Can We Get a Human to Mars by 2030?

Motherboard's Ben Sullivan and Becky Ferreira hash out the likelihood of a Mars mission within the next two decades.

On Tuesday, President Obama wrote an op-ed for CNN outlining his vision to send humans to Mars within the next 14 years, in preparation for the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

"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," Obama said. "Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we're already well on our way."

He's not wrong; we are indeed on the brink of pioneering technologies that can deliver humans to Mars, and return them safely home again. Within the last few weeks, for instance, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled his company's plans to develop a dazzling Interplanetary Transport System, powered by the largest rocket of all time, which could be ready to ferry astronauts to Mars as early as 2024, according to Musk.

SpaceX's ambitious plans have ignited a spirit of entrepreneurial rivalry with other private spaceflight companies. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg revealed his own company's intentions of beating Musk to this milestone at the What's Next? technology summit held last week in Chicago.

"I'm convinced that the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket," Muilenburg said.

But how realistic is the goal of reaching Mars on such a tight deadline? Motherboard's Ben Sullivan (who thinks it can be done) and Becky Ferreira (who thinks it can't) discussed the invigorated race for Mars over Slack.

BEN: Ok, so, what, you don't think a human will set foot on Mars until the 2030s?

BECKY: I think the 2030s is way too early to shoot for something as dangerous and complicated as a Mars mission for a few reasons.

As Elon Musk laid out a couple weeks ago, carrying enough people to start a Mars colony while still having enough energy to arrive and land safely means building the largest rocket ever. Images: SpaceX

BEN: Like what? I agree the Mars missions will be both dangerous and complicated, I just don't see how Musk and others will be pushed back by a whole decade? Of course, I can totally believe NASA not getting there for ages...

BECKY: Sure, well, there's the most self-explanatory reason of course—even though astronauts have been in the Mir/ISS for over a year, nobody knows what the medical risks of a multi-year trip to Mars would entail, even if there are no major accidents.

But beyond medical/technical challenges, multiple lead-up missions would have to precede a human mission. Normally it takes five years to a decade to prep a Mars landing mission, let alone a sample return mission—which will have to be done at whatever Mars site is selected.

I get that people are eager to take the next "giant leap" as Obama put it, but I think the Apollo comparison is harmful. Mars is not the Moon! Do you think Musk can make a human Mars mission happen within 14 years? What do you think NASA's role in that would be?

BEN: Yep, you're right about the medical risks. We wrote about the breakdown of cognitive abilities cosmic rays will have on astronauts just this week, but I don't think it's a problem that can't be solved in just a few years. I mean, look at all this money private orgs like SpaceX are pumping into getting to the Red Planet.

I honestly think SpaceX can make it happen within 14 years. That's a lifetime with the pace of change happening in the private sector right now. SpaceX wasn't even a company 14 years ago! And there's going to be no shortage of human volunteers, either. I appreciate your argument is based on science and mine is very emotional… but just look plainly at the facts, we're ready to go almost now. Musk's plan isn't even that extraordinary, there's nothing crazy about it, right?

BECKY: Great point about SpaceX not existing 14 years ago, which goes to show how much progress can be made in that period of time. However, as impressive as it is to build a spaceflight company from the ground-up, it's still a false equivalency to compare that to getting humans to Mars in the same timeframe.

I suppose there's nothing inherently crazy about Musk's plan—except his deadline. He is proposing building the most powerful rocket of all time, the first long-duration interplanetary crewed spacecraft, and the infrastructure to mine in situ resources from the Martian surface within a decade and change. Even a company as innovative as SpaceX does not have the bandwidth to pull this off safely in time for the 2030s, and this isn't even getting into the legal issues of planetary protection. I do think those issues can be overcome, but it will take time and involvement from the entire global spaceflight community to do so.

Summary of SpaceX's Interplanetary Transport System concept. Video: SpaceX/YouTube

As to your point about having an emotional angle on this, I feel ya. I want to see humans on Mars. But my preference would be a slow, safe, and incremental approach, a la Wernher von Braun's vision for spaceflight, rather than rushing into another space race that makes human life and safety secondary to symbolic victories

BEN: Slow and steady wins the race, for sure. I guess it's easy to think everything is sorted when all you have to worry about is rockets. Space is hard, but rocket science is easy, and building the ITS boosters won't be too much of a problem, but yeah, Musk admittedly was rather scant on details when it came to health issues. And you're right, it will take the full involvement of the global space community to overcome problems like radiation and the damaging effects of microgravity and weightlessness. I mean, NASA has made this area of research a priority, and I think SpaceX will rely on NASA a lot over the next decade or two in this department at least.

And this deadline also relies on there being no problems with SpaceX's Red Dragon mission in 2018, as part of its Space Act Agreement with NASA. The mission will analyse what will be needed to protect the Mars lander when it's on the planet, and also make sure that the lander and humans won't contaminate the planet in any harmful way.

Funding is another hurdle. While I'm confident Musk can fund many aspects of the mission (he noted that it's currently taking up less than five percent of SpaceX's spending,) in his own words, "Ultimately, this is going to be a huge public-private partnership."

While SpaceX may be happy to send humans up in the 2020s and 2030s, the question is, will the ones who are paying for it be happy?

READ MORE: Watch Elon Musk Explain How He Will Get Our Asses To Mars

BECKY: Precisely, there will be so many hidden contingencies with a mission this ambitious and complicated, let alone the obstacles that we do know have to be overcome. The public-private partnership is one that I want to address: It's great that SpaceX and Boeing are shooting for Mars and I'm glad there are vocal proponents, like Musk, who are tackling these kinds of futurist goals. My worry is how much public money will be on the hook for this. A human Mars mission is estimated to cost upwards of $100 billion (though Musk has argued it can be much cheaper, of course). It would be a shame, in my opinion, if NASA's budget were steamrolled for several years by an endeavor this ambitious, edging out other robotic exploration missions that could be really useful (a Europa lander for instance).

NASA's massive Space Launch System is currently under development by Boeing, and also would be the most powerful rocket ever built. Image: Boeing

Also, I'd like to get your read on a broader note: I'm personally not sold on the idea of stoking another "space race," this time for Mars. During the Space Race 1.0., the US and USSR achieved great feats because of that rivalry, sure, but there were also a lot of tragedies as a result of the intense pace of the competition.

Of course, there are thousands of volunteers who are willing to risk their lives for a chance to leave footprints on Mars, and they should be applauded. But every precaution should be made for their safety, and I'm not convinced that's possible by the 2030s, nor do I think "space races" provide a workable framework for sustainable colonization of the solar system over the long term. At some point, we have to be incentivized by something other that "oh no, my enemy is gonna get there first."

BEN: Agreed, a Space Race 2.0 isn't ideal but unless there's some seismic shift in global relations I really don't think that's going to happen. The only race here is between private companies, and even then, they're all going to have to help one another out. The technology needed to get humans to Mars will be the result of a multinational effort, as well as multicorporation (like my previous example of NASA's role as more of a research incubator and advisor).

The time is ripe for Mars. Everything's fallen into place. We have the technology, we have the players, I think we have the consent of the public, and we also have persuasive reasons to go too, rather than political goals.

Musk is a determined man, and I think the exponential growth of technology and ambition that he has ushered in will only continue until we have boots on the ground on Mars, and with the help of all the other agencies, this will no doubt happen during the 2030s at the latest.

BECKY: Awesome, let's make this an official bet! If we've successfully sent humans to Mars by the 2030s, I'll owe you a really slick Saturn V model or something. I kind of love my position here because if we don't make it within 20ish years, I win, but if we do make it, the human species as a whole wins. I like those odds.

Want to weigh in on the debate? Write to letters@motherboard.tv.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.