Humans on Mars: An atlas of plans to land on the Red Planet

At least three major efforts are underway to put boots on the fourth planet from the sun. Here's a visual look at each road map to the Red Planet.

Eric Mack
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Eric Mack
1 of 32 Courtesy 21st Century Fox

Becoming Martian

Putting humans on Mars has been a staple of science fiction and a goal of numerous scientists for decades. Today, thanks to technological advances, fascinating images sent back from the Red Planet by rovers and orbiters, and growing concerns about our future here on Earth, interest in putting boots in that red soil is at an all-time high. 

NASA, SpaceX and Mars One are all aiming to land people on our neighboring planet in the next 15 years or so, each on their own timelines and using different architectures. Here's a look at all three road maps, starting with a plan from Iron Man himself, SpaceX founder Elon Musk. 

2 of 32 Oscar Gutierrez/CNET

Musk to dawn on Mars

For 15 years, Elon Musk's SpaceX has been building better rockets with the ultimate goal of getting to Mars. In 2016 he finally revealed his road map for getting there, at a conference in Mexico.

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SpaceX: The privately funded aerospace company founded by Elon Musk

SpaceX's secret sauce is its reusable rockets, which Elon Musk says bring down the cost of accessing space, and by extension, Mars. As of this writing, the company has successfully recovered 16 first stage Falcon 9 boosters and also successfully relaunched previously used rockets. The precision landing technology can also be used to land on other worlds.

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Mars City, 2117

Musk's long-term vision for Mars is audacious. He envisions huge transport ships delivering colonists over the next century to create a Martian metropolis of a million people. He's also proposed terraforming the planet, perhaps by using nuclear explosions to trigger climate change

5 of 32 SpaceX

Meet BFR

The key to the SpaceX Mars road map is what Musk calls the "BFR" (for "Big F***ing Rocket"), a vehicle he says can outperform some of the most powerful rockets ever made, including the Saturn V that took Apollo astronauts to the moon.

6 of 32 Video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

BFR can handle BF payloads

Musk says the BFR can haul 4,400 tons to Mars.

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Martian cruise ship

In September 2017, Musk unveiled a refined, slightly smaller design for the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport. The ship is massive even after it separates from its rocket boosters, with a payload eight stories tall, enough room to fit smaller rockets inside ... or a bunch of adventurous explorers.

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BF cutaway

A cross-section view of the BFR, minus the rocket boosters designed to separate and return to Earth for refueling after launch.

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That's a big fuel tank

SpaceX built a development fuel tank to test ahead of building the BFR. Note the people below for scale.

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Home away

When set up for a Mars flight, the Interplanetary Transport has room for 40 cabins for the long trip.

11 of 32 Video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

More than Mars

Musk says the BFR could also make trips to a lunar base.

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Coming soon

Musk hopes to send his rockets to Mars within five years to start setting up infrastructure in preparation for the first people to visit, a few years later.

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Feeling the heat

A rendering of a SpaceX rocket heating up on entry into the Martian atmosphere.

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Make Mars great again?

Musk says it should be possible to make Mars a "nice place to be." This could take some work, given all the ways to die there.

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Though he offered few details on exactly how it will all come together, Musk did show this rendering of a potential future Mars colony during a speech at the International Astronautical Congress on Sept. 29.

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NASA's Journey to Mars

NASA has no designs to move a million people to Mars, but it's hoping to send astronauts in a little over 15 years. The goal of getting to the Red Planet in the 2030s was set during the Obama administration, and President Donald Trump made 2033 the official target date earlier this year. 

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First steps for NASA

NASA sees the long road to Mars in three phases. The first is underway right now with research on the International Space Station that wlll inform Mars missions in the future. Partnering with private Mars fanatics like Musk on missions closer to home is also part of the plan. But the most exciting work happening today is the development of the hardware to travel further in space.

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Space Launch System

Ferrying all the infrastructure and supplies needed to set up shop on Mars will require lots of firepower, and NASA's answer is the Space Launch System (SLS), its next-generation rocket designed with deep space missions in mind.

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Orion capsule

An Uber won't get you to Mars just yet. Fortunately, NASA has already been testing its new Orion crew capsule that could ride atop the Space Launch System to one day transport astronauts to the red planet.

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Next phase

NASA is soon to move into the second phase of the journey to Mars with missions to prove its deep space prowess a little closer to home.

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Deep Space Gateway

NASA's planned Deep Space Gateway will be a small space station orbiting the moon, where crews can test technologies and prepare for future journeys to Mars.

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Deep space habitat

Making the long journey to Mars while staying safe and healthy will require more than a space-worthy Winnebago. A deep space habitat has been tested under desert conditions here on Earth, and NASA hopes to launch such a habitat for missions to cislunar space in the next decade or so.

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Asteroid stalking

OSIRIS-REx is currently traveling to near-Earth asteroid Bennu on a sample return mission, designed in part to practice the type of robotic operations that will be useful for Mars.

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Getting closer

The third phase of NASA's Martian road map involves getting further away from Earth and closer to boots in the red dirt.

25 of 32 Lockheed Martin

Mars Base Camp

The latest concept in living on Mars comes from Lockheed Martin, which has designed its Mars Base Camp as a kind of orbiting waypoint for Mars exploration. The Martian space station is designed to integrate with NASA's Orion and also with landing craft traveling to and from the surface.

26 of 32 Lockheed Martin

Surface trips

Lockheed Martin's vision for a Mars surface lander is called the Mars Accent Descent Vehicle. The company says the craft could let astronauts explore the Red Planet's surface for two weeks at a time before they'd have to return to the Mars Base Camp.

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Mars or bust!

Finally, the culmination of decades of research, development, training and prep-launches will be the landing of human astronauts on Mars to establish a research base. NASA's current timeline has the first landing happening in 2033 or later. 

28 of 32 Mars One

Mars One

Finally, there's the dark horse in the race to the Red Planet. Mars One is the ever-morphing effort to turn space exploration into a reality show. The effort has struggled to meet its fund-raising goals and timeline targets, but it's still moving forward. A worldwide search has narrowed a huge candidate pool of possible astronauts down to 100 finalists set to compete for spaces on a future Mars mission. The current timeline has the first crew reaching the planet in 2032.

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Outsourcing space

Mars One plans to contract with a third party like Lockheed Martin to supply its lander technology.

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Reality show finale

Mars One's plans have been met with criticism, but the plan for a small, permanent colony is still moving forward.

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Permanent alien

Original plans call for Mars One colonists to make a one-way trip, without the ability to return to Earth, ever.

32 of 32 Mars One/Bryan Versteeg

Finish line?

One thing is constant in the quest for Mars: Timelines always seem to be getting pushed back. SpaceX and NASA both say they have the rocket technology to get us there. SpaceX hopes to get there sooner than NASA, but only NASA has tested the rocket it plans to use for the mission.

Still, the odds are on Elon Musk getting there first, according to one oddsmaker, that is. But as the saying goes, "space is hard," and Mars is far away, so it's tough to make predictions. It sure is fun to watch the race though.

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