The 4 real-life projects aiming to put humans on Mars, and the odds they'll actually work

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Aug 1, 2016

Aside from being a darn good movie, there’s a reason Ridley Scott’s The Martian was a hit with geeks — it imagines a near future where we actually have the guts and tech to put people on Mars. We want to live in that world (just, you know, without stranding Matt Damon there for so long).

So, how close are we to actually getting to the Red Planet? Depending on your perspective, we still have a lot of work to do, but might be a bit closer than you think. Interestingly enough, it looks like NASA might not be the first agency to get there. Hey, Elon Musk always said he wants to die on Mars, right? 

We break down the four missions currently aiming to put boots on the Red Planet, and also look at just how viable they seem to be.

NASA's "Journey to Mars" manned mission

This one’s the biggie. The U.S. space agency, aka the only one to actually put humans on the surface of anything other than Earth, is gearing up for its own ambitious mission to put astronauts on Mars. It’s hit its fair share of roadblocks, and the timetable keeps getting pushed back (and questioned by Congress, it’s worth noting).

It goes something like this: NASA is currently testing the Orion space craft to carry astronauts, and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to get it up there. These tools are already built, though they certainly need more testing and time before an actual manned mission is mounted. NASA is aiming to do some test missions, and possibly an original trip to Mars, before actually sending people to the surface. The mission is currently dated for the mid-2030s, but that’s assuming the timetable doesn’t get bumped or that funding isn’t slashed further. Oh, and they also might do an asteroid redirect mission somewhere in there, too. Maybe.

Odds it’ll happen: Pretty good, though it might take a while to actually pull off (since 2030s are the earliest, and you’d think even the 2040s aren’t out of the question). NASA is by far the biggest entity with the most resources working to put people on Mars, and they’ll eventually get there. You just have to hope we’re actually still alive when they stick the landing.

SpaceX's plan to use Red Dragon ships within the decade

There’s no doubt, this plan is the wildcard in the bunch. Despite its relative youth, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has proven itself as one of the most capable space firms on the planet. They can successfully launch and land rockets, and they’ve been sending equipment to the ISS for a while now. Within the next 1-2 years, they’ll start ferry astronauts up there, too. So, SpaceX is not to be taken lightly.

The company’s Mars mission is also relatively straightforward, and at least a decent portion of the tech they’ll need has already been built. SpaceX wants to use a modified version of its Red Dragon space capsule (a bigger one, to allow for the trip) to send a small team of astronauts to Mars. The best part? They want to do it by 2025, in less than 10 years. They also have NASA working with them on the project, which can’t hurt.

To set the groundwork, SpaceX is planning to actually land an unmanned Dragon capsule on Mars in 2018 as a proof of concept to show it can be done, then send additional Dragons every two years to put some resources and supplies on the ground ahead of the manned team. They already have the rockets, and the capsules, so it’s just a matter of doing it.

Odds it’ll happen: Pretty good, which is amazing, considering it means a private company could beat every government on the planet in the race to Mars.

Mars One's reality TV mission

It might not be the most viable, but boy, Mars One certainly looks to be the most fun Mars mission on the books. The Mars One organization wants to essentially bankroll a one-way Mars mission (meaning the astronauts will never come back) with a reality TV program designed to chronicle the mission from training to landing. They’re already whittling down the list of potential astronauts, from several thousand potential applicants to a few dozen who will compete to be the final four.

There’s just one problem: At the moment, they don’t really seem to have the money to pull all this off, though you have to love the sheer ambition of the idea. The goal is to start sending unmanned supply missions in 2020, ahead of the manned mission in 2026. They want to use a SpaceX rocket to launch the mission, though they still don’t have a viable ship. The original plan called for the craft to be built in orbit, to allow for the size needed for eventual habitats, etc. on Mars (since they’re supposed to stay there permanently). Now, they may or may not use a modified SpaceX Dragon capsule.

Odds it’ll happen: Not great. It’s a cool idea, no doubt, but it’s estimated to cost around $6 billion to pull it off. Not to mention they have to build this ambitious spacecraft that will actually keep the team alive indefinitely on the ground (or at least modify a Dragon capsule enough to do that). Right now, they’re nowhere close.

ESA's Mars plan, complete with a potential team-up with Russia

It’s still in the planning stages, but the European Space Agency (ESA) has ambitions to eventually but boots on Mars. They’re just not very concrete ambitions, at the moment. Instead, the ESA wants to visit the moon as a proving ground before heading to Mars (which isn’t a bad plan), so any Red Planet ambitions are still decades away. There has also been talk of a potential team-up with Russia to visit Mars, in an effort to offset some cost and tech needs. 

The European Space Agency has come a long way, and who knows? If NASA keeps delaying its mission the ESA could be the first government space agency to get there. But, the ESA’s Mars mission doesn’t really have any tangible target dates at the moment — but check back once they start kicking around on the moon.

Odds it’ll happen: Probably, eventually. The ESA has already proven it can pull off some ambitious missions (See: Landing a craft on a comet, albeit with a few bounces), and if they want to get to Mars, it’ll happen. But, there’s a lot of work to do in the meantime. So, don’t hold your breath.