How We’ll Get to Mars by 2033

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National Geographic Channel


The finale for Ron Howard’s six-part National Geographic series, Mars, will drop this Monday, but the story of the Red Planet is far from over. The groundbreaking show, which seamlessly toggles between a fictional story about the first manned-mission to Mars and a documentary-style investigation on the present-day efforts being made to get there, is an inspiring work. “This really started as a documentary,” says Howard, who serves as executive producer on the project. The scripted element came later through discussions with his producing partner Brian Glazer, Justin Wilkes, and director Everardo Gout. But in Howard’s mind it was always going to be a way to shine a light on the men and women who are leading the way for our eventual journey to Mars. “I think there is important work being done by entrepreneurs, like SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who is in the show. The more the American public see investments being made, the more they will be inclined to have the government space agencies getting funding. That is what is going to help us get up there by 2033.”

2033 is the year that President Barack Obama and NASA have set as the target for when we will be beginning our missions to Mars. Former NASA chief scientist and astronaut John Grunsfeld was in the room when Obama gave that statement in 2010. Grunsfeld, also a consultant for the show Mars, talked to Men’s Journal about where we stand with the quest to be a multi-planet species.

The Technology

“The good news is that I think we have the technological readiness,” says Grunsfeld. “Physiologically it is within our realm as well. We currently have people living on the International Space Station for long periods who have come back, and with proper exercise, meaning stimulated weight lifting and resistance training, along with proper diet, especially vitamin D, we are able to keep our muscles and bones intact. So that would suggest that we could get to Mars in great health, with strong cardiovascular and immune systems. Sometimes people even come back stronger than they were when they left, mostly because for the average person it is hard to find two hours in a day to lift.”

The People

“Amongst the current astronauts, I’ve seen a broad spectrum of personalities. There are some people, typically the pilots, who have said that the really exciting part of spaceflight is the launch and the landing. The orbital part can be amazing, but after a few days most people are ready to come home. For me personally, I got to orbit on my first flight and for the first time in my life I felt like I was at home. My first mission was 17 days and I didn’t want to come back. I wanted to see a few more orbits. That is similar to the feeling that explorers in other times have had in the past. The people that go to Mars are going to be the ones who want to take that next turn on the trail every time they go hiking. Those are the kind of folks that volunteer to go up to the International Space Station for six months, and eventually will volunteer to go to Mars. I also believe that eventually another type of person will have to emerge from our society. The first Mars crews are going to leave with the intention of coming back. That’s great, because one of the points is for humanity to go to a new planet and then come back to tell us in person what it was like. But eventually another kind of person is going to emerge. One that is ready to accept Mars as a true home.”

The Conditions

“The people who will want to live there are the ones who strive for adversity. Plans to send tens of thousands of people to Mars have been discussed, but that would require an enormous amount of pre-positioning. I agree with that vision, but I think that reality is down the road. So far we haven’t gotten anything back from Mars, we’ve just sent things to it. Eventually when we land on Mars there is enough surface gravity that when you are in a space suit you can be loaded to the same weight that you are here on Earth. So that should not be a big issue. On principal we could live on Mars with that ample amount of pre-positioning supplies. It is not going to be a great life, because it is a pretty harsh environment, but nobody ever mentions comfort when they are discussing exploration.

The Public

“I think we are going to have to prepare the public for a much higher risk operation. I was in charge of NASA Science when the Mars Curiosity Rover was getting ready to enter the Mars atmosphere and land. There were meetings with our Public Engagement folks on how we would communicate with the populace that it might crash. Sadly, just this year we saw Europe’s Schiaparelli lander crash, because its thrusters didn’t fire long enough. So when I was in charge of that I made sure that we told the public that Mars is hard. This is the hardest thing that we’ve ever done. For Curiosity we were plunging into the Mars atmosphere at 13,000 kilometers an hour, slowing down with a heat shield, putting out a super-sonic parachute, slowing down to sub-sonic, cut the parachute and start dropping and then firing rockets. There were 100 things that could wrong. The point was to engage the public so that they had ownership in it. There were updates being given. If it went well, everyone was onboard, and if it didn’t go well, then they got a better appreciation for how hard it was going to be.”

The Risk

“The biggest challenges that we have right now is going to be getting through the thin Mars atmosphere and landing. So far the biggest payload we’ve landed on Mars is a one-ton Mini Cooper–size rover. With humans on the vehicle, it will be much harder. I think we all will agree that human life is precious, but we also all want to go. So we have to accept that risk. Talking about a Space Shuttle mission that is a couple weeks long, it is about equally divided in risk between launch, orbit, and landing. During our 135 space shuttle missions, we’ve learned that the odds of a crew member getting killed on one is about 1 in 70. The earlier missions were riskier, the newer ones are less risky. Either way, those aren’t great odds. Getting into Mars, the launch will be the same risk, the cruise to Mars is a lot longer, so there is more time for something to go wrong, and the entry into the Mars atmosphere is going to be extraordinarily challenging.”

The Reward

“I mean we’ve only had about 60 years of space flight. Here we are planning to leave our planet, and eventually start to live on another planet. I do believe that that is the human destiny. Efforts like this help give people hope for the future. For the future of what they will hopefully experience, but also promise for our species as an entity. Perhaps it is even more important these days with what is going on with global climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Not to mention the wars that humankind is waging. I believe that it is our destiny to become a multi-planet species and essential to our continued existence.”