Should We Send Humans to Mars?

Featured Image: True-color image of the Red Planet taken on October 10, 2014, by India’s Mars Orbiter mission from 76,000 kilometers (47,224 miles) away. (Credit: ISRO/ISSDC/Justin Cowart) (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

Universe Today has explored the potential for sending humans to Europa, Venus, Titan, and Pluto, all of which possess environmental conditions that are far too harsh for humans to survive. The insight gained from planetary scientists resulted in some informative discussions, and traveling to some of these far-off worlds might be possible, someday. In the final installment of this series, we will explore the potential for sending humans to a destination that has been the focus of scientific exploration and science folklore for more than 100 years: Mars aka the Red Planet.

Continue reading “Should We Send Humans to Mars?”

How Will We Get to Mars? New Book and TV Series Provide the Details

What is it going to take to really get humans to Mars? A new television series and a companion book take a detailed and hard look at the future of Mars exploration. The six-part documentary series on the National Geographic Channel and the book by veteran, award-winning space journalist Leonard David are both titled, “Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet.”

The TV series debuts on November 14, 2016 and was produced by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and NASA scientist Brian Grazer. It combines interviews with some of the prominent ‘movers and shakers’ in the space community along with a scripted drama that portrays a human mission to Mars in the year 2033. Together, the show “tells the story of how we will one day call the Red Planet home through groundbreaking research and innovation.”

Watch the trailer:

Leonard David’s thoroughly researched book contains a wealth of information on the technological and sociological hurdles that need to be surmounted to make humans on Mars a reality, as well as revealing what work is currently being done on the road to the Red Planet. The books is large format, filled with stunning, full-color images throughout that provide a feast for the eye, including actual images from our spacecraft as well as illustrations of what future missions might entail.

While the book includes some portrayals of the television series’ drama of the crew of the Daedalus mission as they land on Mars and set up the first human base, the real drama comes from David’s interviews with real-life experts, the men and women who are fervently working towards the day an actual human mission goes to Mars.

I had the chance to talk with David about his new book, and asked what it was like to write a book in conjunction with a television series.

Author Leonard David speaking at the Mars Society meeting in Washington, DC. Image courtesy Leonard David.
Author Leonard David speaking at the Mars Society meeting in Washington, DC. Image courtesy Leonard David.

“It was a really interesting experience,” he said, “and we had a close-knit team that had telecons every week to try and synchronize the themes we were using. There were a few topics I wanted to make sure I was able to include, and there were several themes that the whole team wanted to make sure was included in both the book and the show.”

For example, the imagery in the book and the premise of the show reflect that a mission to Mars is likely going to be a global endeavor. “I wanted to make sure to emphasize this will not be just a US or NASA enterprise, and also that a lot of other countries are exploring Mars with spacecraft right now,” David said.

And so, the images in the book come from multi-national sources, and several are pictures I had never seen before, including the latest images from spacecraft, unique illustrations, and distinctive maps of potential human landing sites on Mars that are almost impossible to stop looking at.

Destination Mars: a detailed map of Mars from National Geographic. Credit: National Geographic.
Destination Mars: a detailed map of Mars from National Geographic. Credit: National Geographic.

David said that with the book, he didn’t want to take a stand on all the issues but combine as much information as possible to make it all available for people to think about.

He also said he wanted to portray the true realities of a human expedition to Mars.

“I wanted to make sure people understand that it’s not just throwing a bunch of tin cans on the surface of Mars and then jamming people in them,” he said. “There are so many other issues: sociological issues, there are cultural issues, and there are ethics issues particularly on the topic of possibly terraforming Mars. I just wanted to write a book that I haven’t already read, and I hit on themes that I don’t recall other books getting to.”

For example, David interviews Frank White, author of the seminal book “The Overview Effect,” and that title is now used as an evocative term to explain how seeing Earth from space has changed the human perspective and experience. But David asks White to consider what The Overview Effect will mean for human Martians.

“The Martians will soon develop their own culture and seem like true ‘aliens’ to Earthlings,” envisions White, leading ultimately to a “declaration of independence” from Earth by Mars.

Similarly, David’s discussions with Nick Kanas, professor emeritus in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, covers what Kanas calls “Earth out of view,” which means that since Earth is so far away, any future human Martians will have to solve their own problems. Therefore, any physical or mental issues that arise will have to be dealt with locally.

It could highlight a sense of isolation, being distant and away from everything, [Kanas adds]. “It’s a different sort of state. Whether that will produce depression, or psychosis, or extreme homesickness… I don’t know. We have a lot of questions that Mars is going to raise, and we don’t have the answers.”

And there are other realities that need to be considered.

“There will be death,” David said. “Mars is out to kill you to begin with, and there will be accidents and people will likely lose their life in some way. It’s going to call upon the pioneering spirit, and it will challenge us not only technologically, but psychologically and physiologically.”

David looks at the technology that will be required: the potential propulsion systems, how to ramp up current entry, descent and landing (EDL) systems for larger human-sized payloads, and the imperative of using what’s called In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU).

Future missions to Mars and other locations in the Solar System may depend heavily on the skills of planetary geologists. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
Future missions to Mars and other locations in the Solar System may depend heavily on the skills of planetary geologists. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

“If we are going to try to avoid having these missions be just flags and footprints like the Apollo missions, it’s going to require living off the land on Mars,” David said.

Again, the experts David interviewed – called “The Heroes” in the book — provide an incredible depth of insight on all the issues facing a human mission to Mars. The Heroes include people such as historian John Logsdon, policy experts like Marcia Smith, entrepreneurs and innovators like Elon Musk, Mars engineers like JPL’s Rob Manning, planetary scientists such as NASA’s Chris McKay and Planetary Protection Officer Catherine Conley, then astronauts like Stanley Love who have already been on the front lines of long duration spaceflight and veteran Buzz Aldrin whose lifetime of experiences provide a unique perspective on human exploration. Reading the words of these experts was perhaps my favorite part of the book (besides those intriguing maps!)

With NASA and other space agencies now embracing Mars as the ultimate human destination, David said the time is now ripe for looking at all the issues that lie ahead on the path to Mars.

“This is a unique time,” he said. “I believe we are in a period that I call ‘now history.’ Never before in our history have we had the potential for the technology, communications and all the other things we need to go off the planet; we’ve never been here before. I think we have an opportunity to create this ‘now history,’ and what we do here and now is going to be a flagship for the future as far as our ability to not only go to Mars, but to go beyond to other planets as well.”

David said he hadn’t yet seen all the footage from the television series, but he was impressed with what he has watched so far. “Ron Howard is pretty good at this stuff, and so the quality is definitely there.” David also indicated there is a bit of a surprise ending to the show, so make sure to stay tuned.

Leonard David is a long-time contributor to and he writes a column for that site called Space Insider. He is also the coauthor of Buzz Aldrin’s book, “Mission to Mars.” You can find more articles by David at his website, Inside Outer Space.

More information on the book and how to purchase it can be found at the Nat Geo website, or at Amazon, and additional information on the television series can be found here.


Inspiration Mars Wants To Work With NASA To Get To The Red Planet

An artist’s concept of how the spacecraft for the Inspiration Mars Foundation’s “Mission for America” might be configured. Credit: Inspiration Mars.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated after more information was received from Inspiration Mars. Tito was highlighting other countries’ interest in the Red Planet in his testimony and has no plans at this time to work with anyone but NASA.

Remember that proposal to send a couple in the direction of the Red Planet, loop around it and then come back to Earth? The founder of the Inspiration Mars project, Dennis Tito, outlined more details of his proposal before the House Science Subcommittee on Space yesterday (Nov. 20).

Inspiration Mars has released an Architecture Study Report that is the fruits of a 90-day study done not only by the foundation itself, but also working with “NASA centers and industry partners” to figure out the best way to launch humans there in late 2017 or 2018. But if it’s delayed, Tito is prepared to go to Russia or China instead, he warns.

Here’s the high-level summary:

  • Two launches using NASA’s forthcoming Space Launch System, one for cargo and one for crew;
  • The crew module would be from the crew transportation vehicle that NASA selected under its commercial crew program (see this Universe Today story yesterday for an update on funding concerns on that program);
  • The cargo and crew vehicles would dock in space and then head out to Mars.

If the NASA proposal doesn’t work out, Tito warned Russia may be interested as well. said he’s quite prepared to bring his idea to another country, Russia. (Recall that Tito flew into space in 2001 on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft as a private citizen, so he does have connections over there.)

Crew of Soyuz TM-32, which flew to the International Space Station in 2001. From left, space tourist Dennis Tito, Russian cosmonaut Talgat Musabayev, and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Baturin. Credit: Wikipedia/NASA
Crew of Soyuz TM-32, which flew to the International Space Station in 2001. From left, space tourist Dennis Tito, Russian cosmonaut Talgat Musabayev, and Russian cosmonaut
Yuri Baturin. Credit: Wikipedia/NASA

“Given Russia’s clear recognition of the value and prestige of accomplishments in human space exploration, and their long-time interest in exploring Mars, my personal belief is that in all likelihood the Energia super-heavy rocket revival announcement signals Russian intent to fly this mission in 2021,” Tito stated.

“Their heavy lift rocket, along with their other designs for modules and the Soyuz, can fly this mission with modest upgrades to their systems.”

A third option would be using Chinese capabilities, he added, The Chinese may also be interested, he said, because the country — reportedly developing a large space station of its own — is likely “contemplating this opportunity to be the first on Mars.” Tito said he is informing Congress of his plans to go elsewhere as a “civic duty”, and that he wants to give NASA the first shot.

More food for thought as Congress mulls how much money to allocate to NASA in fiscal 2014. And Tito had strong words about his feelings on the funding: “If I may offer a frank word of caution to this subcommittee: The United States will carry out a Mars flyby mission, or we will watch as others do it – leaving us to applaud their skill and their daring.”

How to Plant a Garden on Mars — With a Robot

Sketch of the ‘AstroGardening’ robot within its Mars garden Credit: Vanessa Harden.

Editor’s note: This guest post is written by Louisa Preston, an Astrobiologist and Planetary Geologist. She is a TED Fellow, and Postdoctoral Research Associate at The Open University, UK.

In the last century humanity has taken gigantic leaps forward in the robotic exploration of the cosmos — not least in the search for habitable worlds and environments that could house life outside of the Earth. The next logical step is for humanity itself to leave the confines of our planet, and take on long-term human exploration of the Solar System. Mars in particular is a key target for future human planetary adventures even though on the face of it, it seems so hostile to human life. In fact Mars actually has the most clement environment of any planet in the Solar System outside of Earth and is known to have all of the resources necessary in some accessible form, to sustain life on the surface. So how might we survive on Mars? The crucial things for humans on Mars are the availability of oxygen, shelter, food and water, and not just endless consumables delivered to the planet from Earth. For humans to live long-term on Mars, they will need a self-sustaining habitat to be able to thrive in for generations.

In short, they’ll need a garden. And maybe a robot, too.

Any garden on Mars would need protection in the form of a greenhouse or geodesic dome that could keep the vegetables, fruits, grains and flowers sheltered from the extreme UV radiation that floods the Martian surface, whilst still allowing enough sunlight through to allow them to grow. This dome would also have to be strong enough to provide support and protection against potentially devastating Martian dust storms.

The crops would need to be kept warm, as outside the dome it will be on average a freezing -63 °C. Solar panels arranged outside the habitat and heating filaments underneath it could provide the desired warmth.

garden on mars

Liquid water is needed for irrigation of the plants and for future human consumption, but with water on Mars mainly frozen beneath the surface, we would need to mine the ice and melt it. The atmosphere on Mars is chiefly composed of CO2, which humans cannot use for any of our vital functions. However plants can! They can utilise this atmospheric CO2 to photosynthesise, which would actually create the oxygen we would need.

These are all important aspects of long-term human habitation of Mars that need to be tested and perfected before we arrive, but thankfully most of these can be investigated whilst safely here on the Earth in Mars analogue environments and specially designed spaces.

Our premise is that of a pioneer AstroGardening robot, designed and built by ourselves, to be sent to Mars to set up garden habitats in advance of the first human inhabitants. It will scatter ‘seed pills’ containing various seeds, clay and nutrients across the habitat and nurture the growing plants.

But before we actually go to Mars, we are working on an interactive ‘Mars Garden’ exhibit and AstroGardening Rover designed to educate and inspire.

Installation designer Vanessa Harden and I are building such a space; an interactive experience designed for museums and science centers to entertain and educate on the perils and benefits of gardening on Mars, the ways in which we need to design tools to do this, the plants that would best grow in Mars soil and the methods we might use to obtain liquid water.

Visitors to this Mars concept habitat will get to meet the AstroGardening robot himself and walk around a lush and tranquil Martian garden. They will also get to see the range of food stuffs that we can actually grow in the Martian soil such as asparagus, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radish, alfalfa, and mung bean.

Our aim for this exhibit is to communicate the science behind future human habitation of Mars, the effect we as humans can have on an environment, and the ethics and logistics of colonising other planets.

The exhibit has already been invited to tour around some of London’s most celebrated and beautiful venues such as observatories and planetariums, museums and art galleries, schools and universities, before heading across the ocean to the US and Canada.

But we need the public’s help to make this tour and exhibit a reality.

We have a Kickstarter page for this concept to raise the funds to begin building our vision. See our page and watch our video (below) to find out how you can help.

AstroGardening – Designing for Life on Mars from vanessa harden on Vimeo.