Mars as seen by the Hubble Telescope. NASA
Editors’ note, December 19, 2015:This article was originally published August 6, 2015 and has been updated to include new developments in space travel efforts to Mars.
This year, scientists made one of the most important space discoveries in a long time, one that brings the mission of landing humans on the surface of another planet into laser focus — and I’m not talking about Pluto’s heart. They found compelling evidence that there is liquid water flowing on Mars, and that means there’s the potential for life on the Red Planet.
You don’t have to be a Space Camp alum like I am to feel your heart race at the very thought. Potentially finding water on Mars is an enormous triumph any way you look at it, and its discovery is sure to spur manned exploration of Mars’ surface, something that’s eluded us in the 46 years since landing on the moon.
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Outside of the scientific community’s renewed interest in Martian exploration, there’s another reason why I’m hopeful we’ll set foot on Mars in my lifetime: we already have technology far more advanced than the spacecraft and control systems that got us to the moon, most of which ran on computers no more powerful than a calculator. These days, we also have the entrepreneurial hunger it takes to put people on the dusty red planet. A handful of smart people who share my passion for outer space have the drive and resources (ahem, money) to make it happen.
In my lifetime, human exploration of Earth’s closest neighbor isn’t just the province of space disaster movies like the Martian (thanks, Matt Damon), or abduction films like Mars Attacks and Mars Needs Moms. It’s closer to reality than ever. Here are some of the important programs and people on our planet that will help put us on the Red Planet.
Entrepreneurs and advocates
Like me, entrepreneur Elon Musk, the man behind SpaceX, the first private company to send supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), dreams of a Mars landing. Musk believes that humans could reach the planet in as few as 10 years.
Then there’s billionaire Richard Branson, whose tourism venture, Virgin Galactic, is currently working on sending civilians (not just astronauts) into sub-orbital flight with a private spacecraft. Virgin Galactic isn’t setting its sights on Mars just yet, but the company’s work could one day help us get to the Red Planet.
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Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin is vocal about Mars too, advocating in his book ” Mission to Mars” that it should be our next exploration goal. Meanwhile, Dutch non-profit foundation Mars One is planning and raising money for a one-way mission where some brave people establish a permanent base there, never to return to Earth. The Mars One group faces criticism from the scientific community, though, for not having a feasible plan to actually reach the planet with volunteers and sufficient supplies.
More credibly, NASA, the long-standing agency in charge of the US’s space travel efforts, is optimistic about getting us to at least orbit Mars by President Obama’s mid-2030 timeline, and has early-stage plans to make it real.
Though no one company or organization has an imminently viable action plan to get us to Mars just yet, these advancements and advocacy by the big players will hopefully pave the way for a mission to Mars.
The tech to get us there
Right now, the biggest challenges in getting to Mars are paying for the costly trip (the cheapest proposed plan would cost $76 million), keeping the astronauts healthy, and figuring out the right type of fuel for a round-trip voyage. Mars is an average 140 million miles from Earth (depending on its position in its orbit around the sun, and it would take a crew of astronauts around 200 days or 6 months to get there, at least. In order to cover that distance, we need sufficient fuel to power a spacecraft, and NASA is researching the best kind of ship and propulsion for such a trip.
SpaceX’s Dragon Capsule.
SpaceX believes it has the right ship with the Dragon capsule, a manned spacecraft that could one day carry astronauts on interplanetary trips. Similarly, Texas-based rocket company Ad Astra Rocket is building the Vasmir electric engine that could possibly power a spaceship to Mars.
Meanwhile, SpaceWorks, an aerospace engineering firm out of Atlanta,has proposed the possibility of putting astronauts in torpor — a hibernation-like state — during the trip to conserve food and supplies and reduce the health risks associated with traveling in zero-gravity, like bone density loss. Though it sounds like something out of science fiction (in fact, astronauts were in a torpor state in the movies “Interstellar” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”), it could be a real, practical way to get humans to Mars as safely as possible.
The human factor
The six-month trip to Mars won’t be easy on the astronauts, as they face long stints of isolation, extended stays in cramped quarters and harsh weather conditions on the Martian surface. In order to keep them healthy, happy and safe, several organizations are currently conducting experiments that simulate conditions of being on Mars and traveling to the planet.
The NASA-funded Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation missions are studying a group of six humans living together in a confined, enclosed habitat, similar to what astronauts would live in on the surface of Mars during a mission. Meanwhile, astronauts from the European Space Agency (ESA) are in Antarctica at the Concordia research facility, a highly isolated compound that simulates what it’s like to be on long space journeys in harsh conditions, hundreds of miles away from other humans.
Disasters are part of the route
The road to Mars through both private and government-funded space travel hasn’t been easy so far. SpaceX’s unmanned Falcon 9 rocket exploded just after launch in June 2015 during a resupply mission to the ISS. Likewise, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed in the fall of 2014 during a test flight in California, killing one person.
NASA’s Columbia Shuttle broke up during re-entry during the STS-107 mission in 2003. The launch is shown here.
These accidents stir up memories of the prominent tragedies NASA has endured over the last 50 years; Apollo 1 catching on fire on the launchpad during testing, the Challenger space shuttle exploding 73 seconds after launch and the Columbia space shuttle disintegrating during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Each of those accidents claimed the lives of the crews on board.
The unfortunate truth is that in the quest for space travel, there will be near misses, failures and disasters. NASA carried on from its setbacks and so will SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and others, driven by the deep desire to explore uncharted territory.
Next stop, Mars
Scientists, space agencies and private companies are still in the early stages of any kind of Mars mission, but their advancements in space travel are nothing short of astounding. Roughly 50 years ago, we were scrambling to send people on the week-long journey to the moon.
Now, we’ve sent astronauts to orbit the Earth for more than a year at a time, launched unmanned rovers to Mars to gather data about the planet’s ability to host our species, and currently maintain a crew of people continuously living at the ISS (and posting pictures of the spectacular view to Twitter).
There are still untold hurdles to tackle before we can put a small crew of trained astronauts on the Red Planet, and many more after that until commercial rockets blast off for Mars with civilian spectators inside. But give it 50 more years, and I’m betting that we’ll have a ship breaking away from Earth on a flight plan straight towards Mars. And when those first humans touch down, I’ll be with the other fervent stargazers, watching every minute of it.