A manned mission to Mars is quickly emerging as the most important near-term goal for the future of manned space programs. Just as was the case prior to the missions to the Moon in the late 1960s, there remains considerable uncertainty over how to resolve some extremely thorny technical issues, not least of them providing enough radiation protection to the astronauts for them to be able to survive the trip with minimal risk. Assuming such problems can be solved, it is conceivable that astronauts could be walking on the Moon by the 2030s, though it will likely be somewhat longer.
– A History of Mars Proposals –
To understand why a manned mission to Mars is not likely to occur for quite some time, it is important to understand just how long proposals to go to Mars have been around. (These are genuine scientific proposals, not just science fiction speculation, which has nonetheless played an important role in building public interest and playing with the implications of some of the more likely possibilities.) The first proposals in America originated with former Nazi German rocket scientist Wernher vow Braun, during the 1950s and 1960s, while Soviet plans for a so-called “Martian Pilot Complex” were developed at roughly the same time.
Interest in Mars died off during the 1970s, after the lunar missions, but was revived during the 1980s. At this time NASA originally hoped that the International Space Station could provide a political and technical jumping-off point for a mission to Mars, but Congress cancelled funding for this expedition during the George H.W. Bush administration. Private organizations like the Mars Society then developed potential plans, such as Mars Direct, which were never taken up by actual space travel organizations.
Finally, NASA was originally commissioned by the Bush administration in 2004 to plan a mission to Mars following a return to the Moon in the 2020s. The Bush plan, the Vision for Space Exploration, was always more ambitious in scope than in funding, and few expected that all of its objectives would be achieved on schedule. Nevertheless, it did seem that NASA would eventually put manned men on the Moon. The Obama administration cancelled this project, too. At the time, in early 2010, Obama vaguely claimed that astronauts would probably still reach Mars in the 2030s, although without funding or research projects to get there, it is unclear how his administration believes that would actually happen.
– Future Possibilities –
Sooner or later, it is likely that a new mission-to-Mars program will be developed by NASA, although for the moment the organization is restricted to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station for its manned space program. In the meantime, some interest has shifted to other nations, with less advanced space programs but – at least for the moment – a greater appetite for manned space exploration. If there is to to be another space race, which would certainly increase the pressure on NASA to reach Mars first, one of the contributing factors will almost certainly be the Chinese space program. Thus far China is far behind in terms of manned space exploration, having never sent humans beyond Earth orbit and with its first unmanned Mars probe not to be launched until 2011 or later.
The European Space Agency’s Aurora programme also hopes to send a manned spacecraft to Mars in the 2030s, although it is currently more a speculative than a substantial venture. Russia has completed medical experiments simulating the isolation necessary for a Mars flight as of 2009, and hopes to develop a manned spacecraft for the trip as well. Either of these projects could go forward, but it seems unlikely that either Europe or Russia would risk funding such a venture unless they believed they had to achieve the task before another nation beat them to the prize.
In theory, then, the most ambitious plans call for humans to set foot on Mars in the 2030s, and while it could conceivably happen even earlier given sufficient pressure on governments to make the attempt, probably it will not happen until at least the 2040s or 2050s.