A manned mission to Mars is the next logical step for manned space exploration. Astronauts have been to the moon and the next nearest neighbor, Venus, is inhospitable for any surface exploration. The next logical location for astronauts or cosmonauts? The arid plains of Mars, the famous "red planet," so named after the god of war.
Mankind has been eyeing a trip to the red planet since before the NASA Apollo missions that put men on the moon. According to astronautix.com, a trip to Mars has been contemplated as early as 1948, when German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun made an engineering analysis of the trip. After the July 1969 Apollo 11 mission Mars received renewed interest, with von Braun again working on a plan for a manned trip to the red plan. His plans for a 1982 mission involved nuclear-powered rockets and a target of some 250 people stationed on Mars by 1990, reports flightglobal.com. Additional plans for Mars missions were made in 1989 under U.S. President George H. W. Bush, but NASA's determination that a Mars mission would cost some $500 billion was not well-received.
Today, however, optimists are betting that modern technology has made, or will soon make, a manned mission to Mars within the realm of financial, and technical, possibility. Current rocket propulsion used by astronauts would require a two-year journey to the red planet, reports space.com, though a possible fusion propulsion system could decrease the journey to a mere 30 days. The expected length of a manned Mars mission means that most plans feature multiple spacecraft, including separate landers, orbiters, and pre-delivered living modules and cargo pods, and a larger team of astronauts.
According to the Scientific American, a current proposal for a manned trip to the red planet by the Inspiration Mars Foundation involved a planned 501-day mission for a crew of two beginning in January 2018, when Earth and Mars are in alignment. One difficulty of planning windows for Mars missions is the rarity of our planet and Mars being in alignment: If a 2018 mission does not occur the next convenient window begins in 2031, thirteen years later!
The danger of high levels of radiation on the lengthy trip to Mars, and on the return trip to Earth, have led some, including the Inspiration Mars Foundation, to want a crew of older individuals who do not plan on having children. These older astronauts, in their 50s, would not have to worry about birth defects of future offspring due to the high doses of radiation received on their Mars mission.
Unfortunately, it appears that NASA is temporarily out of the manned Mars mission game, having declared that manned space exploration is prohibitively expensive compared to robotic probes and rovers. This removes much government funding, experience, and know-how from an amazingly expensive endeavor. On the plus side, however, it provides opportunities for private space companies, such as SpaceX, which is the first private company to send cargo to the International Space Station, to jump in the game. Perhaps private-sector innovation can make advances in space exploration faster than bureaucracy-burdened government agencies? Only time will tell.
A Mars mission is an ambitious and inspirational idea, and the technology exists to make it happen. The biggest limits are time and cost. Will enough investors wager that there is profitable knowledge or viewership to be gained from a manned mission to the red planet? Will astronauts or cosmonauts be able to mentally and physically withstand a mission that could be as long as two years away from Earth? These questions are being analyzed as we speak, such as in Russia's Mars 500 experiment, where volunteers are spending 520 days in a simulated spaceship in Moscow to gauge the effects on humans during a lengthy flight to Mars, reports space.com.
Time will tell if all the pieces can fit together, and the clock is ticking: Only 4 years and 8 1/2 months until the January 2018 launch window!