Obama vows to send people to Mars by the 2030s

U.S. President Barack Obama vows to help send people to Mars within the next 15 years, pledging to work with private companies "to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space."

U.S. president outlines goals in opinion piece for CNN

'We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America's story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth ...," U.S. President Barack Obama says in an opinion piece for CNN. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday vowed to help send people to Mars within the next 15 years, pledging to work with private companies "to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space."

"We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America's story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time," Obama said in an opinion piece for CNN posted to its website.

Obama said some of the U.S.'s leading scientists and engineers will meet in Pittsburgh this week to discuss the plan. 

He set a goal in 2010 to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. He said the next step is to "reach beyond the bounds of Earth's orbit."

Obama did not elaborate on what it will cost or how the U.S. will pay for it. But he said it will require years of patience, testing and education.

NASA separately said it was coordinating with commercial space companies to develop "deep space habitat modules" and create opportunities for companies to use the International Space Station's docking port.

As part of the space habitat effort, NASA said on Tuesday it was entering the so-called "proving ground" stage to demonstrate and test various technologies over the next 10 years.

Trips to the ISS

Last month, SpaceX founder Elon Musk outlined his ambitious plan to get humans to Mars within the next 10 years.

His company has already worked with NASA to send a Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, becoming the first commercial company to do so.

Obama said sending people there is the next step.

"Within the next two years, private companies will for the first time send astronauts to the International Space Station," he says in the CNN piece.

Mars is some 56 million kilometres away from Earth at their closest point in orbit.

Like Earth, the so-called Red Planet also has seasons, and a 2012 NASA mission found conditions there could have once supported microbial life, according to the U.S. space agency.

It would take about nine months to get there, depending on rocket velocity, some NASA experts have said. A high-speed trip could take as little as 130 days, they said on the agency's website.

Little attention to space in election race

The two-term president's recommitment comes in the final months of his tenure and faces an uncertain future after he leaves office in January. His successors will be chosen on Nov. 8 in an election that could also reshape Congress, which allocates government funding.

Obama, a self-described "nerd" who last year hosted budding astronomers at the White House, has made known his love of space.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her rival, Republican Donald Trump, have given little, if any, attention to the issue on the campaign trail.

It has been decades since the United States sent astronauts to the moon in 1969, and efforts to fund the space program have faltered in recent years over concerns about government spending and fiscal priorities.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press