Obama says work has begun on habitats to help humans reach Mars

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama, highlighting his pledge to send people to Mars by the 2030s, on Tuesday announced further public-private efforts to build habitats that could help humans live long-term far from the Earth.

Dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks on Mars inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water are seen in an image produced by NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the University of Arizona. Scientists have found the first evidence that briny water may flow on the surface of Mars during the planet's summer months, a paper published on Monday showed. NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/Handout

“We are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space. These missions will teach us how humans can live far from Earth - something we’ll need for the long journey to Mars,” Obama said in an opinion piece on CNN’s website.

His comments come ahead of a meeting planned by the White House in Pittsburgh this week to team up scientists, students and others to advance the commercial space market, Obama said.

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.

Obama has previously sought to boost space exploration and renewed that pledge on Tuesday: “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.”

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.

Humans have yet to travel to Mars, Earth’s neighbor some 35 million miles (56 million km) away. Like Earth, the so-called Red Planet also has seasons, and a 2012 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mission found conditions there once supported microbial life, according to the U.S. space agency.

It would take about eight months to get there, depending on rocket velocity, according to NASA experts.

Efforts to fund the space program have faltered in recent years over concerns about fiscal priorities.

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.

Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Andrew Hay