With the recent cancellation of the Constellation Program, which included the craft that would carry the first humans to Mars, this question has been discussed in the media and in the political arena. Initially, the reaction was decidedly that it would not be possible for NASA to meet their initial timeline of having astronauts on the Martian surface by 2030. However, a closer analysis of NASA's future indicates that the 2030 target date may still be achievable, though ambitious to say the least.
Even though NASA, along with help from private contractors, will need to completely reinvent human space exploration, there are other things to consider. First, the exploration of the Moon has been de-emphasized. While this may allow NASA to move up its time table, it also creates a risk. Part of the reason that NASA had planned to visit the Moon in 2020 was to use those missions as testing beds for the impending Mars expeditions. While it ultimately may not make a difference, my initial conclusion is that foregoing the Moon missions may increase the risk of traveling to Mars. This is particularly paradoxical given the plan's emphasis on safety.
Whatever the means, it appears that Mars is still NASA's destination. There are still many hurdles to overcome, but the picture is beginning to become clear. At the end of this month NASA is scheduled to unveil its plan to replace the cancelled Constellation Program. It is not likely that a timeline will accompany the announcement (or if one does it will be highly speculative), but at the very least we should have an idea the direction in which NASA is moving and what their focus will be.
Image Credit: NASA