Emerging Technologies

How we will send humans to Mars in the 2030s

Ellen Stofan
Under Secretary for Science and Research, Smithsonian Institution
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“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.” John F. Kennedy, 1962

The new movie The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir, is bringing large crowds to theatres, providing good entertainment and a glimpse into what future exploration beyond Earth could look like. In the movie, NASA heroically saves a stranded astronaut, with the help of international partners, and a lot of human ingenuity. The movie is visually beautiful, and makes us aware of what humans can accomplish when we put our minds to it.

NASA provided some technical guidance to the movie, and indeed the movie showcases technologies that NASA is working on today, from advanced spacesuits to growing food in space, to mobility and habitation capabilities. NASA recently released a new document, NASA’s Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration that describes how we get from where we are today to boots on Mars. This involves continuing our research on the International Space Station (ISS), then moving humans beyond low Earth orbit to the proving ground, the region out near the Moon where we can push the limits of our capabilities in a place where we can return astronauts safely home in a few days.

Read more:
Which is the best route to Mars?
Where did Mars’ water come from?
How to power human colonies on Mars

We will continue to robotically explore Mars, as we are currently doing as an international community with numerous spacecraft, from NASA’s Curiosity rover to India’s Mars Orbiter mission. We will use these and future missions to Mars to reduce the risks of landing humans on Mars, from better understanding the structure of Mars’ atmosphere to its potential for providing local resources for future explorers. By the 2030’s, we will be ready to move humans towards the Red Planet.


This will be a very different journey than NASA’s exploration of the Moon. Space agencies from around the world are further advancing the exploration and utilization of space, using a systematic approach to expand man’s presence in the solar system with human missions to the surface of Mars as the overarching, long-term goal. As an international space community, we are assessing pathways to moving humans beyond low-Earth orbit. We do this already on the ISS where tens of thousands of people across 15 countries have been involved in the development and operation of the station.

In addition to exploration technology development and demonstrations on the ISS, we are also doing critical research to ensure that we can keep humans healthy for long time periods in space, mitigating health risks such as bone density loss and muscle atrophy. The European Space Agency is providing the service module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft – the vehicle that will carry astronauts beyond the moon for the first time since the Apollo program. Moving beyond Earth, five countries are involved with instruments aboard the Mars Curiosity Rover, including a weather monitoring station built by Centro de Astrobiologia in Spain to help us prepare the way for a human mission to Mars.


Private sector partnerships are critical to enable us as a global society to explore Mars. NASA has been working on this by turning over to the private sector work that we no longer need to keep as a government-only function. SpaceX and Orbital ATK now transport supplies to the ISS as part of NASA’s commercial cargo program, and Boeing and SpaceX will start launching American astronauts from U.S. soil starting in about 2018. We are also testing new technologies with private companies on the ISS, such as 3-D printers that could make space exploration more sustainable.

What role will the private sector play in moving beyond low Earth orbit out to the proving ground near the Moon or even to Mars? This will be defined and refined as we go, but the philosophy is that where the private sector sees a role, NASA will work with them to make it happen.


Source: NASA

Some might wonder about why sending humans beyond low Earth orbit to Mars is important, or whether it is worth the cost. Scientifically, Mars is our destination because scientists have determined that Mars is the most likely place to find evidence of life beyond Earth. Water, which is critical to life, was stable on the surface of Mars for on the order of a billion years. Based on what we know about the evolution of life on Earth, life is likely to have arisen on Mars. In that time period, life may not have gotten very complex, so it will likely take astrobiologists and geologists on the surface of Mars to find evidence of ancient microbial life. The recent evidence for liquid water on the surface of Mars also makes scientists wonder if life could have persisted on Mars, moving underground as conditions became increasingly inhospitable at the surface.

But we explore for more reasons than just science. When nations do really hard things, they achieve much, innovating and developing new technologies and capabilities. It has been estimated that for every dollar spent at NASA, about $4 is returned to the U.S. economy. The technologies that we develop for space often have very practical applications here on Earth. The water purification system used on the ISS is currently helping provide clean water in remote areas on this planet. Development of NASA’s new Space Launch System and Orion capsule that will be used in human exploration beyond Earth have led to things as varied as faster ways to charge batteries, advanced manufacturing techniques, and lighter aircraft structures. A country that invests in space exploration invests in the future, and in doing so reaps economic benefits that spur the development of new companies and new capabilities.

As President Kennedy said of the journey to the Moon, we don’t do this because it is easy. We do it because it is humanity’s next big challenge – to move humans beyond this planet. We must do this in innovative new ways, as an international community, and hand in hand with the private sector.

And that is where The Martian got it wrong – it shows a NASA-dominated endeavor (not to mention the unrealistic windstorms). But the movie will hopefully inspire people around the world, especially the next generation who will be our future global crew of Mars explorers, to turn this fictional tale of Mars exploration into reality.

The Summit on the Global Agenda 2015 takes place in Abu Dhabi from 25-27 October

Author: Ellen R. Stofan, Chief Scientist, NASA. Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Space.

Image: This low-angle self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called “Buckskin” on lower Mount Sharp. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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