HOME BASE: Astronauts won’t just visit Mars and then head back to earth. they’ll set up a base where they’ll sleep, eat, and work for 18 months or more. Here’s what their home on Mars might look like.

BRYAN VERSTEEG/SPACEHABS.COM

Destination: Mars

How scientists and engineers are gearing up to send people like you to the Red Planet

Buckle up! You’re in the front seat of a spacecraft blasting off for the planet Mars. You watch through the window as Earth fades away behind you. You travel 225 million kilometers (140 million miles). The journey takes six months. 

Finally, you reach your destination. You open the hatch of the spacecraft, then step out onto the dusty, red surface of Mars. You and your crew become the first humans in history to set foot on another planet. 

This scenario sounds like science fiction. But it could soon be real. The U.S. space agency NASA hopes to send the first astronauts to Mars by the 2030s, when today’s kids are adults. Some private companies want to send people even sooner. 

“The students reading this magazine could be the first Mars explorers,” says engineer Jocelyn Dunn. She’s one of many people already working on the technology to send humans to the Red Planet. 

Buckle up! You’re in the front seat of a spacecraft blasting off for the planet Mars. You watch through the window as Earth fades away behind you. You travel 225 million kilometers (140 million miles). The journey takes six months.

Finally, you reach the Red Planet. You open the hatch of the spacecraft. Then you step out onto the dusty, red surface of Mars. You and your crew make history. You’re the first people to set foot on another planet. 

This might sound like science fiction. But it could soon be real. NASA is the United States space agency. It hopes to send the first astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. Today’s kids will be adults by then. Some private companies want to send people even sooner.  

“The students reading this magazine could be the first Mars explorers,” says engineer Jocelyn Dunn. She’s one of many people working to send people to the Red Planet.

Practice Run

Dunn knows more about Mars than almost anyone on Earth. She and five other scientists recently spent eight months in Hawaii on a pretend Mars mission. 

The scientists were part of an experiment called the Hawaiian Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS. The HI-SEAS team tests technology that could let people live on Mars someday. 

People need to practice living on Mars because the Red Planet is a harsh place. It’s extremely cold: The average temperature is -63°C (-81°F). The atmosphere contains almost no oxygen to breathe. There’s no water on Mars’s surface. Huge dust storms can darken the sky for weeks. Strong radiation from the sun could harm humans too.

Dunn knows more about Mars than almost anyone on Earth. She and five other scientists recently spent eight months in Hawaii on a pretend Mars mission. 

The scientists were part of an experiment. It was called the Hawaiian Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS. The HI-SEAS team tested high-tech gear. This equipment could let people live on Mars someday. 

People need to practice living on Mars. That’s because the Red Planet is a harsh place. It’s very cold. The average temperature is -63°C (-81°F). The atmosphere contains almost no oxygen to breathe. There’s no liquid water on the surface of Mars, either. Huge dust storms can cover the sky for weeks. Strong radiation from the sun could harm people too.

COURTESY OF SIMON ENGLER

A scientist collects dirt samples on a practice Mars mission in Hawaii. 

In Hawaii, Dunn lived in a dome-shaped structure similar to what Mars astronauts might call home. To explore the rocky lava field outside, the crew put on spacesuits. 

Mars missions will be long. That means astronauts can’t bring all the food they’ll need. They’ll have to grow their own food on the planet. The HI-SEAS team tested a system called aquaponics (ah-kwuh-PAH-niks). They grew plants with the roots dangling in a water tank. A fish named Blastoff McRocketboots lived in the tank. Instead of drawing nutrients from soil, the plants fed on Blastoff’s waste. Someday, a Mars crew might dine on vegetables grown this way. 

The most important task for the HI-SEAS crew was getting along with each other. Real Mars crews will have to live in close quarters for more than two years. Future Mars mission directors will study how Dunn and her crewmates got along. That will help them pick astronauts with the right personalities to work together on Mars.

In Hawaii, Dunn lived in a structure shaped like a dome. It’s similar to what Mars astronauts might one day call home. The crew put on spacesuits to explore a nearby volcano’s rocky lava field.

Mars missions will be long. That means astronauts can’t bring all the food they will need. They’ll have to grow their own food on Mars. The HI-SEAS team tested a system called aquaponics (ah-kwuh-PAH-niks). They grew plants with the roots hanging in a water tank. A fish named Blastoff McRocketboots lived in the tank. The plants fed on Blastoff’s waste instead of soaking up nutrients from soil. A Mars crew might dine on vegetables grown this way someday. 

There was an even more important task for the HI-SEAS crew. It was getting along with each other. Real Mars crews will have to live in a small space for more than two years. Future Mars mission directors will study how well Dunn and her crewmates lived together. That will help them pick astronauts who can work as a team on Mars.

NASA/U.S. NAVY/ZUMA PRESS/NEWSCOM

A space capsule called Orion, designed for Mars missions, splashes down after a test flight. 

New Gear

Existing rockets aren’t powerful enough to make it all the way to Mars. So engineers are building new technology for the trip.

NASA is testing a new spacecraft called Orion. It will travel 32,000 kilometers  (20,000 miles) per hour. That’s way too fast for humans to do the driving. Instead, Orion will be controlled by computers. “It basically flies itself,” says Kelly Smith, an engineer at NASA.

Today’s rockets aren’t powerful enough to make it all the way to Mars. So engineers are building new ones for the trip.

NASA is testing a new spacecraft called Orion. It will travel 32,000 km (20,000 mi) per hour. That’s way too fast for humans to do the driving. Instead, computers will control Orion. “It basically flies itself,” says Kelly Smith. She’s an engineer at NASA.

JIM OLIVE/POLARIS/NEWSCOM

The BioSuit, a new spacesuit design, is tested in a wind tunnel that simulates the low gravity on Mars.

Mars astronauts will need new spacesuits too. Older suits are heavy and uncomfortable. Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on a new design called the BioSuit. The flexible suit would make it easier for Mars explorers to move around. 

Meanwhile, NASA is developing a spacesuit called the Z-2. It would attach to the outside of a Mars rover. Astronauts could drive to a destination, then slide into their suits and explore. 

Mars astronauts will need new spacesuits too. Older suits are heavy and uncomfortable. Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on a new design. It’s called the BioSuit. The suit bends easily. That will help Mars explorers move around. 

Meanwhile, NASA is creating a spacesuit called the Z-2. It would attach to the outside of a Mars rover. Astronauts could drive to a place on Mars. Then they could slide into their suits and explore.  

Into the Unknown

Scientists are working to meet all the challenges of living on Mars. But there are some things they won’t know until people get there. The gravity on Mars is one third as strong as it is on Earth. Astronauts who spend a long time in low gravity often report physical changes, like vision problems and motion sickness. Scientists aren’t yet sure whether Mars’s gravity would be safe. 

Despite the unknowns, Dunn would love to go to Mars if she can. “I can’t imagine how cool it would feel to see this other planet for the first time,” she says.

Scientists are working to face the challenges of living on Mars. But there are some things they won’t know until people get there. 

The  gravity on Mars is one third as strong as it is on Earth. Astronauts who spend a long time in low gravity often report changes to their bodies. They can have vision problems and motion sickness. Scientists aren’t sure whether the gravity on Mars would be safe. 

Dunn would still love to go to Mars if she can. “I can’t imagine how cool it would feel to see this other planet for the first time,” she says.

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