Let’s say it straight. Mars is, without any doubt our next step in space exploration, sparking our imagination for many years in spaceflight history. After sending tons of scientific rovers, it’s about time to send human pioneers to start colonizing the Red Planet.

The only question is when will we reach that highly anticipated milestone? “Sending humans to Mars around 2033 should be the single organizing principle of future space exploration,” Professor G. Scott Hubbard of Stanford University and former NASA Ames Research Center director told me. He will give a speech on Sept. 6 about Mars exploration at the European Mars Conference (EMC) 2014 that will take place in Podzamcze, Poland.

Prof. Hubbard has been engaged in science, technology research, executive and program management for more than 40 years - including 20 years with NASA. He currently is a consulting Professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University where he focuses on planetary exploration, especially Mars and also serves as the Director of the Stanford Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. 

Professor Scott Hubbard gives the opening keynote at the NewSpace Business Plan Competition at the Stanford Space Entrepreneurship Conference on October 24, 2013 in Palo Alto, California. Credit: Nancy Ostertag

From 2002 to 2006 he was the Director of NASA’s Ames Research Center where he led the 2500 person research organization, revived the Center’s capability in supercomputing and established NASA’s first University Affiliated Research Center with the University of California. His recent book “Exploring Mars: Chronicles from a Decade of Discovery”, describes his work on NASA’s Mars Program.

The book chronicles how the Mars Program was changed and describes political and technical hurdles that needed to be overcome in order to put together a program. In 2000, Prof. Hubbard served as NASA’s first Mars program director and successfully restructured the entire Mars program. “In the wake of mission failures of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1998, I was asked by the NASA Administrator to become NASA’s first Mars program director. In the next year I was able to restructure the Mars program and set a vision for the initial exploration of Mars. That vision was characterized as ‘follow the water’ and has become the central theme of the initial exploration,” he said.

During his speech at the EMC he will concentrate on the history and future of Mars exploration. “My lecture will trace the history of Mars exploration and illustrate the intersection of science, engineering, politics and personalities that led to the new and successful Mars program of the last decade. My talk will outline the design, goals and discoveries of Odyssey, Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Phoenix and Opportunity.” Prof. Hubbard said. “I will also take a look ahead at the next decade, the plans for a Mars Sample Return campaign including Mars 2020 and the growing consensus that sending humans to Mars around 2033 should be the single organizing principle of future space exploration. In addition I will outline the technical, fiscal and institutional issues that must be overcome."

Along with the EMC, an international Mars rover contest will be held - the European Rover Challenge (ERC). The challenge involving analogues of Mars rovers is a competition for teams of students and recent graduates of higher education institutions, who, with the help of their faculty, try to first design and build and then field the best rover.

The core of the challenge are four practical tasks: a science task involving obtaining and analyzing samples, a “blind” navigation task, in which the team will have to guide the rover to a certain destination using just GPS coordinates and no camera input, and two engineering tasks that will require using and repairing equipment. During all of the tasks, the teams will have to control their rovers without seeing them directly.

Asked about ERC teams, Prof. Hubbard said, “While I have heard a Mars 2018 presentation from a team from Wrocław University of Technology at the recent Mars Society Conference, I have not previously studied the rover teams.” The challenge starts on Sept. 5, so a great opportunity to meet the teams and see the rovers live in action is just less than 3 weeks away.

Astrowatch.net is the official media patron of the European Rover Challenge competition and the European Mars Conference. This article first appeared there.