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We’ve put a man on the Moon, so when will there be a man on Mars? Or a woman on Mars? It might seem like forever, but there are tentative plans to finally send humans to Mars in the next couple decades.
Back in the Space Race, when the Americans and Soviets were racing to put a man on the Moon, they had both developed plans on how they’d get people to Mars next. Werner Von Braun had developed a Mars concept plan. It involved a fleet of ten spacecraft and a crew of 70 astronauts. And based on the progress in getting to the Moon, Von Braun thought they’d get to Mars in the 1980s. Obviously, that didn’t happen. In fact, humans didn’t even return to the Moon after Eugene Cernan climbed into Apollo 17 in 1972.
NASA developed a strategy in 1989, which involved sending an enormous spacecraft to Mars, with cost estimates of more than $500 billion. Nicknamed the Battlestar Galactica plan, Congress decided to cancel it when they saw the costs.
The human exploration of Mars was put on the back burner until a new strategy called Mars Direct was developed by Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society. He suggested that the cost and complexity of a manned Mars mission could be reduced if you used the resources on Mars to get back home again. By creating fuel and water “in situ”, you didn’t have to bring it all from Earth, and could launch for a fraction of the costs. NASA adopted a version of this plan for their Mars Design Reference mission. Although a lot of thinking and planning happened, no hardware or projects were actually developed.
Everything changed in 2004 when President George W. Bush announced the new Vision for Space Exploration. This involved retiring the space shuttle, and developed a new class of launchers that would be capable of carrying humans back to the Moon. Once humans are back on the Moon, and a permanent base is established, the next step will be to send human missions to Mars. NASA administrator Mike Griffin proposed that a human Mars mission might be ready for launch in 2037.
The European Space Agency is considering a series of missions that would send humans to Mars by 2030, and the Russian Space Agency has floated some plans that might send humans even earlier.
NASA updated its Mars Reference Mission in 2009, incorporating the new Ares 5 launch vehicle into their plans.
We’ve written many articles about humans traveling to Mars. Here’s how new technology might slash the time to travel to Mars down to 39 days, and here’s an article about a team that did a simulated Mars mission.
If you’d like more information about humans traveling to Mars, check out the Mars Society’s homepage. And here’s a link to MarsDrive, and another group looking to send people to Mars.
We’ve also recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about missions to Mars. Listen here, Episode 94: Humans to Mars, Part 1