Mission to Mars: The Journey by the Numbers

by Trevor English 9 November 2016

NASA has been developing many technologies that will make the seemingly impossible journey to Mars possible, and they estimate that by the late 2030s, man will have landed on the planet. Given Mar’s relative similarities in size and atmosphere to earth, as well as the proximity to our planet, it has been the main focus of space research for the past years and will be in the foreseeable future.

For the past 40 years, NASA has been sending robotic landers to study the surface and atmosphere of Mars, collecting a wealth of data to eventually help send humans. According to NASA’s current schedule, man will land on Mars’ moon Phobos in 2033 and will land on Mars by 2039. These are both very real steps that are in the works at NASA, and all part of the practical plan of getting man to our neighboring planet.

Image Source

At the core of the Mars missions lay the establishment of a base or habitat on Mars’ moon, Phobos, that would function as a docking space for landing craft. Phobos would still be 3,700 miles from the surface of Mars, but establishing a stop here will be crucial to the landing of astronauts on Mars. Initial missions to Phobos would be launched using NASA’s new SLS rocket, carrying some ‘tug’ propulsion systems to the surface of the moon. Currently, all of the necessary technology exists to make these missions occur from a physics perspective. 3 SLS rocket launches will carry cargo to Phobos before the final manned launch in 2033, a total of 4 launches. When the crew lands on Phobos, they will call it home for nearly a year, 333 days.

A look at the SLS rocket

Image Source

With the landing on Phobos requiring 4 SLS rocket launches, the trip to Mars will require 6 more SLS rocket launches. Of the launches, the biggest payload will be a 23-ton lander habitat system which would wait orbiting Mars to connect with the Astronauts.

The first landing of astronauts on the moon will involve a lot of travel time, and very little time spent on the surface of the planet. Travel time for the astronauts would range anywhere from 300 to 600 days round trip, where they would only spend 6 to 28 days on the surface of Mars once they arrived. While this first mission will be short in terms of time on ground, NASA is planning to launch a mission in 2043 where astronauts will spend 12 months on the surface of Mars, establishing a basis for a future colony.

The cost of such a journey is another question entirely, and one that will likely. (Image Source)

be footed by the government. NASA has yet to release any specified budget on these future missions, so one can only speculate. So far, the development of the SLS launch system has totalled to $8.3 billion. This is only one facet of the mission, with estimates of certain lander components rocketing past $1 billion. Forgoing actual numbers, one thing can be certain about the future missions to Mars, they will be the most expensive Space missions in the history of mankind.

The physics behind launching and landing on Mars is actually fairly simple. Other than perfectly timing the launch and laying out the trajectory, astronauts making the journey will have to sit around and wait. With the journey each way taking 6 to 9 months, the focus of astronauts will be making sure they retain the necessary physical abilities for the mission. Once the journey has been made, astronauts will board the lander, which will be waiting in orbit, and descend to the surface. Instead of using parachutes, the lander will use retrorockets to decelerate and land comfortably on the surface of the red planet. 

Significant planning and infrastructure construction lies ahead for NASA, but within the next 20 years, man will be on Phobos – within the next 25, man will be on Mars.