Mars has long been an object of fascination in the human imagination, from late 19th century novels like A Plunge Into Space to the recent hit novel and movie The Martian to National Geographic’s current series Mars. But recently Mars has been elevated to a new role, as our modern-day moon shot.
As President Obama declared last month, “We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”
That bold mission grows out of both NASA’s Mars ongoing research, which includes four rovers so far, each more successful than the last, and the skyrocketing private space industry. More than 1,000 companies in the U.S. are now working on various space projects, spearheaded by the likes of Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) and Elon Musk (SpaceX). In just five years, the U.S. has built the world’s largest space industry, which is expected to take off even more with NASA’s pledge this year to invest $14 billion over five years.
Hovering over this blur of activity is the monumental challenge that visiting our planetary next-door neighbor represents. “As heroic as the moon shot was, this is 1,000 times harder,” Stephen Petranek, the author of How We’ll Live on Mars, tells me. Reaching the moon took a mere three days, he says. The voyage to Mars is 80 times longer—some 240 days.
As the title of Petranek’s 2015 book suggests, he has no doubt we’ll make it, and like the explorers in Nat Geo’s series, live there, even colonize it. In Petranek’s view, the rocket tech isn’t the big issue; surviving on Mars is. “This is a hugely complicated problem,” he says. “We didn’t try to live on the moon.”
But we have to figure out Mars–eventually. “A billion years from now, our sun is going to start to die,” says Petranek. “If we do not move on other planets and other solar systems beyond that, we will die.”
–Chuck Salter, Fast Company senior editor