The race to get humans on Mars just got more competitive

NASA believes that nuclear propulsion will get humans on Mars by the end of the 2030s. A burning question remains: should this be our second home? 

Elon Musk is a man of bold predictions. Sometimes he delivers, sometimes he doesn’t, and all eyes are on him as his SpaceX races towards Mars. The tech genius insists he can do it by 2026 and considers the development of his Starship rocket a priority. He’s been borderline obsessed for years, and he believes this “fixer-upper of a planet” could be the home of one million people by 2050. Of course, he’s not the only one eager to send humans on a safe trip to the red planet. NASA’s plans to conquer Mars are just a little less… immediate. 

What’s stopping us? 

Unlike Musk, NASA doesn’t find it realistic to send humans to Mars in the following years. They’re “cautiously optimistic” that a roundtrip mission with astronauts will happen by the end of the 2030s. Jeff Hoffman, NASA’s Deputy Principal Investigator, explains that this mission is more ambitious than anything else in history. “Both from a technical and a human health and psychology point of view,” he outlines for NBC. 

There are still too many unknown variables. Among them, the planet’s geology, radiation, or even the possibility that there already is (a potentially threatening) life. “We’ve got to demonstrate the technology necessary to support human exploration of the surface,” adds Adam Steltzner, Chief Engineer, Mars 2020 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. 


Nuclear propulsion is the way to go

The newest report from NASA suggests that we are one step closer to identifying the needed technology. So far, NASA has heavily relied on chemical propulsion for its missions. Since that won’t suffice for Mars, scientists are discussing nuclear propulsion systems. Those have a significant benefit: the ability to use propellants much more efficiently. NASA is eager to see design concepts and is offering to fund the efforts and consider various approaches.

“We’re exploring both nuclear electric and nuclear thermal propulsion options for crewed Mars missions,” said Anthony Calomino, NASA’s nuclear technology portfolio lead within STMD. “Each technology has its unique advantages and challenges that need to be carefully considered when determining the final preference,” he added. 

Whatever the technology, the goal is to allow humans to return to Earth relatively quickly. If the crew had to wait for planets to align, they would have to stay on Mars for more than a year. That would turn the whole mission into a 3-year ordeal. The desired travel time should be around two years, which seems realistic with nuclear propulsion. 

Should we rely on Mars? 

While the greatest minds of our time race to understand and conquer the red planet, one question lingers. Should we? To explore, perhaps. But to relocate millions of people? While Elon Musk sees us living in glass domes and terraforming Mars, not everyone agrees it’s a good idea. In fact, only ¼ of Americans believe that sending humans to the Moon or Mars is very or extremely important. 

Famous American astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks that we should focus on helping Earth, which is much easier than “fixing” hostile Mars. “To ship a billion people to another planet to help them survive a catastrophe on Earth seems unrealistic,” he said at the World Government Summit panel in Dubai. As for terraforming – or Earth-shaping – that’s not possible with today’s technology. 

As science writer Shannon Stirone pointed out in her piece, “Mars is a hellhole” with a thin atmosphere, no magnetic field, and no breathable air. Hardly a futuristic paradise. Sure, we’ll remain a species that will always continue exploring. Perhaps somewhere along the way, we need to re-explore how to help the home we already have. The clock is ticking, and Mars isn’t getting any friendlier.

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