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NASA already described its plan for reaching Mars. Now it showed us the hardware

NASA unveiled its proposed three-step plan for reaching the red planet last October, but it has yet to explain exactly how it plans on pulling off the feat. Despite publishing a 36-page report and an artistic graphic touching on the mission’s stages, required equipment, and time frame, we were all left wondering what NASA’s bigwigs actually had up their sleeves.

Today the journey to Mars is finally getting a little less murky. NASA recently held a two-day event geared toward pulling back the veil on its ambitious future plan — and Digital Trends was there to get the inside scoop.

Instead of simply packing a group of journalists and social media fans into a room and clicking through various PowerPoint presentations, NASA did one better: It allowed visits to two of its official space centers, Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi. As expected, the information given during each tour teetered on the edge of being both extremely dense — it is rocket science, after all — and purposely vague; NASA doesn’t plan on actually sending humans to Mars until the 2030s, leaving it some time to elaborate.

With that said, the agency did have a former astronaut on hand who was as enthusiastic about space travel as anyone, along with a slew of engineers, technicians, and representatives who were all eager to finally expose the foundation for how we plan to travel to the red planet.

Peering behind NASA’s curtain

With just 1.5 days planned for the big event, NASA intended to share as much information pertaining to its journey to Mars as possible. With companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin on hand — as well as various other NASA centers — it was clear the space agency wasn’t messing around; it had an agenda. After all, traveling to Mars will be no small feat. To see NASA take the event as seriously as it did bodes well for the future of the program.

“I’ve always said that it’s not a question of ‘if’ we’re going to Mars, it’s really just a question of ‘when.’

NASA doesn’t actually intend to send humans to Mars until the mid- to late-2030s, meaning a mission of this magnitude won’t occur for at least 20 years. Perhaps this is why it seemed like there were so many moving pieces during the event. NASA does still have a decade or two to create some components, like the heat shield for the Mars lander, as well as a Mars ascent vehicle, which are still merely concepts.

Though the plan is far from complete, proving it has the capability to show something puts NASA on par with others embroiled in the race to Mars — even if the agency is thought to be bringing up the rear.

NASA representatives during the event were beyond enthusiastic about flinging open its doors and sharing an exclusive peek of this ambitious mission. One of these passionate employees was none other than astronaut Rick Mastracchio, whose impressive resume includes three NASA Space Shuttle missions — one of which he served as the mission’s Flight Engineer. Considering his reputation dates back to 1996, Mastracchio has seen many of NASA’s highs and lows, but feels particularly confident in its current focus on the red planet.

“I became an astronaut 20 years ago and we had big dreams back then, we were going to the Moon, we were going to go to Mars, NASA had big plans,” Mastracchio told Digital Trends in an exclusive interview. “Of course, as my career progressed, things happened. The Columbia accident, of course … we built the Space Station instead of going beyond low-Earth orbit [with] the NASA budget. So, I’m not surprised that we’re going to Mars, as I’ve always said that it’s not a question of ‘if’ we’re going to Mars, it’s really just a question of ‘when.'”

To indulge those in attendance about more of the “when,” NASA first treated the group with a trip to its massive Michoud Assembly Facility, a 2.2 million square foot facility that houses much of the space agency’s large-scale manufacturing and assembly capabilities. Located in the humid bayou climate, not far from countless New Orleans jazz bands, Michoud is an otherworldly spectacle in its own right. The facility houses throngs of unfathomably large pieces of hardware — i.e. a three-story, 150-ton friction-stir welding tool — which go a long way in helping an ordinary journalist gain an understanding of space travel’s immense scale.

Orion, the most advanced spacecraft ever

The first piece of future history we saw on our agency-guided tour of the facility was the Lockheed Martin-manufactured Orion spacecraft. Designed with long-duration deep space travel in mind, the Orion spacecraft is perhaps the most ambitious project native to NASA’s journey to Mars. Not only are Lockheed and NASA building the craft to house a team of astronauts for long periods of time — getting to (and from) Mars will likely take months — but it will also have the ability to land and relaunch from either the Moon or Mars as well. According to Rick Mastrecchio, pushing the limits of technology is critical in the mission to Mars.

“We need to be a multi-planet species.”

“We need to continue to push technology, we’re not just going to Mars to support a few people on the planet,” Mastrecchio continued. “The things that we learn on the way to Mars — the technologies we develop in terms of recycling water and air and things like that — those are technologies that can be used here on the planet. That’s one good reason to go, but also, we need to be a multi-planet species. We need to go to Mars eventually and it has to be a priority for us. It’s not going to be cheap but I think we need to start down that path.”

Initially traveling to space via the mammoth Space Launch System rocket, Orion is shaping up to be the most advanced spacecraft ever created. With 30 percent more habitable volume than Apollo — meaning up to four astronauts can travel comfortably inside — the craft also features redundant computer systems, software, and various life support devices capable of resisting long bouts of severe radiation. Furthermore, Lockheed is currently constructing its exterior structure to withstand micrometeoroid strikes, further increasing its durability while also improving the mission’s chance of success.

Though the craft itself is still only a collection of pieces at Michoud, its high level of quality is immediately apparent. From a mostly-constructed portion of Orion’s bulkhead to a completed cone-shaped adapter, much of Lockheed’s innovative project was on display at Michoud, though full versions of the craft are now making their way to Kennedy Space Center for rigorous testing.

Orion-spacecraft

After getting an up close and personal view of the Orion spacecraft, Michoud facility members whisked us away to an utterly jaw-dropping section of the premises: a daunting, mammoth, 210 ft. high Vertical Assembly Building where NASA will construct portions of the Space Launch System.

Though NASA didn’t actually show off any part of the Space Launch System being constructed inside the manufacturing facility, getting a peek at where the future assembly will take place again helped us understand the mission’s scale. To give you an idea of the relative size of the SLS, it will be so tall that it could touch the ceiling, meaning NASA has to piece it together in parts. Even a 210 ft. tall building isn’t tall enough to house the largest rocket ever created.

Up the road to Stennis Space Center

Not content to show us just one space center in a day, NASA loaded us onto a motorcade of buses and shuttled everyone to the Stennis Space Center. Stennis is enormous, so large that it has its very own ZIP code — even though zero people actually live in the area. Getting from one side to the other takes 15 minutes by bus.

Related: NASA will hand over the ISS to a private company in about a decade

Our initial tour at Michoud showed off the Orion spacecraft and the facility where NASA’s SLS rocket was to be assembled, but Stennis was all about rockets. It housed AeroJet RocketDyne, the company responsible for manufacturing SLS’s rocket engines: the RS-25. With a production time of roughly 18 months, the SLS program will make use of a staggering 16 engines for its trip to Mars — four engines for each of the four planned missions, with the first of these missions coming in 2018.

The ferocity of the steam escaping the test stand was unlike anything we’d ever seen before; it was utterly fascinating.

Powerful hardly comes close to describing the RS-25 engine, but it’s certainly a good start. Boasting roughly 500,000 lbs. of thrust, each RS-25 engine can burn around 1,500 lbs. of fuel per second. Once all four are attached to the SLS rocket and begin firing, a whopping 2 million lbs. of thrust will be generated. During its presentation, AeroJet RocketDyne boasted about its previous tests saying its engine has the capability of running at 111 percent — literally dialed to 11 — and that the engine test scheduled for later that afternoon would demonstrate this.

After explaining the ins and outs of its day-to-day rocket production, AeroJet RocketDyne decided to enlighten the attending crew with perhaps the next best thing to seeing the test: taking a look at the engines in person. A guided tour through its manufacturing facility provided an up close and personal view of many of the RS-25s slated for use on the SLS program. Unfortunately, photos were prohibited, but take our word for it, the engines are marvels and are absolutely jaw-dropping.

And finally, the engine test

With several hours of facility tours, bus rides, and sticky New Orleans heat already in the books, it was finally time for NASA to crank up the intensity. After bussing us to Stennis Space Center’s B-2 Test Stand, NASA shuffled everyone to where we’d actually witness the rocket show some 1,000 feet away.

With nary a rocket launch or similar test under our belt, we weren’t the least bit prepared for what await us as NASA’s test clock ticked down to :00. Unlike typical launches — or those you see in Hollywood flicks — after the loud speaker announced the 10-second countdown, there were no subsequent “nine, eight, seven,” notifications. What actually happened was a 10-second silence followed by a few hundred jaws hitting the floor as an incredibly powerful blast of steam came charging out of the test bay almost unannounced.

One of the engineers — with a smile on his face — said some people prefer engine tests to actual launches because of the longevity of the test. An actual rocket launch, no matter how sensational it is, fades from view in minutes; an engine test just keeps firing. In the case of the RS-25 on display at Stennis this day, the engine fired for just shy of five solid minutes.

Even from 1,000 feet away, the ground beneath us shook as NASA dialed the engine from 109 to 111 percent and back again. The ferocity of the steam escaping the test stand was unlike anything we’d ever seen before; it was utterly fascinating. As the test came to a close, it became apparent why the AeroJet employee posited that some may prefer engine tests over launches. Then again, we wouldn’t mind watching an actual rocket launch for a fair comparison.

What’s up NASA’s sleeve?

NASA’s event certainly didn’t answer every question you might have about the mission. Though some of the “how” was fleshed out in the form of the Orion spacecraft, the revolutionary RS-25 engines, and a host of other projects (big and small) currently in the works, there’s a lot of work to be done.

Some folks shrugged at the agency’s initial 36-page report last October, but one thing is now crystal clear: NASA is going to Mars, and we couldn’t be more thrilled. If we’re lucky, it may not take as long as we think.