Manned missions are still a long way off as many of the details of landing on Mars must be addressed. The U.S. plan is to return to the moon by 2020 and eventually build a permanent base there. Estimates on when we'll take that next step and journey to Mars are tentative. According to the British National Space Centre, the goal is for an international cooperative effort to launch astronauts to Mars by 2030.
The price tag for sending humans to Mars will vary greatly depending on the final spacecraft and mission plan design. Utilizing technology similar to what's already been developed helps keep costs more manageable. For example, the Constellation rockets are based on the Saturn Vs, making use of some design elements of the Space Shuttle program. Another money-saver that might be employed is making use of the Martian atmosphere to generate fuel, oxygen and water (like we read about on the previous page).
There is the possibility that preliminary voyages could send people into Mars' orbit without actually setting down on the surface, although many in the field argue it's pointless to explore if you're not going to get up close and personal with the surface of the planet. It's like driving to the beach and spending the whole afternoon watching the ocean from your car. This could, however, help fix some of the kinks of long-distance space travel and enable explorers to receive real-time reports from robots on the surface of the planet, without the risk and cost of a landing. Robotic vehicles that can return from Mars with samples are also in the works.
Alas, once the dust has settled around the landed spacecraft and astronauts can take those first incredible steps onto Mars' surface, they also open a whole new can of worms for scientists to solve -- mainly, how will the astronauts survive the harsh and uncompromising Martian climate, and how will they spend their time while they're there? We'll save those questions for another day.
For more information about Mars and the future of space exploration, visit the links on the next page.