Humans to Mars

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This article was written by Nicole Willett,
Education Director for The Mars Society

It is licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 and may be freely shared, but must include this attribution.

Humans to Mars is a broad phrase encompassing all plans government and space agencies have to send humans to Mars, whether it is to fly-by, orbit, land, and/or settle the Red Planet.

Many missions to Mars have been proposed during the past several decades. A prominent mission was proposed by Werner von Braun after World War II. This project was outlined in his book, Das Marsprojekt, published in 1952. Although Von Braun’s mission never came to fruition, several missions are still being planned. Media coverage of the missions has been extensive, but the facts are sometimes misreported. The major plans for a human mission to Mars are being proposed by the following private and non-profit organizations: The Mars Society, SpaceX, Inspiration Mars, and Mars One. *Please note, many other missions have been and are being planned, due to the complexity of the plans and the sheer number of them, they cannot all be included in this article.

In 1990 Dr. Robert Zubrin, President and founder of the Mars Society, and David Baker proposed a mission called Mars Direct to NASA. Zubrin later published his book titled The Case for Mars, where he expanded on the details of the mission. The mission involves a series of launches. First, a spacecraft lands on Mars without human occupants. This craft is the Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) and it will act a fuel manufacturing station in order to provide fuel for the future human explorers to return to Earth. The Habitat Unit (Hab) will arrive with a crew of four humans approximately 26 months later. Many ERV’s and Habs will be sent to the Red Planet in succession. An ERV will be fueled and ready at all times and the Habs will be interconnected in order for a larger and larger living space to be available for the increasing number of human occupants. The Mars Direct plan was later modified to the Mars Semi-Direct Plan to which includes the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) and increases the number of launch vehicles per mission from two to three. The MAV would be sent ahead with equipment and supplies. The Mars Semi-Direct also increases the number of humans to six. This plan also includes an orbiting return vehicle. Instead of having to manufacture enough fuel on the surface of Mars to launch back to Earth, the explorers would only require enough fuel to launch to the orbit of Mars and rendezvous with the return vehicle. (Zubrin 79-80) The goal of the Mars Society is human exploration and settlement of Mars. Zubrin believes with current technology, the number of companies developing launch vehicles, and cooperation with other countries, humans could be on Mars in a decade. (Zubrin 2011)

SpaceX is a company founded by Elon Musk. SpaceX is the first privately owned company to launch cargo to the International Space Station using the Falcon 9 rocket. They have also had a successful test flight of the Grasshopper rocket which launched vertically approximately 800 feet, moved horizontally about 300 feet and then landed safely by descending vertically. His company is currently developing the Falcon Heavy rocket which is designed to carry payloads large enough for a humans to Mars mission. Musk has a goal of enabling thousands of humans to go to Mars for permanent settlement. His vision is to first send a small crew of about ten humans to Mars, utilizing reusable Falcon Heavy rockets. Musk plans on continuing to send more and more humans to settle on Mars with the hope that his first Martian colony has a population of about 80,000 people. ( 2013)

Inspiration Mars, a non-profit organization, was founded by Dennis Tito. He is the first private citizen to pay to be taken to the International Space Station. His company has released their design report which outlines their plans and their timeline for the mission. His plan is to send two people, preferably a married couple, on a 501 day mission to get within 100 miles of the Red Planet and return to Earth. This fly-by mission will pave the way for future human missions to the surface of Mars and eventual settlement of the planet. The timeline for the flyby is to launch during the launch window in January 2018. The justification for a flyby versus landing on the surface is that it is much less technologically daunting and the risk is much lower for the human explorers. Inspiration Mars believes that this historic event will pave the way for future Marsonauts to land on the surface at a later date. (Washington Post 2013)

Mars One is headed by Bas Lansdorp. This is a non-profit organization that plans on launching a four person capsule to land on Mars in 2022. There will be several steps in this process. In 2016 a supply mission will be sent ahead, in 2018 a rover will explore the terrain, and in 2021 rovers will assemble habitats and life support systems. By 2022 the four person crew will land on the surface of the planet, followed every two years by four person crews. Mars One hopes that this will be the beginning of the first permanent human settlement on Mars. (Mars One 2013)

Regardless of which mission(s) succeed, some basic objectives must be accomplished. These include but are not limited to the following: Many astronaut candidates must be evaluated and trained. Psychological assessments will be an essential part of the candidate evaluation. Once the astronauts are selected, they will be trained in multiple aspects of space travel. Someone that is a scientist may also be given medical training as well as technology training. An astronaut that is selected for flight skills may also be trained to be a “fix-it” person. Each astronaut must be cross trained in order to complete multiple tasks. The 20 to 40 minute communication delay between Earth and Mars makes this crucial due to the small number of people on the surface during the first few landings. Next, spaceships will be launched from Earth. After a six to eight month journey, humans need to land on Mars safely. Most likely the capsule the humans land in will serve the dual purpose of being a habitat as well. Habitats are necessary for survival; they must be pressurized and able to generate the appropriate amount of oxygen for the crew. Greenhouses will be a top priority upon landing. They serve the purpose of providing oxygen and food sources that are essential for subsistence. Communication with Earth will be required as well. Some plans call for a return vehicle and some plans do not.

Each human mission to Mars has a different plan with differing levels of complexity and risk. The technology exists now. Throughout humanity, we have taken risks and sacrificed lives to expand our reach on Earth. Mars is the next step in human exploration and settlement. Sending humans to Mars can be accomplished. Scientists have been working diligently to overcome any major risk factors. The biggest hurdle to be overcome is whether humans have the will to go to Mars. At the 15th Annual Mars Society Convention in August of 2012, Elon Musk said, “Humans do not lack the will to explore…The United States is the distillation of the human spirit of exploration.”


Zubrin, Robert. 2011. The Case For Mars. New York: Free Press. (Zubrin 2011, pgs) 2013. “Huge Mars Colony Eyed by SpaceX Founder Elon Musk.” Accessed December 31, 2013. ( 2013)

The Washington Post. 2013. “Going to Mars: Billionaire Dennis Tito plans manned mission with possible 2017 launch.” Accessed December 31, 2013. (Washington Post 2013)

Mars One. 2013. “Roadmap.” Accessed December 31, 2013. (Mars One 2013)

Willett, Nicole. 2013. “The Many Plans for Mars (Issue #25).” Red Planet Pen. December 2, 2013.

Willett, Nicole. 2013. “Humans to Mars (Issue #17).” Red Planet Pen. May 17, 2013.