Human Travel to Mars May Happen Sooner Than Expected, Scientists Say

May 15, 2001

For years, people have speculated about, written about and made movies about traveling to Mars. Those dreams of landing a human being on the planet may become a reality sooner than we think.

Although no official deadline for achieving human travel to Mars has been set, a mission to our closest neighbor—136 million to 150 million miles (220 million to 240 million kilometers) from Earth—is imminent, according to some scientists.

"Let's burn it into our brains that in our lifetimes, we will extend the reach of these human species onto other planets and onto other bodies in our solar system," said Daniel Golden, director of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

While many scientists say a mission to Mars is technologically possible today, there are many questions of whether it is practical, economic, or safe to undertake such a mission.

Currently, the only means of extended space travel is by chemically propelled rockets, similar to those used today. Using such rockets, it would take about six months to fly to Mars, and the amount of fuel needed just to get there would be so large that the fuel would make up a huge part of the spacecraft's volume. Moreover, there would not be enough fuel for the spacecraft to turn around and come back to Earth if the mission needed to be aborted.

Another option is plasma engines, which operate using super-heated gas as fuel. Still in development, these types of engines hold the promise of a faster, safer trip to Mars.

"If we can get there quickly, or if we even have ways to turn around and come back, we create a safer environment for the humans," said Gary Marin, director of advanced programs at NASA.

In the view of some scientists, it is just a matter of when a spacecraft capable of carrying people to Mars will be developed.

Robert Zubrin, president of Pioneer Astronautics and The Mars Society, told National Geographic Today, "We are much closer today to sending people to Mars than we were to sending people to the moon in 1961."

Our first encounter with the mystical red planet may be only a few years away.

For more about Mars, tune into National Geographic Today all this week. Also read more about it later on this Web site.

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