Anyone who’s interested in human spaceflight has asked themselves the following question at least once. When will humans finally go to Mars? We’ve been to the moon, and might soon return, but Mars is completely new territory for human-based exploration. The allure is great, but so are the challenges.
Humans will go to Mars no sooner than 2027. This is the year that SpaceX plans to send their first manned mission to the Red Planet with their in-development, fully-reusable rocket system, Starship. If achieved, this timetable would be six years ahead of our next most ambitious schedule.
Other major players in the world of astronautics have their own plans in place, while others have remained silent.
SpaceX’s timetable for sending humans to Mars is extremely ambitious. Many things could go wrong to push the launch of humans back by several Haumann transfer cycles.
However, if anyone can pull it off, it’s SpaceX.
Even if they don’t make their 2027 goal, their plans give them such a huge margin, they might well still win the honour of landing the first humans on Mars.
NASA has decided to take a Moon first approach to human space exploration beyond near-Earth orbit. This requires the agency to complete all its early objectives for the Artemis program before turning its sights to Mars.
The first set of objectives were set to be complete by 2024, but this is looking more unlikely. To be fair, NASA themselves declared this date to be ‘the most ambitious date possible that was still actually feasible.’
We need several years in orbit and on the surface of the Moon to build operational confidence for conductingThe Artemis Plan — NASA, September 2020
long-term work and supporting life away from Earth before we can embark on the first multi-year human
mission to Mars. The sooner we get to the Moon, the sooner we get American astronauts to Mars.
We can only speculate on new NASA objectives after the initial landings. However, the request for proposals under the NextSTEP serious of commercial contracts—which include everything from sustainable landers to In-Situ Resource Utilization, to FabLab systems—indicate that NASA intends for a potentially long consolidation period of Human Presence on the Luna surface.
NASA currently has no specific timeline for manned missions to Mars. However, as SpaceX increases its own capabilities, there is a good chance that NASA may well adjust its own projects to align with these new capabilities.
A SpaceX manned mission to Mars may well have NASA piggybacking on it in some way, whether as a cargo customer, for delivering large scientific payloads to the Martian surface, or more directly, by having at least one NASA scientist in the selected crew.
It should also be noted that SpaceX’s chances of completing their 2027 mission schedule are much higher by iterating on already developed NASA tech. This is a strategy SpaceX has made use of in the past, particularly in the development of their Dragon Crew and Dragon Cargo systems.
After SpaceX, China may have the most ambitious plans to land humans on Mars.
China plans to land humans on Mars in 2033.
In June of 2021, Wang Xiaojun, head of China’s premier state-owned rocket company, announced China’s timetable for a manned Mars mission at the Global Space Exploration Conference in St. Petersburg.
The timetable announced builds on the official timetable up to 2025 announced by CNSA (China National Space Administration) in the same month.
Specifically, it announces a sample return mission in 2028 and the first manned mission in 2033.
Wang also briefly mentions a mission specifically for base-location scouting and the setting up of in-situ resource utilization equipment, which would be used to sustain the future human mission.
Given the available Houmann transfer windows available for transport to the Red Planet, the natural year for this bridging mission would be 2031.
Russian ROSCOSMOS officials announced a timetable for a Russian manned mission to Mars back in 2011. Under this plan, ROSCOSMOS would carry out a manned mission to Mars between 2040 and 2045.
Since then, Russia has announced a ‘moon first’ approach to human space-flight similar to NASA.
It should also be noted that since that announcement in 2011, ROSCOSMOS has said no more about their Mars mission plans.
We’ve also seen little in the way of technological development from ROSCOSMOS in terms of flight systems or published papers that suggests it’s aggressively pursuing this goal.
It’s highly likely that the original announcement back in 2011 was more aspirational than a serious step-by-step plan.
I’d love to be proved wrong.
Indian Space Research Organisation currently has no plans for a manned Mars mission.
The agency is currently focused on achieving human space-flight capabilities with its Gaganyaan program.
However, India has a history of seeing itself as China’s natural competitor in the region, and it was not long after China first achieved human space-flight capabilities that the country started making larger plans for its space program.
It could easily be that once India has achieved human space-flight capabilities, we will see longer-term plans emerge from this fledgling space-faring nation. Maybe those plans will include a manned Mars mission?
The European Space Agency currently has no plans for a manned Mars mission and has publicly stated that it does not believe such a mission will happen any time in the next few decades.
‘For us at ESA, we do not have any preparation or any project to send humans to Mars. We believe this is far in the future and maybe humans will even go beyond Mars, but not in the next tens of years.’Jan Wörner — Director General of ESA, 2020
This puts a serious block on European astronautics companies that want to focus on Mars specific technologies. By having no manned Mars mission in place, Europe is at risk of falling behind in technological development in what might easily become a key strategic arena of space exploration.
Like ESA, JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, also has no plans for a manned Mars mission. Although there have been a few interesting comments made by Japanese scientists about the possibility of using the upcoming MMX mission to the Mars moons as a precursor to a manned mission to the larger of the two moons, Phobos.
Until we hear more announced officially, we should assume JAXA is not planning to enter the manned space flight to Mars game. This is even more likely, since JAXA does not currently have a human-rated launch vehicle of their own, and, unlike India, have no plans to develop one.
MarsOne was a program proposed by a small Dutch organisation for a manned mission to Mars by 2025. It garnered a lot of media attention, received tens of millions in funding, and made inroads with large aerospace companies to develop proposals for Martian landers.
Ultimately though, the program floundered and has since been criticised heavily for its lack of focus on the technical problems that would need to be solved to enable its ambitious schedule. MarsOne went bankrupt in 2019.
While the program didn’t achieve its goals, it may be that it was simply too early.
Once the technology to sustain human life on Mars has sufficiently matured, such media-focused organisations may become the primary way new settlers are recruited and new investment, raised.
Article last revised — August 2021 | Next article review — August 2022