Behind The Reason Why The US Can’t Send Humans to Mars

By: Ben Campbell | Published: Jul 08, 2024

Over the past century, NASA scientists and researchers have been steadily engaged in devising plans that could one day take humans to Mars.

Despite early plans suggesting humanity would reach the Red Planet by the 1980s, problems resulting from a lack of technology and funding have dramatically pushed this estimation back on several occasions. While many question why we can’t just send humans to Mars, like we did the moon, it’s not as black and white as one may think.

NASA’s New Plan Aims to Get Humans to Mars

In May 2024, NASA announced its plan to fund a revolutionary high-thrust rocket that could take humans to Mars in about two months. This is over seven months quicker than what projections estimate it would take using available technology.

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A photograph of Mars

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Howe Industries developed the new rocket, known as a Pulsed Plasma Rocket. In a statement following the announcement, NASA claimed the rocket “holds the potential to revolutionize space exploration.”

Newest Development in a Long Line of Failed Ideas

The new rocket has excited the scientific community. However, it is simply the latest development in a long line of potential crafts that have been proposed over the past century, each aimed at finally taking humanity to Mars.

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A photograph showcasing the launch of a US rocket

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Long before the Apollo astronauts stepped on the moon, NASA was already pouring money and time into projects to send the first humans to Mars. Yet, many of these missions were abandoned or canceled for varying reasons.

Problems Behind the Setbacks

Regarding the setbacks that have resulted in the cancellation of numerous Mars projects, politics has played just as much of a role as the lack of technology.

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An artist's depiction of a rover on planet Mars

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“That’s kind of like a joke within the space community or the Mars community,” Matthew Shindell, a National Air and Space Museum curator, said during an interview with Business Insider. “Putting humans on Mars is always 20 years away.”

The Earliest Project

To better understand the complex situation surrounding our inability to successfully get to Mars, we must return to the first proposed mission set up by Wernher von Braun, a former member of the Nazi party. After WWII, von Braun was brought to the US as part of Operation Paperclip.

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A photograph of former Nazi party member Wernher von Braun

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The rocket specialist devised an extensive 260-day mission involving ten spacecraft and a crew of around 70. “He sat down and did the math and created a whole story around it,” Shindell said. However, nothing ever came of his plan.

Nuclear Powered Spaceship

Theodore Taylor was the next man to envision a plan to take humans to Mars. In the late 50s, Taylor, who had worked on the first atomic weapons at Los Alamos, devised a plan to build a nuclear-explosion-powered craft alongside theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson.

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A photograph of a nuclear power planet in England

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Their plan was known as Project Orion. It was initially estimated to take over a decade to develop, and the budget was set at $100 million annually. Their original motto was “Mars by 1965, Saturn by 1970.” It’s safe to say this project never got off the ground and was canceled in 1964.

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NASA’s Continued Focus on Mars During the Moon Race Era

Despite focusing most of its efforts on getting humans to the Moon during the 1960s, NASA continued to work on side projects that could eventually land manned craft on the surface of Mars.

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A photograph of an astronaut from the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission

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During this era, NASA realized that it needed a lot more data before it could theoretically take humans to Mars. So, they decided to send the very first probe to Mars, known as the Mariner 4.

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President Nixon Stalls Mars Plans

Very little progress was made in the 70s due to President Richard Nixon, who appeared to have no interest in funding a mission to Mars. “If you’re a proponent of human Mars exploration, this is the problem you’ve faced ever since the 1970s,” Shindell said.

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A photograph of former US President Richard Nixon during a speech

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By the 1980s, it was more of the same. After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the entire agency looked at human space travel differently. In 1986, Sally Ride produced a report that suggested if NASA wanted to get to Mars by 2005, it would need to triple its budget, but this never happened.

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George W. H. Bush Planned to Go to Mars

When President George H.W. Bush., took office, reaching Mars never seemed closer. “Why Mars?” he asked. “Because it is humanity’s destiny to strive, to seek, to find. And because it is America’s destiny to lead.”

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A portrait of former US President George W. H Bush

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His goals were projected to cost anywhere from $400 to $500 billion, and the missions wouldn’t begin for several decades. According to Sheehan, a lack of faith in the government meant little congressional funding, and the mission ended in 1993.

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Bush Jr Sets Mars Plan in Place

Over 15 years after his father’s speech, President George W. Bush shared the Constellation program with the world in 2004. The ultimate goal was to get humans to Mars. In 2010, President Obama canceled the project but did insert his own plan of getting astronauts on Mars by 2030.

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George W. Bush pictured during a speech

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During this era, several other companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, had joined the race and planned Mars missions of their own. According to Musk, people would be on Mars by 2029, and a large colony would inhabit the Red Planet by 2050.

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Artemis Missions

NASA’s Artemis Program was established in 2017 during Donald Trump’s tenure as US president. Its core goal was deep-space exploration and the creation of a lunar space station on the moon. According to Mars. Dayna Ise, who leads NASA’s Mars Campaign Office, said this would actually help humans reach Mars.

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A photograph of the Artemis rocket at the Kennedy Space Center

Source: Wikimedia

“You learn a lot by going to the moon, but you learn even more by staying at the moon,” she said. “And so whatever we learn there will help with Mars.”

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Humanity Still Isn’t Ready For Mars

While extensive efforts are being made to reach Mars today, it appears, like always, that we are still two decades away from reaching the Red Planet. According to Ise, problems centered on cost, lack of the correct technology, and ensuring the astronauts arrive safely continue to plague potential missions.

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A group of NASA astronauts who successfully completed training

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Nonetheless, NASA administrator Bill Nelson believes that humanity could reach Mars by the year 2040. Ise compared the projection to eating an entire elephant. “We’re doing it one bite at a time and building on everything that we learn,” she said.

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