NASA, Mars, And How Far Off Humans Actually Are From Visiting Our Neighbor

NASA's working on it, but it'll take a while.

Space travel is very much a sexy, glorified idea in our culture. Hollywood's recent obsession with it from Gravity and Interstellar to this year's The Martian has appealed to our sense of wonder about conquering the final frontier, and for good reason. We may fear the unknown, but we also have a powerful, insatiable desire to make it understood. Naturally, because it feels like the next step for human exploration beyond the Moon, the Red Planet is increasingly on the collective minds of space aficionados. But how close are we to actually stepping foot on Mars?

According to NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin, there's still plenty of work to be done. In a recent 48-page report on the subject, Martin wrote that although "NASA has taken positive steps to address the human health and performance risks inherent in space travel," as it stands, the agency has "limited effective countermeasures" for combating the varied risks that deep space travel presents to astronauts on both logistical and health-related fronts. Not only does NASA face "significant challenges" in bringing humans to Mars, Martin says, but also that its schedule for doing so is a bit too "optimistic."

NASA is actively recruiting new astronauts and currently aims to send its best and brightest to Mars sometime in the 2030s. Despite its ambition, though, significant technical challenges remain, and the budget for such a journey doesn't yet exist — this isn't the 1960s where money was poured into space travel in an ever-escalating space race with the Soviet Union. Perhaps most importantly, though, it's not clear at this point whether NASA would be able to adequately keep its astronauts safe on such a distant journey.

"Space flight is an inherently risky endeavor," the NASA report says. "Apart from the tremendous engineering challenges in launching and returning astronauts safely to Earth, humans living in space experience a range of physiological changes that can affect their ability to perform necessary mission functions." The risks associated include prolonged exposure to altered gravity that leads to loss of bone density and muscle strength, volatile radiation possibly leading to cancer and changes to the nervous system, and a concern for maintaining some level of healthy nutrition. Not only would a Mars shuttle be much smaller than the International Space Station, but too far away to get the regular resupply missions the ISS gets.

To be fair, NASA is far from ignorant to these various risks and challenges. Stepping foot on Mars in the 2030s may be an aggressive time frame, but no ambitious goal has ever been achieved without overcoming seemingly impossible odds. If one thing is for sure, it's that public interest in Mars travel will never wane. That's why a privately funded project like Mars One exists, even if it has been revealed as less than honest. People will never stop shooting for the stars, and although it's actually a planet, Mars might as well be the closest one.

Cover image: Wikimedia