Curiosity is currently at the center of the public's attention when it comes to space exploration, but NASA scientists have started shooting around ideas for future missions to Mars. Ultimately, scientists would like to retrieve rocks from the surface of Mars and bring them back to Earth for more in-depth examination, though they aren't planning to have humans on the red planet until the 2030s. One of NASA's mission ideas, however, could have humans involved in Mars missions long before the 2030s roll around.
The Associated Press (via New York Newsday) reports that one of NASA's ideas involves using humans as runners for these samples. Here's how things could potentially play out: NASA will send rovers to Mars once again, this time with the intention of collecting rocks and soil. Where humans come in is with the transport of those samples, with NASA saying that humans could potentially set up somewhere in between Earth and Mars to act as a shuttle for the samples collected on the surface of the red planet.
If NASA chooses to go this route, the astronauts would be taking advantage of new rockets and spaceships that are expected to be ready for showtime in the next decade. By having astronauts collect the rocks from a spacecraft somewhere in between Earth and Mars, NASA won't have to worry as much about contamination. Perhaps more importantly, this would be much safer for the astronauts involved than if they actually touched down on the surface of Mars.
Of course, this is only one of a number of options NASA is currently looking at, and we probably won't have a decision until next year. At the moment, NASA is also deciding on whether or not to send more rovers to Mars in 2018, so it seems that mission will take precedence, at least for the time being. Still, this is a pretty exciting possibility, and it may not be long before we have Martian soil and rock samples back here on Earth.