By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
U.S. astronauts won't land on Mars by themselves but with international partners in the 2030s, NASA's chief said Wednesday.
The NASA Curiosity rover's risky landing on the Red Planet is scheduled for 1:31 a.m. ET Monday morning. NASA chief Charles Bolden focused on Mars as the "ultimate destination for now" for human space exploration, in a meeting with the USA TODAY Editorial Board.
"I have no desire to do a Mars landing on our own," Bolden said. "The U.S. cannot always be the leader, but we can be the inspirational leader through international cooperation" in space exploration.
Obama administration plans are for the $17.7 billion space agency to land an astronaut on an asteroid in 2025, then go to Mars by the middle of the 2030s.
The mission inevitably will be international, as will any future human landings on the moon, Bolden said.
"We already have gone there first," he said.
The Obama administration's space plans have attracted criticism this year from some space-state senators such as Richard Shelby, R.-Ala., who disagreed with its emphasis on private space rockets to resupply the International Space Station, rather than a heavy rocket that would send a spacecraft to circle the moon in 2017.
NASA science chief John Grunsfeld put the odds as "very high" of the Curiosity mission's finding chemical signs of a habitable environment on the Red Planet perhaps 2.5 billion years ago.
A human mission to Mars would send six astronauts, who would take six months to get there and stay a month before returning on an eight- month trip back to Earth.
"I believe that most westerners presume that a human mission to Mars will quite likely be multinational. I certainly think so, and indeed would prefer this approach," says former NASA chief Michael Griffin, who has criticized the administration's manned spaceflight plans in the past.
"I do not believe that China makes such a presumption," Griffin adds, by email. "I suspect that when China believes it is ready as a nation to go to the Moon, it will do so, and later on exactly the same thing will be true of Mars."
China announced plans on Tuesday to launch its third lunar probe next year, part of an effort aimed at a manned moon landing in the next decade.
NASA has safely landed three mobile spacecraft on Mars since 1997, including Opportunity, still roving after eight years. NASA announced Wednesday it will televise the landing of the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover in New York City's Times Square.
"We're going to put this thing on Mars like Buck Rogers used to do in the science fiction books," Bolden said.