The holy grail for Mars exploration has for many decades been to ultimately land humans on the Red Planet. After the Apollo missions in the Sixties and Seventies it was widely believed that Mars was the logical next step, but funding cuts left NASA in Earth orbit despite having a rocket, namely the Saturn V, that would have been capable of taking humans to the surface of Mars.
Therefore, for four decades the thought of human exploration of Mars was left by the wayside as a variety of spacecraft and space stations were launched into Earth orbit and beyond. Now, however, Mars is back on the space-exploration agenda, and getting there could be achievable with some upcoming technologies.
For starters, NASA is building its own successor to the Saturn V, known as the Space Launch System (SLS). Capable of carrying over 100,000 kilograms (220,000 pounds) into orbit, the SLS will have the capability to take humans to Mars, and indeed that appears to be NASA’s ultimate goal. It is thought that, in the 2020s, the SLS will launch astronauts in an Orion capsule on trips to the Moon and a near-Earth asteroid. The next step will be to either land on one of Mars’s moons, Phobos or Deimos, or head straight for the Martian surface by the 2030s.
The other rocket that could get us there is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Employing three of the boosters already used on the successful Falcon 9 rocket, the Falcon Heavy will be able to take over 50,000 kilograms (110,000 pounds) to orbit. By combining several such launches it could be possible to launch a mission to the Red Planet. In addition, SpaceX is working on its own variant of its successful Dragon capsule that docked with the International Space Station in May, known as the Red Dragon, which could be able to land on and take off from the surface of Mars.
As of now these are the two primary rockets that would be able to take humans to Mars. It’s likely, though, that over the next decade more agencies such as China will announce heavy lift rockets capable of taking the giant spacecraft that will be needed to mount a six-month journey to Mars. However, while the possibility of humans stepping on another planet will be ever present, it will likely require international collaboration to have any chance of success.
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Image courtesy of NASA.