The Journey to Mars: Past, Present and Future
The spectacular computer graphics effects and designs of the recent movies Interstellar and The Martian remind us that it is easy to get to Mars and beyond via fantasy technology, but real-world travel is still a hard nut to crack.
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A conceptual illustration of a spacecraft for a manned Mars mission proposed by NASA’s Wernher von Braun in August 1969. Two spacecraft would make the trip in tandem, each one powered by three NERVA-type engines. (Image courtesy: NASA).
Werner von Braun then hatched a post-Apollo plan to use a NERVA engine as the third stage of the Saturn V rocket and plausibly get to Mars by 1978 and even use this engine as the work-horse to establish a large lunar colony by 1981. The Space Nuclear Propulsion Office planned to build ten nuclear engine-based vehicles, six for ground tests and four for flight tests, but the development program was delayed after 1966 as NERVA became a political hot-potato in the debate over a Mars mission. The nuclear-enhanced Saturn V would carry two to three times more payload into space than the chemical version, enough to easily loft 340,000 pound space stations and replenish orbital propellant depots. Ultimately the NERVA program became so closely linked to plans to go to Mars, that when Congress finally balked at the expense and folly of going to Mars, the NERVA program no longer had a “customer” to serve. The NERVA program was finally terminated altogether on January 5, 1973.
Artist’s rendering of the proposed Mars Transfer Vehicle (MTV) “Copernicus” that would incorporate NTR propulsion and inflatable habitat technology. A five-meter-diameter crewed Orion MPCV is docked on the far left. (Credit: NASA)