Race to Mars Mission Plan: Mars vehicles

Project Olympus is the mission depicted in the Race to Mars expedition miniseries, set in the year 2030.  The following details apply to that particular mission, designed in consultation with teams of top scientists and researchers.  Other proposed mission-designs vary in timeline, duration of surface stay, mission-trajectory, mission objectives, propulsion-types, etc.  The Race to Mars mission represents the best efforts of our science-advisory team based on technological, scientific, political and socials projections for the first human Mission to Mars– but we of course acknowledge that this is one vision among many.  Care to differ?  Please take part in discussions on our Community Message Boards.

The mission to Mars is a multistage journey that involves sending three cargo vehicles to Mars in addition to the crew transport vehicle, the Terra Nova. With the exception of the Earth Return Vehicle, which launches the crew into space and attaches to Terra Nova, the vehicles will be launched into space in parts using an heavy lift launch vehicle  and then assembled in low Earth orbit.  The cargo ships and Terra Nova will be sent well in advance of the crew, ensuring the vehicles will be ready and waiting for the crew on Mars or in parking orbit around the red planet.

Race to Mars: Habitat ‘Atlantis’ landing on Mars in advance of the human crew


Although all three cargo transit vehicles use very similar exterior aeroshells, they will contain very different cargo. The Shirase cargo lander will transport tools and supplies the crew will need on Mars, including the Surface Exploration Vehicle rovers, the wireline drilling and the surface power reactor. The second cargo lander contains the Mars surface habitat, the Atlantis, while the third cargo ship will transport the Mars Ascent/Descent Vehicle, the Gagarin, to Mars orbit where it will wait for the Terra Nova to transport the crew to the surface of Mars. Each cargo ship must arrive safely to its destination in order for the crew to successfully land and carry out their mission on Mars.

Launching from Earth: the Earth Return Capsule

The crew of Project Olympus will be launched into low Earth orbit in a vehicle resembling the command module of Apollo-11, the first lunar lander with a human crew. Relatively small, it will contain seating for the crew, controls, electronics and communications systems and protective heat shielding. Once it reaches low Earth orbit, it will dock with the assembled Terra Nova, the craft that will take the crew from Earth to Mars.  Although the crew will transfer into Terra Nova for the duration of their journey to Mars, the Earth Return Capsule will remain docked, returning the crew to Earth at the end of the mission.

The Mars Trajectory: Terra Nova

The crew transit vehicle, the Terra Nova will be engineered around a truss-based structure of supports and joints that will connect four drop-fuel tanks, an in-line tank, the core stage, the docked Earth Return Vehicle and the six-person Habitat Module. It will weigh approximately 325 tons and will be powered by the nuclear reactor.

The cylindrical habitat module of the Terra Nova will house the crew in three levels of living and work space. Equipped to function in both microgravity and artificial gravity, the Terra Nova has ample storage for food, oxygen, water and supplies, including a freezer for food and some medication. Because of its location along the walls, the stowed supplies will provide extra radiation shielding. The crew compartments (compact rooms for sleeping and privacy) are encased in materials that provide the maximum amount of radiation shielding. While the recreational area is equipped with telecommunications screens for communicating with Earth and watching movies, a window will allow the crew to literally stare out into space.

Race to Mars: Terra Nova crew-module Airlock

The habitat module’s full kitchen includes a food preparation station, a convection oven that doubles as a microwave, a sink, dishwasher, coffeemaker and utensil storage. To accommodate all six astronauts, there will be two washrooms on board. Although crew members will only use the shower once every three days to conserve water, they will stay healthy and fit by using on-board exercise equipment and visiting the medical bay as required. For exit to other vehicles or exterior repair, the airlock area is equipped with an Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) preparation area. After the mission is complete, the Terra Nova will remain in space in a heliocentric orbit around the sun.

Race to Mars: Terra Nova docking with Gagarin (still in it’s protective aeroshell) in Mars orbit

Descent to Mars: The Gagarin

The MADV (Mars Ascent/Descent Vehicle) Gagarin is a vertical lander. The crew will use the rocket-propelled Gagarin for two short duration flights: landing on Mars and later, ascending back into space. To allow the crew to transfer between the Terra Nova and the Gagarin, the two ships will dock together in Mars orbit. The Gagarin will remain in Mars orbit after the crew has returned to Earth.

Race to Mars: ‘Atlantis’ surface habitat and an SEV
(Surface Exploration Vehicle)

Descent to Mars: The Gagarin

The MADV (Mars Ascent/Descent Vehicle) Gagarin is a vertical lander. The crew will use the rocket-propelled Gagarin for two short duration flights: landing on Mars and later, ascending back into space. To allow the crew to transfer between the Terra Nova and the Gagarin, the two ships will dock together in Mars orbit. The Gagarin will remain in Mars orbit after the crew has returned to Earth.

Life on Mars: The Atlantis and surface equipment

On Mars, two battery-powered Surface Exploration Vehicles (SEV) rovers will transport the crew from the landing site to their surface habitat, and allow them to explore the area. Each rover carries three astronauts, and because the rovers are unpressurized, the crew will have to wear their spacesuits while on board. Like a cross between an all-terrain vehicle and a pickup truck on Earth, each of the ruggedly-designed rovers will have a small flat bed for transporting samples and equipment. The rovers are rechargeable via the Surface Power Reactor.

The compact nuclear Surface Power Reactor will provide power to the surface habitat and equipment on Mars. Only a meter wide and three metres high, the Surface Power Reactor is designed to fulfill the surface power requirements of between 20,000 and 50,000 watts. A generator within the reactor transforms the nuclear energy into electric power.

Based on a wireline design, the Mars surface Drill is a light, energy efficient and designed specifically for the Mars environment. Packed in one-metre lengths to be assembled by the crew on-site, the drill will be bolted to the ground for stability.  The drill will be used by the crew to search for liquid water on Mars.

While on Mars the crew will stay in the Atlantis Surface Habitat. Sent in advance, the Atlantis should be ready and operational for the crew’s arrival on Mars. This horizontal, cylindrical structure rests on an octagonal aluminum frame and stands a meter off the ground. At four meters in diameter and 10.6 meters long, it is like an advanced-technology mobile home. Although it will only have a single floor of working and living space, it will be well-equipped. The main Extra-vehicular activity (EVA) and airlock facility will be electrostatically charged to remove Mars dust. A second pressure port at the back of the habitat will provide an emergency exit. The habitat will be fully equipped with necessary supplies, including food, oxygen and eight spacesuits (two are spares). It also includes crew compartments, a washroom with a shower, a kitchen, a dining table with seating for six and windows in the private crew bunks. The Atlantis will remain on the surface of Mars after the crew has departed for Earth.

Race to Mars: Interior of the Atlantis surface habitat

Race to Mars Mission Plan: Timeline

Project Olympus is the mission depicted in the Race to Mars expedition miniseries, set in the year 2030.  The following details apply to that particular mission, designed in consultation with teams of top scientists and researchers.  Other proposed mission-designs vary in timeline, duration of surface stay, mission-trajectory, mission objectives, propulsion-types, etc.  The Race to Mars mission represents the best efforts of our science-advisory team based on technological, scientific, political and socials projections for the first human Mission to Mars– but we of course acknowledge that this is one vision among many.  Care to differ?  Please take part in discussions on our Community Message Boards.

When do the crew wear spacesuits?

To ensure safety, the crew will be required to wear their spacesuits during critical times in the mission, including:

  • The launch from Earth
  • Landing on Mars
  • While outside their habitat, conducting surface operations on Mars
  • The launch from Mars
  • Extra-vehicular activity (EVAs) in microgravity
  • Landing on Earth

The “Race to Mars” Mission Plan

With a Venus fly-by on the way, it will take about 11 months to get to Mars. Once there, the crew will spend two months on the surface, exploring, drilling for water and conducting experiments. The return trip, which will be more direct, will take six and a half months. By the end of the mission, the crew will have traveled 900 million kilometers, spending 19 months in space (just over 1.5 years).  They will be the first humans to experience first-hand a close view of planet Venus, and the first humans to walk on the surface Mars. Their observations will greatly advance our knowledge of these planets. Their overriding goal will be to finally provide conclusive evidence to answer the longstanding questions of whether there is life on Mars.

A multistage task

Because this is a complex mission, it will occur in stages, beginning with the launch of cargo vehicles carrying the Mars surface habitat, Mars ascent/descent vehicle (lander), surface-exploration rovers, a drilling rig, surface power reactor and other supplies. The Terra Nova Crew Transit Vehicle will be assembled in space and parked in low Earth orbit awaiting the arrival of the crew on board the Earth Return Capsule.

The plan for propulsion

The propulsion system on board the Terra Novawill function using Bi-modal Nuclear Thermal Rockets. These rockets conduct nuclear fission the same way that nuclear power plants or submarines do, using energy to heat a liquid hydrogen propellant and forcing the exhaust through the nozzle to create thrust. Although this is a new technology, it will have the following benefits

  • Performs more efficiently than chemical propulsion systems.
  • Can multitask by also providing electrical power for the crew-habitat.
  • Simplifies operations, therefore reducing mission mass and risk.  One example of how BNTR reduces risk involves arrival at Mars: many robotic missions aerobrake and capture into Mars Orbit by skimming across the surface of the Martian atomosphere.  A slight variation in angle, and the craft can skip off the atmosphere and back into space (or burn up on a premature entry).  BNTR propulsion allows the Terra Nova to do a propulsive capture – firing the engines in order to slow down and precisely enter orbit.
  • Easily integrates with artificial gravity systems.
  • Reduces the amount of fuel required (as compared to chemical propulsion), which in turn makes the mission more affordable.

The Mars trajectory

Once the crew has boarded the Terra Nova, they will begin their journey towards Mars by initiating a number of “burns,” to get on the right trajectory to Mars and later to enter and leave Mars orbit. To create a burn, the rocket propulsion system is fired. Rocket thrust, which propels a spacecraft through space, is created by the rapid release of exhaust gases.  The Terra Nova uses a bi-modal nuclear thermal rocket for main propulsion and for electrical power.  This mission will involve a number of critical burns, beginning with two initiating the Trans Mars Injection, which will set the Terra Nova’s course towards Mars. Later, a burn will allow the Terra Nova to capture Mars orbit. Once the surface expedition on Mars is complete, the Terra Nova will use a burn to enter the trajectory towards Earth.

Creating artificial gravity

Even though the astronauts will be in microgravity during critical points of their mission, including burns, artificial gravity is possible, making it more comfortable and less of a health risk for the crew during their long mission. After a burn is complete, the crew will be able to initiate a spin up of the Terra Nova, using the Reaction Control System thrusters. The ship turns sideways to the direction of motion and begins to rotate, until it is traveling like a propeller.  This creates centrifugal force that in turn creates artificial gravity. It takes 40 minutes to achieve a rotation speed of 4.5 RPM, which generates an artificial gravity that’s only 30 percent weaker than that of Earth’s.

Venus fly-by

Flying past Venus is not only a way for the Olympus crew to experience an incredible planetary view, it’s also a way to save fuel. A gravity ‘slingshot’ maneuver can change trajectory (speed/direction of motion), so veering towards Venus and into its gravitational field will cause the crew’s spaceship, the Terra Nova, to turn towards Mars without needing to use as much fuel. Although the outbound journey (with the Venus fly-by) will take 11 months compared to the return journey (without Venus fly-by) which will only take 6, the reduced energy requirements for the mission will be significant. And the less fuel you need to haul out from Earth with you, the cheaper the mission.  The Venus fly-by was a successful route for the Mars-bound Mariner 2 in 1962.

Transit Vehicles

Some equipment for the mission will be sent ahead in separate cargo-vehicles, while some will travel along with the astronauts in their Crew Transit Vehicle.

There will be three cargo carriers:

Shirase Contains two Surface Exploration Vehicles, a drilling-rig and the surface power reactor
Atlantis The surface-habitat for the astronauts
Gagarin The Mars Ascent/Descent Vehicle (MADV), which will bring the crew from orbit around Mars to the surface of the red planet, and back again when the surface-mission is completed.

There will also be the Crew Transit Vehicle, the Terra Nova, which will bring carry the crew to Mars and home again.

The Terra Nova carries six astronauts from Earth orbit to Mars orbit.


Life on Mars: A travel brochure for the Red Planet

If you like dramatic weather, dusty conditions and the most extreme natural landscapes in the solar system, the spectacular red planet of Mars could be your destination of choice.

A world-wide dust storm on Mars in 2001 (Image: NASA)

How’s the weather?

Driven by the fine, sunlight-absorbing dust that engulfs the planet instead of the water that triggers meteorological changes on Earth, the weather on Mars is characterized by dust storms, dust devils and raging winds. The two hemispheres of Mars, like those of Earth, experience four seasons, and carbon dioxide condenses and forms seasonal frost deposits during the Martian winter.  The weather on Mars is mostly predictable, and while the average global temperature is cooler than Earth at 55°C (-133 to 27), temperatures can rise and fall quickly. With an atmosphere only 1% as thick as Earth’s and no magnetic field to shield from solar flares and cosmic rays, the Red Planet offers harsh conditions that are much more severe than on Earth.

Keeping the dust out

The dry Martian atmosphere contains a significant amount of suspended dust. More like flour than the sands of Earth, these small grains of dust can be as fine as cigarette smoke.  Unlike most common Earth sand and fuzzy dust, Martian dust particles are sharp and oddly shaped. As solar heat warms the atmosphere, it moves the air, sending the dust swirling. Regional dust storms generally persist for a few weeks before dissipating, but there are occasional planet-wide dust storms that turn the air orange and hide the surface from view. Dust storms are more common in late August, at the Red Planet’s closest approach to the sun.

A bright, circular dust devil appears in Melas Chasmas on Mars (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Spectacular dust devils, the visual markers of a wind vortex, pick up dust off the surface of Mars, creating criss-crossing tracks as abstract as a Jackson Pollock painting. Although the lower atmospheric pressure means they don’t have much force behind them, the fast moving Martian dust devils can be up to ten times taller than those found on Earth, up to ten kilometers high. They are often electrically charged, creating electromagnetic interference that can affect the function of electronic equipment. And they cause extreme static cling, making it tricky for astronauts to completely clean themselves off when re-entering their habitat at the end of the day.  Mars habitats may end up with a thin film of dust coating everything inside despite best efforts to keep them clean.

Dust is treacherous for Mars expeditions, causing static charges, jammed spacesuit joints, leaking air pressure from seals and spacesuits, dirty and weakened solar power panels, shorting equipment, clogged filters, obscured warning lights and scratched windows and lenses. If dust does get into the crew’s habitat, it can irritate lungs, skin and eyes. Dust storms block visibility and communication. The crew won’t be completely defenseless, however: dust can be removed or reduced from environments and machinery through electromechanical methods, including tilting, shocks or ultrasound that break the electrostatic (static-cling) effect of the dust, as well as air filters and dust-repellant coatings.

View from Pathfinder landing site, Noon local time (Image: NASA)

The view from Mars

The Red Planet moniker is a bit of a misnomer. Early images seemed to show Mars with a dark pink sky, but to scientists’ surprise, a colour correction conducted with images from the 1997 Pathfinder mission revealed the Red Planet’s true colour. The daytime sky offers a warm-hued ambiance with a brownish-yellow butterscotch colour.

View from Pathfinder landing site, sunset
(Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The Martian dust active in the planet’s atmosphere can lead to sunsets and sunrises opposite to those of Earth: instead of our blue-sky with pinkish/red effects around the sun, Mars presents pinkish-red sunsets/sunrises with touches of blue in the vicinity of the sun.  The effects are caused by the vast amounts of Martian dust in the atmosphere.  Illumination of the dust in the atmosphere also causes twilight to last last much longer.

The terrain of Mars is characterized by exaggerated extremes, including massive canyons, such as Valles Marineris along the equator, and Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano in the solar system. At 25 kilometers high, Olympus Mons is three times higher than Mount Everest. Scenic impact craters, such as the enormous Helias Basin, along with channels, gulleys and low lying plains that were once rivers and ocean beds are worth exploring.

Emergency spacesuit repair
Spacesuits are designed to protect astronauts, but like scuba diving equipment, are not entirely fail-safe. In the event of a tear or loss of pressure, astronauts may have up to 20 minutes of emergency oxygen and must work quickly to:

  1. Assess risk. The larger the hole, the greater the risk, and the lower the amount of time until the O2 runs out.
  2. Interim patch. A temporary seal of some special-purpose material may help.
  3. Find safe environment. Return immediately to the spacecraft.
  4. Repair. Once safely inside, the astronaut can repair the suit with special adhesives and equipment

Excercise and bunny hops

Although it’s stronger than that of the Moon, the surface gravity of Mars (3.71 meters square) is only 38 percent of Earth’s (9.81 meters square). In order to counteract the detrimental health effects of low gravity on bone and muscle tone, visitors will still have to exercise while on the surface of Mars. Visitors to Mars can also experiment with low gravity movement. Astronauts exploring the Moon’s surface discovered that in a bulky space suit, bunny hopping, or lightly jumping across the surface was actually more efficient than walking. Martian explorers might develop some unique forms of locomotion of their own.

Getting used to the 24.65 hour day

Thirty-nine minutes may not seem like much of a difference, but when your body clock is set to the Earth day, adjusting to the longer Mars day isn’t easy. During NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission (2003), scientists and engineers working as mission control crews lived on Mars time on Earth, keeping in direct contact with the rovers in shifts, 24 hours and 39 minutes a day, seven days a week. Although some of the crew adapted to the rotating schedule, many found it difficult. Wearing special watches that kept Martian time, the crew coped with the stress and fatigue that comes with the disruption of one’s circadian rhythm plus the difficulty of juggling a family and social life while living in a different time zone.

Race to Mars: Drawing of the Atlantis surface habitat

The Mars Surface Habitat

During their stay on Mars, visitors will live in a surface habitat. Some missions call for the habitat to be pre-launched into space in multiple parts and pre-assembled in low-Earth orbit.   It will be sent to the planet ahead of the crew, and will be ready and waiting on the surface by the time the astronauts get to Mars. Designs very, with the one shown here shaped like a cylinder with two conic end domes, and standing a meter off the ground for convenient underside access.  The external structure includes an octagonal frame for easy landing gear and equipment attachment. An advanced Extra-vehicular activity (EVA) facility features equipment storage, and the habitat’s airlock leads to an external porch and ladder. A negative pressure space is electrostatically charged to remove dust. A rear emergency exit includes its own pressure port.

Growing food on Mars

Chances are that on a first mission to Mars, the crew will be bringing along all of their food supplies, but future crews stationed on Mars for longer durations may grow their own food in greenhouses or underground using light from solar collectors. Long cycles of light and high carbon dioxide levels on the Red Planet will stimulate plant growth, although the plants are likely to be hydroponic (grown in water and chemicals) until the constituents of the Mars soil are better known. The Mars-grown food-supply could consist of:

  • Cereal (wheat and rice)
  • Legumes for protein
  • Sweet potato or white potato for complex carbs
  • Vegetables (lettuce, tomato, broccoli)
  • Herbs, including onion and garlic.


Life in space

Although you can’t step outside for a breathe of fresh air, life in space resembles Earth rhythms, in that it follows daily patterns and routines revolving around eating, sleeping, working and relaxing. A mission to Mars can take one and half to three years, depending on how much time is spent on the surface.  The Race to Mars mission calls for the crew to be in space for 522 days, only 60 of which will be spent on the surface of Mars itself.  During the transit to and from Mars, the crew will live in a special habitat with room for up to six astronauts.  It will include private crew quarters, a medical bay, a flight deck, and airlock and storage for oxygen, water, food and other supplies.

Over the course of their 582-day trip, the Mars crew will be traveling in space 522 days, with only 60 days spent on Mars itself. During transit the crew will live on board the Trans-Hab unit of the Terra Nova vehicle. With room for six crew members, the Trans-Hab has private crew quarters, an airlock, medical bay, science stations, control systems and storage for oxygen, water, food and other supplies.

Communicating in time-delay

Unlike previous NASA missions, the crew traveling to Mars will have nearly autonomous control over its own day-to-day scheduling. The crew will work from a master schedule developed in advance, but light-time communications delays varying between a few seconds and 44 minutes will make it impossible for ground crews to micromanage the Mars astronauts’ schedule, a practice that has raised tensions between the crew and the ground in the past. Instead of mission control, the ground crew’s role will be one of mission support. A message can take anywhere from 3 to 22 minutes to travel between Mars and Earth (and the same length of time for a response to get back), making normal conversations with ground crew or family members impossible. Mars astronauts will chat in real time only with each other, communicating with the ground with messages, files and reports via special software over a delay-tolerant network. The Mars crew will be required to do its own troubleshooting, respond first in case of emergency and will be self sufficient if an extended loss of communication occurs.

Personal hygiene 

Water is carefully conserved in space, so astronauts only shower only rarely. Although they can wash their hair with a special no-rinse shampoo applied with a towel, give each other haircuts and shave with an electrical or disposable razor, astronauts must be very careful to vacuum loose hairs and whiskers, which can get into equipment and clog filters. Astronauts use their favorite toothbrushes and toothpaste for brushing their teeth, but instead of using water and a sink, they spit the toothpaste into a towel.

Bathroom from the Space Shuttle.
(Image: NASA)

The crew’s tiny washroom contains a unisex urinal, odor and bacteria filters and a space toilet. Built for microgravity conditions, space toilets are more like toilets on a plane than the kind you use at home. Consisting of a small raised bowl and seat, the space toilet vacuums solid waste into a compartment. Each astronaut has a personal urination device that looks like a small cup. The cup is connected to a long plastic tube that sticks out of the wall and vacuums urine away into the waste compartment. In order to use the space toilet or urinal in microgravity, astronauts need to strap themselves in so they don’t float, which means using either device can take as long as 10 minutes more than it would on Earth. While wearing their spacesuits, the astronauts will use the Maximum Absorption Garment, a large adult diaper.


A sample day’s menu for the Mars crew in space could include:

  • Breakfast: scrambled eggs, a tortilla, dried fruit and trail mix.
  • Lunch: smoked turkey tortilla wrap, almonds, dried peaches and lemonade.
  • Dinner: teriyaki chicken, corn, rice pilaf, mixed vegetables and a tortilla, with a brownie for dessert.
 En Route to Mars: A day in the life

  • Station inspection, hygiene, breakfast, daily planning, status reports, email.
  • Exercise: cardio or strength training and hygiene


  • Lunch
  • Work (8 hours): systems operations, trash collection, assembly, maintenance, traffic operations, medical operations, routine operations, science.
  • Days off: communicate with friends and family, read, housekeeping, listen to music, play games.


  • Dinner
  • Review plan for next day
  • Hygiene and relaxation
  • Sleep

NASA food scientists spend their careers planning and perfecting the food astronauts eat, and their biggest challenge yet is creating tasty dishes with a five-year shelf life for the Mars expedition. The good news is that with hydroponics, the Mars-bound crew may be able to grow lettuce, tomatoes, onions, wheat and other food in space.

Food selected for space is chosen for minimal crumbs (crumbs float!) and ability to withstand mold and bacteria, which is why tortillas are popular. In microgravity conditions, astronauts’ sense of smell is dulled in space when the fluids in their bodies, such as blood, shift upwards as a result of lowered gravity and cause nasal congestion, so food scientists have been working to add more tang and zest to space food. Texture is also important: astronauts appreciate the occasional crunch, which is more difficult to achieve when most of your food comes dehydrated in plastic pouches. Astronauts add water to the pouches and heat them as required. Additional seasonings, including salt and pepper are available in liquid form and attached to the communal table where the astronauts eat together.

Sleeping, relaxing and waiting 

Because much of the Mars flight will be automated, the Mars crew will have a great deal of free time available, which means there’s a risk the crew might get bored. Mars crew members will be encouraged to cultivate sedentary hobbies, such as computer programming or gaming. They may even choose to spend their time studying and doing correspondence courses. During downtime, the crew can communicate with family and friends, listen to music, read, play games or watch movies. Most astronauts bring an electronic collection of family photos, messages and video clips with them. And while the exhilarating view of Earth or Mars from space never grows tired, the many months in between won’t offer much in the way of a stimulating view.

Each astronaut will have their own sleeping compartment equipped with a sleeping bag, pillow, light, air vent and space for personal belongings. Sleeping bags are rigid on one side so they feel like a mattress. Although sleeping in artificial gravity is similar to sleeping on Earth, when astronauts sleep in microgravity, they can sleep anywhere, by simply curling up in a corner to doze. Because some find the free-floating sensation of their arms strange, astronauts often secure their limbs with restraints or fold their arms across their chests while sleeping in microgravity. In previous space missions, noise and bright lights on board often necessitated the use of sleep masks, earplugs and even sleeping pills. Private quarters would almost certainly be required onboard for an extended Mars mission.

Robots vs. Astronauts

MER Rover (Artists Conception) (Image: NASA)

In a speech by the President George W. Bush in 2004, the U.S. government set an ambitious new course for NASA, with an explicit objective to further explore the solar system, and ultimately send humans to Mars. Although NASA’s near-term objectives for exploring Mars focus on further robotic exploration of the Red Planet, the robotic missions are designed to set the foundation for human expeditions. The European Space Agency also intends to send a human crew to Mars.

Yet because of the steep costs and risks involved in a human expedition to Mars, many argue that humans should not be sent, instead favoring robot-only missions that would attempt to accomplish the same goals. Some of the key arguments for robot and for human exploration of Mars are outlined below. The question of whether the benefits of human exploration of Mars would outweigh the risks and costs is subjective and highly complex.

Function: Robots Humans
Exploration Although early expeditions often ended in failure, robotic explorations of Mars have improved. Robots can be sent where humans cannot yet go because they are more expendable and run on less physical support and supplies. Continued gains and achievements in technology will allow robots to further explore Mars and answer key scientific questions. Direct human experience of space has altered our perspective and added greatly to our scientific knowledge. Robots are limited in function and need human guidance (which is very slow to transmit over the vast distances between the planets). Humans could explore the terrain of Mars much faster, could react and follow up on discoveries, and obtain more scientific samples.
Science Precise and highly accurate, robots are extremely effective when accomplishing specific and pre-programmed tasks. Unless provided with poor instructions from a human, robots eliminate the risks of human error. Humans can make important decisions and use ingenuity to perform functions on the fly. They can gather more data and respond better to the information in real time, thereby greatly advancing new discoveries.
Operations The flight to Mars will be long and mostly automated. A human crew may get bored or experience psychosocial problems. Robots don’t need heavy and large supply stocks of oxygen, water, food or conflict resolution. On a long mission things will break down. Humans can problem solve and respond quickly to the unexpected. Problems similar to those faced by the failed Mars Climate Orbiter and other missions might have been solved by a trained human crew on-location.
Communication Because of the distance to Mars, communication delays of up to 44 minutes make it difficult and slow to control robots. Robots must wait for further instructions before performing additional tasks.

Loss of communication would have serious consequences on a robot mission.

Humans are autonomous first responders and don’t need to wait for instructions. Humans can still perform the tasks required and effectively continue the mission even if contact with the ground is lost.
Mission Plan and Goals Robots are good at completing specific tasks and gathering specific information to be sent back to Earth for interpretation. Creating and executing a mission plan is relatively straightforward. Return is not required, which is an immense savings on supplies, food, fuel and mission complexity. A human crew could answer larger questions, instantly interpret results and make revolutionary discoveries. However, creating and executing a mission plan to get humans successfully to Mars and back is the biggest challenge NASA has ever faced.
Cost Robot missions are relatively economical, as supplies and return trips are not required. Humans are bulky, fragile and expensive to maintain. The cost for a human mission would be in the billions—some estimate in the hundreds of billions. But some argue the scientific gains of one human mission would be worth that of 10 robot only missions.
Risk Mars missions have a historically high failure rate. If a robotic probe is lost, it can be rebuilt, but human lives would be lost forever. Robots can exist on the hostile planet, weathering radiation and dust storms better than humans. If astronauts do come back alive, they may face long-term health problems. Human safety cannot be guaranteed, but this did not stop the Apollo mission, or Earth’s early explorers.  Humans also have the ability to quickly recognize and take steps to avoid dangerous situations.  Robots can only react to situations predicted at the time of their design/programming.
Publicity The Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters were tragedies and public relations disasters for NASA. A failed human mission to Mars would damage the program’s credibility and could mean a loss of funding. We’ve long dreamed of a human mission to Mars. Apollo was the beginning of making that dream real. The spirit of adventure drives interest in the space program. People may lose interest in a slow and steady exploration of Mars by robots alone. Broad public enthusiasm is important to consistent, long-term funding.
Overall Recent robotic missions have been relatively successful. Robots are capable of doing science in a precise way. Technology continues to improve. The history of Mars exploration has been leading up to a human mission. Even though it is risky, this will be the greatest adventure of our lifetime.
Plot of objects tracked in Earth orbit. Note higher incidence of objects in geo-synchronous orbit.
(Image: NASA)

The Third Option

Although it doesn’t diminish the expense or risk to human life, sending both robots and humans to Mars on a single mission could mean much more could be accomplished. Robots would provide assistance and deliver specific results. Able to be controlled in real-time by the human crew with no time delay, robots could explore terrain first to ensure safety, or explore the areas astronauts don’t want to go.

 Space Junk 
There may be as many as a million pieces of space junk currently orbiting the Earth, the vast majority smaller than 1cm in diameter, with some 10,000 objects larger than 10 cm.  More debris is lost in space or left on other planets, including Mars. Space junk travels thousands of kilometers an hour in orbit, making it dangerous to spacecraft. Although the larger pieces of debris are closely monitored, there’s no budget to clean it up.

Space debris consists of:

  • Jettisoned spacecraft parts, abandoned satellites and used rockets
  • Lost nuts and bolts
  • Garbage from the Mir Space Station
  • Solar cells and nuclear reactor cores
  • Paint chips and fuel fragments.

The dangers of debris:

  • A speck of paint from a satellite once dug a quarter-inch pit in a space shuttle window.
  • A 1mm metal chip could do as much damage as a rifle bullet.
  • A pea-sized ball moving in space would do as much damage as a 180 kg safe traveling at 100 kph
  • A metal sphere the size of a tennis ball is as lethal as 25 sticks of dynamite.

Entry, Descent and Landing on Mars

With an historic failure rate of 66 per cent, the entry, descent and landing phase of the Mars mission is the most dangerous six minutes of the nearly two-year journey. Because the Mars surface pressure is less than one per cent of Earth’s—not enough to slow a spacecraft down—the engineering challenge is to find a way to slow the Mars lander from its entry velocity that might be in excel of of 19,000 kilometres an hour to zero impact in just six minutes. Steadily improving deceleration and landing techniques for every mission, engineers have been developing new technologies to help reduce the risks.

Race to Mars: Crew Transit Vehicle docking with the Mars Ascent/Descent Vehicle (MADV) in Mars orbit

MADV: Mars Ascent, Descent Vehicle

In the Race to Mars mission detailed here, the Race to Mars crew will rely on the Gagarin, a vertical ascent/descent vehicle to land on the surface of Mars. This same vehicle will later be used to return to space and dock with the Terra Nova again. After being assembled during a docking maneuver in low Earth Orbit, the Gagarin will be sent into Mars orbit in advance of the crew’s arrival. Once the crew transit vehicle Terra Nova docks with the Gagarin, the crew boards the ascent/descent vehicle wearing their space suits for the most exhilarating and dangerous six minutes of their lives.

Race to Mars: MADV with parachutes deployed from aeroshell


Entry begins as the Mars ascent/descent vehicle (MADV) reaches the Martian atmosphere, about 125 km above the surface, and during entry is eveloped by incredibly hot gases. For 30 seconds, the Gagarin will be surrounded by temperatures that can exceed 1600° C. Protected by the Gagarin’s highly engineered heat shield, the crew will be unaffected by the intense temperatures. NASA engineers re-entry heat shields to withstand air temperatures in Kelvins equal to the entry speed in meters per second, with peak heat flux, heat load, peak deceleration and peak dynamic pressure taken into account. At 31 kilometres away from the surface, the maximum g-force, or acceleration due to gravity, is 1.3 g, while the maximum mach number, or relative velocity divided by the speed of sound, is Mach 12.66.


Like earlier Mars missions, the lander will use several methods for rapid deceleration and dealing with the mechanics of heat-shield separation and craft alignment.  Techniques include parachutes, a protective and aerodynamic bi- or tri-conic aeroshell and retro rockets.

Race to Mars: Separation of aeroshell from lander.

The parachute is deployed once the lander has slowed to Mach 3, which will take roughly five minutes. Then, within 20 seconds, the aeroshell will open and separate from the lander and the retro rockets will begin firing five kilometers above the surface. At this point, the lander will have slowed to Mach 2. Within another 20 seconds the lander will be one kilometer above the surface, and the vehicle will be traveling at 100 meters a second, making manual takeover possible. It will take another 20 seconds to decelerate from 100 meters a second to 0 metres a second, during which time the lander transitions to a horizontal flight above the surface. Depending on how far away the lander is from the landing site, it will travel two to four horizontal kilometers, traveling for 60 seconds. A final, 20 second, careful piloted vertical descent will bring the MADV gently to rest on the surface.


Previous Mars landings, often using airbags, have been bouncy and hard. Even if the descent is completely successful, the rapid landing speed, combined with unpredictable elements (including strong winds or storms) will mean the landing will be somewhat bumpy. With the help of advanced mapping and sensors, hazard avoidance and navigation has vastly improved compared with earlier missions. Still, the lander will be ruggedly built to tolerate small- to medium-sized rocks and gentle slopes should it veer off course, encounter bad weather conditions or encounter other hazards.

Landing site 

According to the Race to Mars mission plan, the MADV lander will come to rest in Dao Vallis, a valley system in the northeast corner of Hellas Basin. Although it’s close to the rocky Niger Valles, 200 kilometres away, the floor of Dao Vallis is generally smooth, with eroded remnants, making it safe for landers. It stretches for over 650 kilometres in length, with canyon walls up to 2.5 kilometres high,. The generous size of the canyon means added safety, should the landing drift slightly from its precise location.

Because the valley borders on the Hadriaca Patera, an inactive volcano, there will be much to explore. Past geothermal activity means that the area could be an interesting place to look for evidence of liquid water and possibly life. During their 60-day stay on the surface of Mars, the crew can seek out possible lava tubes, which may house ancient evidence of water from rain that would have fallen around the erupting volcano and either evaporated or seeped into underground caverns where it may remain in either frozen or liquid form. With the possibility of water, there may also be signs of life.

Coming home 

Unlike previous robotic missions, in which Mars spacecraft merely had to land on Mars, the Gagarin MADV is also equipped to take its crew back into space to dock with the transit vehicle waiting in Mars orbit.  The ascent back into Mars orbit on board the MADV marks the start of the crew’s journey home.


What is LIDAR?

Light Detection and Ranging aka LIDAR technologies have wide-ranging applications, including making landing on Mars less hazardous. Using the same principle as RADAR, this technology transmits, measures and analyzes scattered light.  LIDAR systems, which include range finders, differential absorption lidar (DIAL) and Doppler lidars, can be used

  • Accurately measure distance, rotation and surface topography: MOLA (Mars Orbiting Laser Altimeter) has been used to generate more accurate topography surveys on Mars than ever before.
  • A lander equipped with LIDAR can scan the surface, detecting hazards and adjusting the precise landing site as required.
  • Measure speed: Doppler lidars can be used to calculate wind velocity on Mars and determine its effect on the landing.
  • Measure chemical compounds and concentrations: DIAL can be used to determine the chemical concentrations of the atmosphere in advance of the landing.

Is there water on Mars?

Water ice in Vastitas Borealis Crater (Credit: European Space Agency / ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum))

Scientists have long studied the possibility of water on Mars, analyzing evidence that suggests liquid water existed on the Red Planet in the past.  Recent evidence of gullies formed within the last decade raises the possibility of liquid water on or near the surface.  These findings are incredibly significant, because where there’s water there may be life.

A watery past
Billions of years ago, Mars was warmer and wetter. Current theories suggest a thicker atmosphere along with warmer temperatures allowed groundwater to remain unfrozen near the planet’s surface. There were great rivers, lakes and even an ocean. If Mars had a thicker atmosphere, the greenhouse effect — the process by which an atmosphere warms a planet — would have caused the entrapment of more solar heat.

Gullies and Channels in Newton Basin (Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems)

Evidence for groundwater seepage has been debated by research teams investigating the formation of gullies on Mars. While some support the hypothesis that groundwater has created the gullies, others believe the gullies are a result of brines, carbon dioxide, snow melt, geothermal activity or dry flows of windborn dust and silt.

A dense network of dry valleys on the planet’s surface may have been carved out by rain. A canyon system along the equator, Valles Marineres, stretches over 5000 km, creating erosion channels consistent with the presence of water

More clues supporting the past existence of water on Mars are found in sedimentary rock layers found on Mars. Analysis of layered rocks revealed the presence of sulfates and other minerals that form in the presence of water.

Dust Devil on Mars (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A cold, dry present
While scientists have concluded that Mars, like Earth, was once a watery planet, there is little evidence to support the existence of liquid water today. It is now a frozen, dry planet. Having developed a thin atmosphere, Mars never has rain—water vapour in the air evaporates or becomes unstable. With a reduced ability for greenhouse gases to trap solar heat in a thin atmosphere, Mars is now too cold for abundant liquid water on its surface.

Some of the water that used to exist on Mars has seeped into the ground and become subsurface ice. We’ve long known there are layers of carbon-dioxide and of water ice at the planet’s poles. Yet there is also new evidence for a vast frozen sea that lies just beneath the surface, protected from melting by a layer of volcanic ash. Although it never rains on Mars, it is thought that carbon dioxide condenses to form a fine “snow” during the planet’s polar winter.

Where did the water go?
Why would a once watery planet turn into an icy desert? And how long has it been since liquid water was present in abundance on Mars? In studying glacial deposits on Mars and seeking more clues about the planet’s watery past, scientists may begin to solve these puzzling questions. They will also learn valuable information about climate change, a subject of increasing concern on our own planet. And of course, the more we know about the presence of water on Mars, both in the past and today, the more we will know about whether or not life is (or was) a possibility there.

Mars Facts: Life on the Red Planet

Rover tire-tread on Mars resembling a footprint
(Courtesy Nasa/JPL-Caltech)

Although the Martians of our popular imagination are often fully sentient, intelligent beings, if life once existed on Mars, or exists today, most scientists believe it is in the form of microorganisms.

Early astronomers began speculating about the possibility of life on Mars after observing similarities between the Red Planet and Earth. Observations made through telescopes from Earth seemed to support the popular notion that life-forms existed on Mars. But modern science challenged that idea. Images from NASA’s Mariner 5 probe in 1965 showed a desert-like surface on Mars, with no visible presence of water. Its Viking landers (1976) found no evidence to support the existence of life. As data from various subsequent missions was collected, the discovery of the harsh conditions on the surface of Mars seemed to make the existence of life highly unlikely.

Yet the balance of evidence began to shift again, beginning in 1996 with a NASA study of a meteorite that appeared to contain bacteria-like lifeforms.

Meteorite ALH 84001, close up (Courtesy Nasa/JPL-Caltech)

The Race for Proof
NASA and the European Space Agency are now locked in a race to find definitive proof of life on Mars. Although NASA’s 1996 meteorite findings were controversial and subsequently discounted, it shifted the pessimistic mood of the international scientific community towards optimism. At a European Space Agency conference in 2005, 75 percent of scientists said they believed that life once existed on Mars, while 25 percent said they believe life currently exists there. In the two decades between the Viking probes and NASA’s 1996 findings, such views would have been considered extremely radical.

Houseplants on Mars?
A group of scientists in Indiana are growing small plants in Mars-like soil, in a Martian Environment Simulator, to determine whether it would be possible for astronauts exploring Mars to grow greenhouse plants on the Red Planet as a food source. Starting extremely small—with microorganisms—the scientists have shown organic Earth life can exist in near-Mars conditions. But whether or not astronauts should introduce foreign organisms into the Martian environment remains highly controversial.


Evidence against Life on Mars

Study or Mission Date Evidence
NASA Viking lander 1976 Mars shown to be a dry, desolate planet. No evidence of life was found.
ALH84001 meteorite 1996 Some scientists claim the bacteria-like lifeforms are merely earthly contaminates, or that the structures could have formed inorganically
Mars Global Surveyor 1990 Evidence Mars no longer has a global magnetic field to protect against cosmic radiation.
Various studies ongoing Mars has been found to have a thin atmosphere, with no liquid water. Surface conditions are extremely harsh.

Evidence for Life on Mars

Study or Mission Date Evidence
ALH84001 meteorite 1996 Structures that resemble the fossilized remains of bacteria-like lifeforms were discovered in the meteorite.
NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers – Spirit and Opportunity, and Mars Global Surveyor 2004 Evidence that Mars was once a wet planet
European Space Agency’s Mars Express 2004 Proof of methane. This may indicate a life form is metabolizing carbon dioxide and hydrogen and producing methane.
Various studies 2005 Data showing the presence of formaldehyde in the Martian atmosphere. This is indicative of ongoing methane production in vast quantities and supports the possibility of microbial subsurface life.


Mars Facts: What to look for in a landing site

Race to Mars: Robotic lander on the surface of Mars

If getting to Mars will be dangerous, actually landing there will be one of the most perilous challenges of the mission. A precise landing at a well-chosen site will not only ensure the safety of the astronauts during this phase of the mission, but it will also make launching back into space easier.

Using 3-D data from high resolution scans of the Martian surface, scientists have been analyzing possible sites, evaluating them for both geological potential and touchdown safety. Scientific goals, such as finding evidence of past or present life or liquid water on Mars need to be balanced against possible dangers to the astronauts, lander and equipment. Most scientists agree there is no perfect landing site on Mars —they’re looking for a best case scenario.

Since conditions on the surface of Mars are much harsher than that of Earth, everything from extreme temperatures, to high winds, slopes, rockiness, dust devils and the possibility of dust storms and tornadoes needs to be taken into consideration.

In canyons or craters, rocks can damage landing gear or rover-tires.  And on level plains, high winds and thick dust-clouds could cause a difficult landing.  Once on the surface, unexpected dust-storm along with whirlwind dust-devils reaching up to 10 km high can cause major problems.  Storms and dust-devils can whip up enough dust and violent static-electric discharges to cover solar panels, disrupt laser communications, limit human exploration, and damage delicate equipment.

Dust Devil Tracks on the surface of Mars
(Courtesy Nasa/JPL-Caltech)

Scientists must also consider possible landing area temperatures years in advance. Although seasonal temperatures near the Martian equator can rise to 22º C during the day, they may drop to as low as -100º C overnight. If low temperatures cannot be avoided, solutions need to be put into practice, such as efficient, non-bulky insulation to keep both astronauts and sensitive equipment warm.

Choosing a landing site is a strategic decision, because it will determine what astronauts are able to discover and explore during their time on Mars. Once a landing site has been chosen, its specific characteristics—temperature, terrain and weather—must be factored into mission design.

Qualities of a good Mars landing site

  • Safe from surface hazards such as rocks and boulders.
  • A good match for the specific scientific goals of the mission.
  • Offers geological and potential exobiological diversity.
  • Already mapped in detail, via 3-D imaging
  • Easy for the crew to navigate and explore.
  • No steep slopes or inclines.
  • Not overly cold or affected by day-to-night temperature extremes.
  • Protected from high winds, significant dust storms and dust devils.
  • Ease of departure: areas of faster global rotation (eg. the equator)
    will facilitate take off.
Gusev Crater (Courtesy Nasa/JPL-Caltech)

Landing sites previously considered for lander missions

  • Sinus Meridiani Hematite Region: a smooth and flat surface
  • Isidis Planitia: impact basin
  • Melas Chasma: a canyon
  • Gusev Crater: appears to be a former lakebed
  • Athabasca Vallles: on the plains of Elysium.
  • Dao Vallis: the site chosen for the Race to Mars mission

Mars history: Mars in the popular imagination

In Gulliver’s Travels, first published in 1727, Jonathan Swift describes the two moons of Mars, 150 years before they were officially discovered and named by astronomer Asaph Hall.  Although many scientists dismiss this as a coincidence, the imagining of Mars by writers, thinkers and movie directors has created a sci-fi folklore that’s both informed and fueled popular interest in the Red Planet.

Of course, much of this “informing” process has involved pure speculation. The suspense and mystery of exploring the unknown makes for good fiction. As does, apparently, mistakes in translation. When Giovanni Schiaperelli, an astronomer from Milan (1835-1910) mapped Mars in the 1870s, noting structures he called “canali” (Italian for channels), English speakers thought he had discovered canal-like structures made by aliens. It didn’t matter that the canals were soon discovered to be an illusion—American astronomer Percival Lowell had already concluded they were real, artificially-made structures, describing Mars as a marginally habitable. Lowell’s work triggered a sci-fi trend in books, movies and stories about Mars, and the funny green aliens that supposedly inhabited it.

War of the Worlds

In 1898 writer H.G. Wells penned a nightmarish depiction of a Martian invasion of Earth. War of the Worlds popularized both the belief in aliens, and dystopian sci-fi, a horror genre that plays on our fear of the unknown universe.  When War of the Worlds was broadcast as a radio play with Orson Welles in 1938, many listeners thought it was real and panicked. While we consider ourselves more media savvy today, Wells’ story is still compelling—over the past 100 years, it’s been reproduced numerous times in multiple media, from music, movies and comics to computer games.

Courtesy NASA-JPL/Caltech

While Mars sci-fi surged in the 1930s-60s, with movies, popular stories and books by such writers as Leigh Brackett and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the imagined Mars, with its extended dream of alien life forms, was dashed in 1976 when two NASA Viking probes landed on the planet. The probes showed a dry, desolate place, and no existence of life. Many believed this was proof that Martians and alien life forms existed in imagination alone.

Mars reality in real-time

As a result of more thorough scientific and geological surveys of Mars in the past two decades, scientists have discovered that the Mars of our popular imagination, the one that is warm, wet and hospitable to life, may have actually existed millions of years ago. And in 1996, NASA research conducted on a Martian meteorite showed some evidence for the existence of microscopic life. While science fiction endures, the popularization of the Internet in the 1990s and 2000s has sparked widespread interest in the real-time exploration of Mars. NASA’s Pathfinder rover mission (1997), for example, remains one of the most popular events in Internet history, watched on the web by millions. Because landing on Mars and exploring it is exceptionally difficult, however, the mysteriousness of the Red Planet continues.

Excerpt from The War of the Worlds radio play with Orson Welles (1938):

I’m speaking from the roof of Broadcasting Building, New York City. The bells you hear are ringing to warn the people to evacuate the city as the Martians approach. Estimated in last two hours three million people have moved out along the roads to the north…
Hutchison River Parkway still kept open for motor traffic. Avoid bridges to Long Island… hopelessly jammed. All communication with Jersey shore closed ten minutes ago.
No more defenses. Our army is… wiped out… artillery, air force, everything wiped out.

This may be the last broadcast. We’ll stay here to the end…

10 popular books about Mars:

  • War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1894)
  • Station X by G. McLeod Windsor (1919)
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
  • Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke (1951)
  • David Starr, Space Ranger by Isaac Asimov (1952)
  • Martians Go Home! by Fredric Brown (1955)
  • Martian Time Slip by Phillip K. Dick (1964)
  • John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1964)
  • Mars We Love You by Jane Hipolato and Willis E. McNally eds (1971)
  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)

10 popular Mars movies

  • Rocketship X-M (1950)
  • Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953)
  • Invaders from Mars (1953 & 1986)
  • Angry Red Planet (1959)
  • Mars Needs Women (1966)
  • Mission Mars (1968)
  • The Alpha Incident (1977)
  • Total Recall (1990)
  • Mars Attacks! (1996)
  • Mission to Mars (2000)