SpaceX Dragon capsule landing on Mars. Credit: SpaceX artist's concept

Let’s just get this over with once and for all: We are going to Mars.

The only questions are: When? Who? How? Which way? And, of course, Why?

So here are my answers.

If correct, someday this piece will be archived in a Martian library. If wrong, it may still be, but the odds are that it will simply be a footnote in the story of the beginning of the end of the human race.


Science and civilization.

  • Science. We’re going to learn about our solar system, to search for signs of life, and to understand what happened to Mars so we can avoid it ourselves.
  • Civilization. We are going to settle, expanding the domain of humanity and the life of Earth, because that is what living species do — and if we stop doing that we will die as a culture or expose ourselves to death, either self-generated or from space itself.

Which way?

Straight there or via the moon.

Some in the government and private sector such as Elon Musk want to go straight to Mars. In the case of Musk — to develop an infrastructure to support a wave of settlers. In the case of old-schoolers in government — to plant the flag, but not to plant people.

Many want to go to the moon first to prepare for Mars. Some want to go into cislunar space and not to the surface as a means of learning about long-duration spaceflight. Others want to go down and practice camping on a dirty radiation-bathed surface in a vacuum, working out the kinks three days from Earth before sending people three months and 225 million kilometers out. Still others propose that we go to Phobos or Deimos first to mine propellants and operate robots on the Martian surface until we get the hang of things.


By now most agree we should emplace supplies, structures and life-support equipment on the Martian surface in advance, where it can begin converting the atmosphere into propellant, air and water before humans arrive. Some want propellant depots in space on this end of the journey using lunar- or asteroid-derived hydrogen and oxygen.[spacenews-ad]

Some want to build massive government rockets that hurl astronaut explorers from Earth’s surface to Mars. Some want to construct large spaceships that never touch ground on either end of their journey, cycling back and forth indefinitely with astronauts ferried up and down through various systems on both ends, a la Buzz Aldrin’s plan.

Who? When?

The mental shift is presently occurring. “The Martian” (book and film) may well be held up by future generations as the rallying social icon of the shift.

The only unequivocal, clearly declared and credible Mars program is that of Elon Musk and SpaceX. It’s possible they will put something on Mars by 2018. Their goal is humans on the Martian surface by 2030. NASA seems to be focused on 2035 or so. Musk wants to send settlers to stay. NASA works for the government. They are planning to send explorers to visit.

China, Russia and India will shoot for the moon first. United Arab Emirates is interested in Mars. Other private citizens may also soon declare their own programs, either to the moon or Mars or asteroids. So, unlike the first race to the moon, this time it may be the people racing governments — unless, of course, they decide to work together.

This, in a nutshell, is the state of play.

Matt Damon
Matt Damon stars in “The Martian.” Credit: Twentieth Century Fox
Matt Damon stars in “The Martian.” Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

So what do we do? As many of these approaches are viable, we must go back to the Why? to begin culling out the dead ends. Since a notable group of space leaders at the 2015 Pioneering Space Summit agreed settlement is the goal and science is something you get if you do settlement (the reverse does not apply), I will adopt that assertion as my standard in the process of elimination.
Which way? Either direct or via the moon. They both have merits.

Some do not want to take the political risk of getting bogged down on the moon. Given what happened with the space shuttle and International Space Station turning into dead ends when they were pitched as steppingstones to open the frontier, it’s not a bad point. Been there, done that.

Going directly to Mars is too risky for a monolithic government. This is because a government program that sends out explorers has to bring them home alive. If they die at any point, the project is deemed a failure.

However, a group of private citizens acknowledging people will die, sending volunteers who don’t expect to return and are willing lay down their lives for a grander cause even if there are disasters, can take the risk. They can keep going; more volunteers will sign up. It’s what pioneers and settlers do — they struggle, they die, they settle.

Arguments aside, some people simply like the idea of looking out their hab window and seeing Earth close by, while others like the idea of living under a sky — even if it is red. In these cases it’s simply preference and not worth debating.

So what can we eliminate? The first one is easy.

If settlement is the goal, Apollo redux is dead. Giant expendable government rockets hurling government employees and return vehicles at Mars won’t cut it in the long run. The main reason to do so is government public relations, as the heroes return and share their stories. If settlement is the goal, we send other kinds of PR heroes — settlers — who land and live out their days on camera, building the first community as more and more follow. Again, it’s different models. One model works for government, the other for private ventures. And since the one-way model is so much cheaper, and the people who will have working one-way systems first are private sector, they may well beat the government to Mars.

Regarding Phobos/Deimos as a steppingstone, the argument can go either way. It makes sense to slowly work your way down to the surface, using robots teleoperated from above to begin building your infrastructure and exploring, even as you begin to mine and process the Martian moons for their materials and turn them into way stations for future use, but it’s not necessary.

The Who? is going to sort itself out. Whoever gets it together and goes first.

This is where it could get sticky. As a veteran of a war between people trying to run a private space station and the government (MirCorp), I suggest a plan be worked out now so both parties — public and private — can leverage off one another, and that the government position itself so that should the private sector get to Mars first, it is a victory for all.

Otherwise we face a collapse. Having spent billions to put together its own humans-to-Mars program, the government is not going to allow some wild-eyed billionaires to run off and steal the glory; and, of course, if they do, all heck will break loose as the public and sidelined governments decry and block the perceived cosmic land grab. Be the means direct, legal or hidden behind the curtain, it simply won’t be allowed to happen. And yet the private folks aren’t going to wait for the government, which any politically savvy person must admit — under almost any conceivable realistic scenario — simply is not going to be able to put people on Mars first and to stay.

So here is what I suggest: We announce a partnership to go to Mars.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses NASA's Journey to Mars. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses NASA’s Journey to Mars. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses NASA’s Journey to Mars. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

After a major targeted budget increase, NASA and its international partners rapidly accelerate their robotic exploration of Mars, announcing a shift in focus to a program that supports both science and scouting locations for permanent human presence. This means things like in situ propellant processing experiments and others — which are currently afterthoughts — would become first-tier experiments.

NASA and its partners focus their excellent labs and experts on the technologies, training and testing ground for Mars. They build their long-duration facilities beyond lunar orbit and lead on larger space infrastructure elements, but work with the private sector in supporting robotic exploration and early in situ resource processing experiments down on the moon’s surface — being customers for goods and services throughout but staying out of the lunar government “bog.”

The government expands the successful commercial crew development program to begin buying payload services to build a spaceship that can travel to and from Mars repeatedly, using a modular evolvable design, with artificial gravity and other elements that will drive the cost beyond the scope of most private funders. ISS-derived and Bigelow-type modules come to mind.

NASA supports the development propellant storage in near-Earth space to be supplied by the lowest bidder — be it from Earth, asteroids or the moon — establishing a market that promotes infrastructure. At the same time, NASA/partner research-and-development shops and private companies can share the workload developing technologies for Mars resource processing, habitats and other on-the-surface needs.

If a decision is made by governments to go to Phobos and Deimos as a next step, fine, it’ll happen eventually anyway. If SpaceX and the others want to go directly to the Martian surface, they can, much better prepared thanks to the support of a global network of government labs, and practical experience being gained in real time above and on the moon. The much more expensive and complex Mars cycler ships being built by the partners will follow regardless, supplied on both ends by propellant depots near or on the moons of both worlds — kick-starting a space economy. Any early settlers who want to go home can then do so, as new ones arrive in a much more relaxed style —along with a now endless and regular supply flow.

This mind experiment is designed to show how a plan can be set up that supports both science and settlement, engages the public and private sectors, and while acknowledging the limitations, drivers and ambitions of both creates an “on purpose” interaction wherein if private settlers get ahead of the government they both still win.

The one thing we cannot do is design and fund an approach doomed to leave behind only flag and footprints. It would be an obscene poke in the eye of future generations, showing we have learned nothing and care not for their legacy.

We must sit down together, examine our shared dreams, acknowledge our shortcomings, and combine our strengths to create a future where humanity — where our children — can have it all.

Rick Tumlinson is the co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, Deep Space Industries and Orbital Outfitters, and founder of the EarthLight Foundation and New Worlds Institute.