Humans to Mars

Target Audience
  • Students
Hosting Center(s)
  • Glenn Research Center
  • Stennis Space Center
Subject Category
  • Earth Science
Unit Correlation
  • Exploring NASA Missions
  • Exploring Space
Grade Level
  • 05 - Post Secondary
Minimum Delivery Time
  • 045 min(s)
Maximum Connection Time
  • 060 min(s)

Event Focus

It is the year 2020 and you have been assigned to one of the first engineering teams to begin planning a manned mission to Mars. Your team leader has asked each of you to make a list of the five most critical issues that you feel need to be addressed. What does your list look like?



This module is appropriate for video conference AND web conference presentation.

The videoconferencing event is discussion of the difficult challenges that must be met to successfully send astronauts to Mars and have them return safely. Current data from humans living and working in space on the Space Shuttle and the International Space station as well as information from current and past Mars missions will be applied to evaluate the needs of a much longer and more distant mission. Students will be encouraged to present both problems and possible solutions.


Instructional Objectives




The learners will discuss how the planet  Mars is different from Earth.


The learners will examine the history of Mars exploration, the distance to Mars, and our record of success and failure.


The learners will identify some of the problems that will be encountered in trying to send humans to Mars.


The learners will discuss some of the ways these problems might be solved.


The learners will evaluate the benefits and risks involved with putting astronauts on Mars.


Sequence of Events


Pre-Conference Activities


Ask students, "What questions do you need to answer to be sure you have the top five mission critical challenges right? Meet with other members of your team and make a list of questions you need to get answered. Make a plan for how you think you can get each question answered."




Atmosphere: an envelope of gas surrounding a planet or moon. Mars has a very thin atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide.

Atrophy: a wasting away of the body or of an organ or part, as from disuse. An astronaut's muscles can atrophy after time in space so they must exercise.

Cosmic radiation: high-energy radiation that is emitted from the sun to all directions in space. The eight-month trip to Mars will expose astronauts to a much higher dose of cosmic radiation than that found on Earth.

Countermeasure: a measure or action taken to counter or offset another one. Astronauts exercise as a countermeasure against bone loss.

Demineralization: the loss, deprivation, or removal of minerals or mineral salts from the body, especially through disease, as the loss of calcium from bones or teeth. This will happen on a trip to and from Mars.

Distill: to heat a liquid to make it a gas and then to cool the gas back to a liquid so that it is pure. One way to minimize the amount of water that has to be carried to Mars is to distill waste water and fluids back into drinking water.

Fluid: a substance, as a liquid or gas, that is capable of flowing. Ordinary methods of dealing with fluids, such a pouring, will not work in space.

Microgravity: in the freefall of orbit, a person experiences a slight gravitational attraction to the earth called microgravity, although the overall sensation is that of being weightless.

Nutrition: the science or study that deals with food and nourishment, especially in humans. Good nutrition is important in an astronaut's food choice to maintain health and prevent bone loss in space.

Orbit: to move or travel around a central object in an orbital or elliptical path. Earth orbits the Sun once every 365.25 days. Mars orbits the Sun every 687 days.

Physiology: the branch of biology dealing with the functions and activities of living organisms and their parts, including all physical and chemical processes. One of the major activities on the space station is to study the changes in physiology brought on by living in a near-weightless environment so we can plan for the long filght ot Mars.

Recycle: to treat or process used or waste materials so as to make suitable for reuse. Astronauts recycle water to minimize the amount that must be carried into space and stored.

Weightless: the condition of being in a continual freefall during orbit so that all sense of gravitational attraction is lost. Astronauts need some time to get used to being weightless in space. They are able to move and install very large parts of the space station because these parts, which weigh several tons on earth, are weightless in space.




For more information about living in space, you might want to try NASA's Living in Space


Extend your Martian experience and find out more about what it might be like to explore Mars, try one of the activities found at Journey to Mars.



Videoconference Activities


At the beginning of the video conference, the presenter may ask the students "Would you like to be the first Martian? How would you get there? How long would it take to go and come back?" The facilitator will use pictures on the screen behind him, drawings, movies and other graphics to help students develop an understanding of the basic concepts of humans going to Mars.

In this video conference, the presenter will get students thinking about the difficulty of traveling to Mars. Along the way, he will help them develop a concept of space through asking questions and using models, movies and pictures to answer student questions. First he will ask the question, then listen to student answers, and build on their preconceptions to help them to rethink and extend their ideas to be accurate. Some of these questions might be:


Where is Mars in the solar system? How far away is it? What will it take to travel there? (Compare to time to travel to the Moon) What would you have to take along on a two year trip? What will happen to your body if you are in space for an extended period of time?

More than half of the time will then be for students to ask questions. The presenter will use this time to model questioning, thinking through issues, and to praise the students for asking good questions to build their confidence. He will often answer questions with questions, then show models, make diagrams, or show movies.


Here are some questions we have heard in other video conferences and the way the presenter takes the key idea from the student's question and helps them develop an accurate idea.

1) What if you run out of air? (have to take all your air with you so scientists have to do their math well to figure out the right amount)

2) Why can you launch to Mars only every 26 months? (A major misconception is that we can go to Mars and return at any time. Earth goes around the Sun about twice as fast as Mars so they don't always line up. Computer animations are used to demonstrate their motions)

3) How much food would you need to take for a crew of four? What would it weigh? How much space would it occupy?(Do math calculations with students to get total. Ask students about alternate plans such as growing food.

4) What about recycling water? (Discuss how we currently recycle water on the Earth, both intentionally and through the water cycle.)

5) How do you communicate with Earth? (the misconception of instant communication will be corrected, as it take 4 to 20 minutes to send a single message)

6) What happens if someone gets bored or sick? What happens if they die? Can you plan for every possible emergency? (the crew needs to be trained for medical emergencies because can't turn back for help. Space travel is dangerous, but you try to think of what could possibly go wrong and plan for that.)

7) Since the astronauts will be in space a long time, what about protection from radiation exposure? (talk about students being protected during dental X-rays)

8) What happens if the ship malfunctions? (astronauts trained to take things apart and fix them, take spare parts. ( show astronauts working on ISS)

9) How much oxygen would you need to carry? (Do math calculations with students to get total.)


Post-Conference Activities


Ask students to revisit their top five mission critical challenges and revise their list based on the video conference activity. "What challenges seem the most difficult to solve? Where do you think NASA needs to concentrate their efforts to have a successful mission?"


Reflecting on the video conference, have the students create an application form for potential Mars astronauts. Have them focus on questions that would help applicants understand all aspects of the mission, especially the hazards.


As a way to expand upon the ideas presented during the video conference, students can take the part of mission planners and start to look at some possible solutions to the many problems posed in the session. They can compare their previous ideas about Mars travel to the realities presented and discuss some possible scenarios to a Mars mission.




NSTA Science Content Standards: 5-8





  • ... technologies exist within nature and so they cannot contravene physical or biological principles; technological solutions have side effects; and technologies cost, carry risks, and provide. Travel to Mars and back presents a number of technological challenges and significant risks.


NSTA Science Content Standards: 9-12





  • Science often advances with the introduction of new technologies. Solving technological problems often results in new scientific knowledge. New technologies often extend the current levels of scientific understanding and introduce new areas of research. Many Earth benefits are likely to arise from the engineering efforts to go to Mars.





  • Natural and human-induced hazards present the need for humans to assess potential danger and risk. Many changes in the environment designed by humans bring benefits to society, as well as cause risks. Students should understand the costs and trade-offs of various hazards. The potential disasters in a long difficult mission are large and the harsh Martian environment will be difficult to live in. The scientific advances gained by such a missions need to outweigh the risks.

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Page Last Updated: September 18th, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator