Manned flight to Mars

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Graphic of people on Mars
Concept of a manned Mars landing from 1963

The manned flight to Mars is a project of several space powers for flights into a Mars orbit or landing on the planet's surface. The US space agency NASA ( Orion or DST ), the Russian space agency Roskosmos and the People's Republic of China are aiming for manned expeditions to Mars as declared long-term goals. The commercial space company SpaceX is also pursuing corresponding plans and is promoting the development of the planned Starship spacecraft .


Minimum orbital distance between Mars and Earth from 2014 to 2061, measured in AU.

The flight path to Mars is mostly based on the energetically most favorable Hohmann transfer between planets. For the transfer to Mars, this trip would take about nine months. However, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter , with a different trajectory and higher energy expenditure, covered the path in just seven months. The time spent on Mars until the next Hohmann transfer back to Earth would be around 500 days. Theoretically, it was calculated that with a corresponding expenditure of energy, the shortest duration of a complete mission could be around 450 days.

The orbital movements of Mars and Earth do not allow arbitrary transfers. The synodic period for Earth-Mars is 764 to 811 days, so there is a favorable time window for the start approximately every 2 years and 2 months. The figures for the transfer fluctuate due to the eccentricity of the planetary orbits, which also influences the energy requirement, which tends to a minimum every 15 years. The next minima are in the years 2033 and 2048, in which the energy consumption is halved compared to the maximum. For the unmanned Mars space probes , this connection has so far had little practical significance, as every launch window has been used since the 1990s.

Planning of individual nations and organizations

In the past, individual nations and organizations have repeatedly issued letters of intent to plan and carry out a manned Mars mission. Such a mission is a declared long-term goal for the United States. All the plans presented are only concept studies, approved programs and there is certainly no corresponding funding.

NASA logo

United States

Crew and Cargo Mars Transfer Vehicles from the NASA Design Reference Mission Architecture 5.0 study

The first plans for a manned flight to Mars were made in the run-up to and in the course of the US Apollo program . Boeing prepared the IMIS study for a manned Mars flight on behalf of NASA . After the moon landing in 1969 and the end of the Apollo program, the goal was not pursued.

US President George HW Bush presented new plans for a manned Mars mission in 1992 and commissioned NASA to calculate the budget. In view of the projected costs of 400 billion US dollars, the approach was rejected again.

His son, US President George W. Bush , presented a new, long-term plan for NASA in early 2004 that focused on manned missions to the moon and Mars. A new cost plan was the financing of the development with the expiry of the shuttle and ISS programs over a period of 30 years.

To implement the goals, NASA launched the Constellation space program. As part of this program, the first step was to build the Orion spacecraft (formerly known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle ) by 2010 , a new manned spacecraft with which the astronauts could first fly to the moon and later also to Mars. The Space Launch System is being developed as a launcher, the most powerful version of which will have more payload capacity than the Saturn V of the Apollo missions. According to NASA's plans, Template: future / in 4 yearsa permanently manned lunar station was to grow from 2024 , which was expressly intended as a preliminary stage for the flight to Mars.

On February 2, 2010, it was announced that the US program for a new manned flight to the moon was canceled due to budget cuts. This also delays the development of space vehicles that are required for the manned flight to Mars.

Graphic of the Deep Space Gateway in lunar orbit
Trajectory of a manned Mars mission

Two months later, US President Barack Obama presented his plans for US space travel in a speech on April 16, 2010 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They provided for the following:

  • Orion was to be developed into a rescue capsule, and a successor model was planned.
  • Manned missions should take people behind the moon's orbit and land on an asteroid in 2025.
  • Humans would enter orbit around Mars in the mid-2030s and then fly back to Earth.
  • Then the manned landing on Mars would take place.

A study by NASA in 2015 came to the conclusion that a manned orbit around Mars would be possible as early as 2033. The first landing could take place in 2039. Four years later, another study commissioned by NASA came to the conclusion that a manned flight to Mars (with the proposed deep-space transport system) would not be feasible until the end of the 2030s.

In April 2017, NASA presented a schedule for the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway space station , which could serve as the basis for a manned flight to Mars in the 2030s. A landing is not yet planned.

Logo of Roskosmos


The Russian space agency Roskosmos is working on concepts for a manned flight to Mars in the first half of the 21st century. As part of the national space program, a test simulation was carried out on Earth ( Mars-500 ) in cooperation with the European Space Agency . 6 people lived from June 3, 2010 to November 4, 2011 for 520 days in hermetically sealed modules.

The chief designer Vitali Lopota from RKK Energija announced at the beginning of 2010 that the development of a megawatt nuclear reactor for a new type of spacecraft propulsion had started in Russia . The planning and the computer modeling and simulation should be completed by 2012. The development of the nuclear facility should be completed by 2015, the associated transport module by 2018. Rosatom was commissioned with the implementation of the nuclear reactor ; the engines, compressor turbines and generators are to be developed by Roskosmos. The total cost was estimated at more than 17 billion rubles . The aim is a specific impulse that is up to 20 times higher than that of chemical rocket engines; the flight time to Mars could thus be shortened to four to six weeks. At the end of 2018, the Moscow Keldish Research Center involved in the project presented a computer simulation of the rocket flight and spoke of a travel time of seven months to Mars.

People's Republic of China

Manned Chinese Mars missions would not be possible until the 2030s at the earliest. A corresponding technical concept was presented in March 2015 by a group of engineers from the Chinese Academy for Space Technology headed by Zhang Bainan in the aerospace journal Acta Aeronautica et Astronautica Sinica . A further elaborated version was published in November 2018 by a group led by Yang Bin from the University of Nanjing Aerospace and Tang Shengyong from the Shanghai Research Institute for Space Systems ( 上海 宇航 系统工程 研究所 ) in the Journal of Astronautics .

The concept is an amalgam from the American and Russian plans. As of 2019, it is initially planned to use Changzheng 9 heavy-duty missiles, depending on the mission profile, to individually transport one or more nuclear-thermal drive modules as well as a Mars lander and a residential module into orbit and assemble them into a spaceship. After that, the crew would launch into Earth orbit with a 23-ton version of the new-generation manned spacecraft and dock onto the assembled large spacecraft. The crew then changes to the residential module for the onward journey. The acceleration for the transition into the transfer orbit to Mars, the orbit maneuvers for the pivoting into the Mars orbit etc. would initially be taken over by the drive units, which are thrown off one after the other like a multi-stage rocket . At the end of the return flight, after reaching a near-earth orbit, the space travelers would transfer back to the transport spaceship and land on earth with it.

The new-generation transport spacecraft has been in development since 2015, and the first unmanned test flight is scheduled to take place in 2020 with the first flight of the Changzheng 5B rocket . The Changzheng 9 heavy-lift rocket is also under development and should be ready for use by the end of the 2020s. According to the planning status in 2016, the basic requirement for the development of the manned lander is the successful completion of an unmanned return mission to Mars after the completion of Changzheng 9. In addition, the nuclear-thermal engine would have to be developed, for which no time frame has yet been given.

Indian Space Research Organization Logo.svg


India's President APJ Abdul Kalam was the first to initiate Indian plans for Mars on June 26, 2004 by proposing that the US send a US-Indian team to Mars by 2050. This proposal for India's space program came shortly after the US and India agreed to work more closely together in the space sector. Kalam was previously responsible for developing Indian missile programs.



The US company SpaceX says it wants to colonize Mars . The first plans that already provided for Mars flights for 2018 have now been discarded. The company has been developing the Starship and Super Heavy rocket since 2017 , which, according to the company, is fully reusable and will transport up to 100 people to Mars. For the return, the company plans that the necessary fuel consisting of methane and liquid oxygen will be produced automatically on Mars. SpaceX hopes its concept will result in low transport costs with a high payload. The first transport flights to Mars in 2022 are to prepare manned missions in 2024.

Blue Origin new logo.svg

Blue Origin

The company of Jeff Bezos , founder of Amazon , also has the objective of carrying out a manned flight to Mars. At the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico , the President of Blue Origin announced that there would be a new project called New Armstrong. Rob Meyerson said this missile lived up to Jeff Bezos' long-term plan. This includes flights to the moon as well as to Mars.

Basic research

Austrian Space Forum

In 2018, the ÖWF carried out the AMADEE-18 simulation in Oman . The AVI-NAV drone from the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt navigated the barren desert landscape on the basis of images from a video camera. Using NASA's CheMin technology, a laser was used to break down mineral into plasma for chemical analysis; The aim is to find water. Cress was grown in a remote-controlled greenhouse, an experiment by the Italian Space Agency . The costs of € 5.5 million were mainly financed by Oman and contributions from the economy.

Abandoned or failed planning


Esa logo

The European space agency ESA set up the Aurora program in 2001 , the aim of which is, among other things, the planning of a manned mission to the moon and Mars. A landing of astronauts on Mars is envisaged for the year 2033. ESA launched the ExoMars space probe project together with Russia . In April 2010 the main page of the Aurora project was removed from the ESA website.

Mars One

Mars One was a company from the Netherlands that said they wanted to build a Mars base by 2026 and settle people there. The mission idea was based on the premise that the participating astronauts do not return to Earth, i.e. spend the rest of their lives on Mars. As the project went on, it turned out to be a chimera. Neither financing nor technical implementation progressed, and the selection process for the astronauts also came to nothing. In January 2019 Mars One went into bankruptcy, which means it was dissolved.

Effects on the astronauts


Cosmic and solar radiation destroy the tissue and especially the DNA of living beings. Some of the damage caused by this cannot be repaired and changes the cells (see radiation risk ). Shields reduce the radiation dose . A more recent study by Georgetown University confirms this and identifies the general risk of particularly rapid aging as well as a high risk of cancer , especially in the colon . From measurement data from NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission , which started on November 26, 2011, an equivalent dose of 0.66 ± 0.12 Sv was calculated for a flight duration of 250 days each way. In the case of violent solar flares , this dose can be orders of magnitude higher. For comparison: the maximum permitted effective annual dose for occupationally exposed persons is 20 mSv in Germany and no more than 400 mSv may accumulate over a working life. Real experience with long-term stays in interplanetary space outside the protective magnetic field of the earth has not yet been made; NASA's lunar flights were too short to even begin to speak of long-term experiences. Protection from radiation exposure could be provided by energy shields that surround the spaceship with a plasma bubble and shield the crew with the help of their magnetic field. The Matroshka experiment on the ISS collected data on radiation exposure in low Earth orbit .

In addition, prolonged weightlessness during a flight to Mars is considered to be the greatest medical problem, as it weakens muscles, bones and circulation if they are not continuously stressed by gravity or training. During a space flight astronauts develop a continuously progressive negative calcium balance. In the case of the Skylab crew, the calcium loss on flight day 84 reached about 300 mg / d. The resulting mean loss of bone density ( vertebrae , femoral neck , trochanter , pelvic bones ) was 1% to 1.6% per month, despite the extreme training program on load-bearing bones, but with large individual differences. After the flight, the bone density recovered in the long term. After a 30-month flight to Mars, osteoporosis would be threatened.

The immune system is also considerably weakened during a long stay on board a spaceship. This can reactivate latent virus infections and promote premalignant or malignant changes in the tissue.


Space psychologists , such as Dietrich Manzey , investigate the psychological effects of the inevitable coexistence in a confined space with always the same people over months or years, without the possibility of evasive action or variety.

When choosing the participants in the Mars flight, not only technical and scientific skills, but also mental stability and resilience will have to be taken into account to an even greater extent than is the case with crews of space stations such as the ISS . You cannot select each participant in isolation, but rather put together the astronaut group in such a way that the members complement and balance each other in their character traits and interpersonal and social skills and that it can be assumed that they will still get along with each other even after a long period of time .

In the Mars-500 experiment , which ran until the end of 2011, a. examines the dangers of boredom .

Discussion of the technology


With the current state of the art, a spaceship would need several months for the outward flight and the same time for the return flight. This includes about a year of stay on the red planet until Mars has reached the closest point on its orbit. This mission duration of over two years increases the likelihood of a technical failure of vital systems, for example due to the impact of micrometeorites .

In the event of recurring solar flares, the vehicle must have a radiation-protected room in which the crew can retreat for a few days. During solar flares, disruptions, especially in computer technology and communication with the earth, are to be expected.

Because of the great distance, assistance from Earth is not possible. A direct reversal on Mars - unlike Apollo 13 on the moon - cannot be carried out for orbital mechanical reasons, even if you do not land on Mars.

On Mars, sandstorms , of which it is not yet known exactly how they arise, may pose a danger. In the absence of weather satellites, the warning time would be comparatively short. In addition, other phenomena of the weather on Mars and its soil conditions are not yet fully known.

Mars Direct

"Mars Direct" is a mission plan that was created in 1990 by Robert Zubrin . Launch missiles of the capacity of the Saturn V are required. Before humans are sent towards Mars, an unmanned spacecraft, which also includes the spaceship to return, takes off from Earth and lands on Mars. This carries a small nuclear reactor that delivers 100 kW of electrical power. Six tons of hydrogen brought from Earth , carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and the electrical energy from the nuclear reactor are used to produce methane and water ( Sabatier process ). The water is split electrolytically and the hydrogen is used again to produce methane and water. 6 tons of hydrogen and carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere produce 24 tons of methane and 48 tons of oxygen , which are stored as liquids at low temperatures. An additional 36 tons of oxygen are to be obtained through the electrolysis of carbon dioxide. Of the 108 tons of fuel and oxidizing agents produced in this way, 96 tons are required for the return to Earth, the rest is used for vehicles on the surface of Mars.

The manned spacecraft will start within the next launch window, i.e. 26 months after the unmanned spacecraft. So that there is no weightlessness during the six-month journey to Mars (an adaptation to Martian gravity would then take time), the upper stage of the launch rocket is attached to the manned spacecraft with a rope , the system is set in rotation and Martian gravity is imitated. Shortly before landing in the immediate vicinity of the unmanned ship, the rope connection is disconnected again. The manned spaceship brings with it the habitat in which the astronauts live on the surface of Mars. If the landing is too far from the original landing site due to errors, the vehicle carried should enable the astronauts to cover a distance of up to 1000 km. After about 1.5 earth years on the surface of Mars, the astronauts are supposed to leave Mars with the ready return spaceship (Earth Return Vehicle, ERV) and return to Earth.

At about the same time as the start of a manned mission, the next unmanned ship for fuel production is to be launched so that the next region of the surface of Mars can then be explored.

The costs for three such missions are estimated at around 50 billion US dollars, which is significantly less than the 400 billion US dollars that the cost of a manned flight to Mars was estimated at in 1989 on the initiative of US President George HW Bush .

Possible use of the mission

Due to the great challenges in the areas of propulsion and safety technology , life support systems and astrobiological research, it is necessary to create new technologies. Many therefore expect from a manned flight to Mars an innovation boost similar to that which was thanks to the moon landing in the 1960s and which outweighed the high costs. In addition, it is argued that it is of decisive radiance for human civilization when a person sets foot on another planet for the first time and thus paves the way for a possible later settlement.

Manned Mars missions in the film

Mars missions are a popular movie theme, especially in science fiction films. Examples of manned Mars missions in the film are:

Web links

Commons : Manned Mars flight  - collection of images

NASA documents:

Individual evidence

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