, thorough story to be told,” he said.

Many advocates of human Mars exploration are less concerned about those limited details than about political issues. “NASA’s doing a wonderful job,” Chris Carberry, chief executive of Explore Mars, said at the Sept. 28 panel. “Perhaps the greatest challenge is not the technology but policy.”

Carberry and other Explore Mars members spent that day on Capitol Hill, meeting with the offices of nearly 50 members of Congress to discuss the importance of Mars exploration. He said they generally got a positive reception, but he was still concerned about sustaining the momentum NASA has built up for its plans, particularly when a new president takes office in 2017.

“We are at a critical moment right now,” he said. “We really need to get to the next administration and not have them hit the reset button.”

If that political strategy and technical effort is successful, Grunsfeld said he knows what he would do if, as an astronaut on a Mars mission, he came across some of the liquid water found by scientists: “Drink it.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...