Manned Mars Plan: Phobos by 2033, Martian Surface by 2039?

Phobos Grooves
Humanity's path to Mars may go through Phobos, one of the Red Planet's two tiny moons. (Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Humanity's path to Mars may go through the Red Planet's tiny moon Phobos.

An incremental, multiple-mission approach that envisions getting astronauts to Phobos by 2033, then down to the Martian surface by 2039 could make manned Mars exploration technologically and economically feasible, said Firouz Naderi, head of the Solar System Exploration Directorate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

NASA can't count on another "John F. Kennedy moment" — the 1961 call by the then-president to land people on the moon by the end of the decade — to boost its budget, Naderi added. (NASA's share of the federal budget reached about 4.5 percent during the height of the Apollo years; it is now less than 0.5 percent.) [5 Manned Mission to Mars Ideas]

"Is anybody really going to be excited if we're going to Mars in 2070 [or] worse yet, sometime in the future but we don't know when?" Naderi asked delegates Wednesday (May 6) during the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, which was hosted by the nonprofit organization Explore Mars, Inc.

The Phobos-first approach would rely on NASA technology already under development, such as the Orion crew capsule and the Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket, leaving out exotic future technologies such as nuclear thermal propulsion. (SLS and Orion are scheduled to fly together initially in 2018, and to launch crews for the first time in 2021.)

Several space tugs, powered by solar-electric propulsion, would be placed in Mars orbit with supplies that future crews could use for landings. The mission to Phobos — one of the Red Planet's two miniscule moons; Deimos is the other — would require four SLS launches, while a six-day stay on Mars on top of that would bring the total to six liftoffs.

Keeping the cost of manned Mars exploration down will also require in-situ resource utilization — living off the Martian land as much as possible, said Oliver de Weck, an aeronautics and astronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a separate panel.

A study performed by de Weck and his graduate students suggests that using Mars' water, methane and hydrogen could cut the initial mass sent to low-Earth orbit for a Mars mission by 48 percent. Further, de Weck suggested money could be saved by treating Mars exploration as a network of missions with linked objectives, rather than a series of one-offs.

Common elements among various missions will also save on cost, since the same technology can be recycled, added Brand Griffin, a senior aerospace engineer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

"Commonality: it has to lead and it can't follow. It has to be at the front end of the program," Griffin said.

The Humans to Mars Summit ran from Tuesday (May 5) through Thursday (May 7).

Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace, or @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+. Originally published on

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: