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After Decades of Wishing for a Mars Colony, It May Finally Be Within Reach

With multiple paths to the red planet laid out, we might actually see people on Mars in the next few decades

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Photo: NASA/JPL

Even during the earliest days of the human spaceflight program, Wernher von Braun, the mastermind behind the German V-2 rocket and America’s Saturn V–the ship that eventually bore people to the Moon—had his eyes set on putting human boots on the surface of the red planet.

Von Braun’s strategy was incredibly costly but theoretically possible (though not without significant kinks), says Amy Shira Teitel. He laid out a plan to carry 70 people to Mars on a fleet of ten spacecraft, using massive ships built in orbit high above the surface of the Earth using nothing more than 1940s-era technology.

Fifty years later, air and spacecraft manufacturer Rockwell International laid out a sprawling, step-by-step plan to get us to Mars. According to the plan:

1983 saw the first generation of reusable space craft. During 1998, we were supposed to firm up our propulsion systems and start with the interplanetary expansion. In 2008, we were supposed to have a lunar outpost established.

Next year, in 2013, we should be expanding an international lunar base and a lunar space port.

We’ve had our eyes on Mars for a long, long time. But it’s starting to look like the fortunes of any hopeful Martians-to-be are turning around: rather than one visionary’s bold, elaborate plan to carry us to the fourth planet from the Sun, we have many—put forth by government agencies and private corporations alike. The hope, then, is that one of them might actually pull it off.

Who wants to go to Mars?

NASA

Earlier this week, says Casey Johnston for Ars Technica, NASA announced plans to launch a second Mars rover, similar to the recent Curiosity rover, in 2020. “If all goes as planned, NASA hopes to put astronauts in orbit around Mars by the 2030s, per the wishes of President Obama.”

SpaceX

This private spaceflight company SpaceX—helmed by Tesla Motors and PayPal founder Elon Musk—has already completed a supply run up to the International Space Station using its Falcon 9 rocket and has just inked a deal to provide launch services for the U.S. military. A few weeks ago, Musk made a splash when he announced that he wants to put whole colonies of people on Mars.

Mars One

Another private company, the Dutch Mars One, says SEN, “is aiming to establish a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet. The mission, to be funded from the sale of broadcasting rights, would see the first 4 settlers arrive on Mars in 2023.”

Rather than depending on government funding or ticket sales, Mars One wants to run the mission like a reality TV show, with broadcasters paying for the trip through advertising dollars.

China

Though not giving a specific date for human settlement, China definitely has its sights set on Mars—after they make a stop on the Moon. Right now, says io9, China is working out how to grow vegetables on such a lifeless world, a development that “could pave the way for a future mission to Mars in which plants will be used to take in carbon dioxide, while providing oxygen and sustenance for the pioneers living within in.”

Whether any of these missions actually make it to fruition, the renewed vigor in exploring Mars can’t really come at a better time. According to Quartz News‘ Christopher Mims, “we already blew the deadline to avoid dangerous climate change” here on Earth.

More from Smithsonian.com:

If We Had Followed This Plan, We’d Be Living on Mars By Now
Elon Musk’s Journey to Mars 
Click Around This High Definition 360° Panorama of Mars

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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