5 'Humans to Mars' Mission Ideas

Cover Image credit: Bryan Versteeg --  http://www.spacehabs.com/

Inspiring Ideas for Sending Humans to Mars 

​Do you dream of Mars?

You're not alone. Humanity​ has had a long fascination with the Red Planet and dreamed of going there someday.

Those dreams are soon to become a reality.​

A number of organizations, both public and private, have been making plans to send humans to Mars. Some might work, others will not -- or have already failed. Here's a summary of five most famous ideas developed in the last five years.


Inspiration Mars is one of 5 Humans to Mars mission ideas

Inspiration Mars. Credit: Inspiration Mars Foundation

Inspiration Mars was the brainchild of Dennis Tito, a retired space engineer and the world's first space tourist.

His plan was not to land on Mars, but to send a married couple on a flyby of the planet.

This is not a new concept. Wernher von Braun, often credited as the driving force behind the Apollo program and author of the 1952 book "Project Mars," proposed Mars flyby flights using Apollo lunar spacecraft as far back as the 1960s.

Tito founded the nonprofit Inspiration Mars Foundation in 2013 to carry out his plans. His hope was that this "Mission for America" would help spur humanity's expansion farther into the solar system and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.


The plan originally was to launch two people, preferably a married couple, in 2018, but was since modified for a 2021 launch.  At first, the couple would travel toward the sun and then around the planet Venus, giving the spacecraft a 'gravity-assisted' push that would send the couple on a free return trajectory around the Red planet in just over 500 days. 

The pair wouldn't touch down on Mars but instead pass within 100 miles (160 kilometers) of its surface.

 The plan called for financial assistance from the US Federal Government​. Despite $300 million in private financing, Tito estimated another $700 million would be needed from the US Government and NASA. In addition, the plan also called for a modified Orion capsule and the use of NASA's next generation Space Launch System -- a public-private partnership, if you will.

Inspiration Mars 'Humans to NMars Mission concept vehicle

Inspiration Mars Concept Vehicle

The SLS, however, is not scheduled for a crewed flight test, until 2021, which made it unlikely that Inspiration Mars would be allocated a vehicle capable of meeting their goals.

And if they miss the 2021 launch window?

Well, the next available alignment for this particular mission profile won't come around again until 2033, so don't hold your breath.

UPDATE (November 2015): Inspiration Mars appears to have completely shut down. 

After congressional testimony in 2013 where the Foundation claimed it could not be successful without federal funding, ​many politicians and NASA managers expressed concern about the viability of the project.  

The website, inspirationmars.org, has been shut down and the domain is now owned by a Japanese company, Lifestyle-design.  And, although Facebook and Twitter accounts still exist, no activity has been seen for the last 24 and 18 months, respectively.

So it looks like at least one of these 5 'Humans to Mars' ideas​ is no longer in play.

Too bad. This one originally looked like it had some juice​ ...


The Netherlands-based nonprofit Mars One hit the stage in 2011 and made international news when they announced an open application process for selecting astronauts in 2013. 

Mars One

Mars One Colony. Credit: Mars One/Bryan Versteeg

Mars One hopes to land four humans to Mars in 2026, at an estimated cost of $6 billion. The group plans to foot most of the bill by staging a global media event around the entire enterprise, from the astronaut selection process to the pioneers' time on Mars.

There are no plans to bring these first four settlers — or any of the additional colonists that Mars One aims to launch every two years or so — back to Earth. Still, more than 200,000 people applied during Mars One's 19-week application window  in 2013 in the hopes of being one of the few selected.

​The viability of Mars One has come into question, though. Technical and financial issues, in particular, threaten to scuttle the project.

On the technical side, MIT students looked extensively at the project and concluded that Mars One's plans were not only incomplete but unsafe. In a debate with Mars One founder Bas Landorp entitled "Is Mars One Feasible", the MIT students presented their study -- and clearly demonstrated why Mars One would fail.

Financially, Mars One has failed to attract the funding it will need to develop the ​project. Although they raised several million through their application process, a IndieGogo crowd funding campaign raised only $313, 744 -- only 78% of it's stated $400,000 goal.

In addition, that same MIT study that questioned the technical aspects of the plan, also questioned the funding target of $6 billion for the first 4-person mission. Given the range of systems that would still require development, MIT compared the $6 billion target to past and present government and private ventures -- indicating the Mars One would be severely under-funded  (even if they were able to reach their goal of $6 billion)

Undaunted, Mars One continues today, and still inspires those who want to send humans to Mars.


Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk — founder of the private spaceflight firm SpaceX and CEO of electric-car company Tesla — has always dreamed big, so it's no surprise that he has his eyes set on Mars.

SpaceX Red Dragon Landing

SpaceX Red Dragon Landing

In fact, Musk has said repeatedly that he established SpaceX in 2002 primarily to help humans become a multiplanet species. And in November 2012, he announced a broad outline of how to make it happen.

Musk envisions sending humans to Mars aboard a huge, reusable rocket (ostensibly called the Mars Colonial Transporter , or MCT) powered by liquid oxygen and methane, for about $500,000 per seat. Initially, the colony would begin with a small group of pioneers — perhaps 10 people or so — and eventually grow into a self-sustaining settlement.

Accompanying the first few people would be large amounts of equipment, including machines to produce that which we need to sustain life - oxygen, water, and food.

RELATED: The Mars Oxygenator - Making Oxygen on Mars​

There would also be materials to build transparent domes, which when pressurized with Mars’ atmospheric CO2 could grow Earth crops in Martian soil.

As the Mars colony became more self sufficient, each trip to the planet, using the same big rocket, would bring less cargo -- and more people.

Musk envisions  the colony would eventually grow to 80,000 strong - a number estimated by assuming 1 in 100,000 of Earth's population, considered to be at 8 billion by the time the colony wold be established, would be prepared to make the trip.

The cost?

$36 Billion, according to Musk, or about $500,000 per colonist -- a number he arrived at by estimating how much a country might find acceptable based on its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Musk figures 0.25 to 0.5% would be about right.

In 2010, the US GDP was $14.5 trillion: 0.25%​ of that is $36 billion. Divide that $36 billion by 80,000 colonists, round up, and you get $500,000 for a one way ticket.

Musk believes that the settlement will end up being a collaboration between NASA and the private space industry -- SpaceX, to be precise.

He may very well be right. Together they just might be the first to actually send humans to Mars.


Ok. So this plan didn't originate in the last 5 years.

First developed in the 1990s by Mars Society head Robert Zubrin, Mars Direct ushered in the concept of using the available, on site resources already found on Mars to develop a sustainable, live-off-the-land approach to exploration and settlement.

Zubrin would send humans to Mars using a Heavy Lift launch concept called Ares 1 that was derived from existing shuttle technology. Once on the planet, technologies would be deployed that  would generate oxygen and rocket fuel by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and combining it with a small amount of hydrogen that was brought along to create methane and oxygen for a return trip home.

A side benefit was that the process also produced water, though most of that was put back into the system to produce more methane.

The plan was so revolutionary, that NASA revamped it's own massively expensive, massively over-engineered plans  and incorporated aspects of  Mars Direct into a new NASA mission profile -- called Mars Semi-Direct Plan, or, officially, the Mars Design Reference Mission.​

Mars semi-dorect - one of the 'Humans on Mars' mission ideas

Mars Design Reference Mission. Source: NASA

The Mars Society continues to support and promote the plan. And, while there is no direct Mars settlement initiative coming from this non-profit, they continue to push the science and concept of living on Mars through their work.​


Getting astronauts to Mars is the main long-term goal of NASA's human spaceflight program. The agency is currently working to send humans to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, and then to the Red Planet by the mid-2030s, as outlined in their Journey to Mars mission plan.

Journey to Mars: to explore or settle?

NASA's Journey to Mars. Credit: NASA

NASA has landed increasingly sophisticated robots on Mars over the last 15 years, with the most recent being the 1-ton Curiosity rover, whose observations indicate that the Red Planet could have supported microbial life billions of years ago.

But NASA continues to stay committed to putting 'boots on the ground' as NASA Chief Charles Bolden recently announced.

RELATED: Sending humans to Mars has never been closer

NASA's success, as always, is dependent on the whims of the US Congress. And who knows what the next administration might do.

For now, however, with the continued development of the Orion Capsule and the Space Launch System, NASA looks to be on target for a mid-2030's crewed landing.


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