To mars by 1982

To Mars by 1982 – A Manned Mission Too Far, Too Soon ?

In Mars, Videos by Paul Shillito1 Comment


With all the talk of manned Mars missions by Elon Musk and SpaceX and more recently NASA, it’s easy to forget that Mars isn’t a recent obsession. Now before we get into the details, this video is little different, this is my first collaboration and part two of this series will be done by Isaac Arthur, who will be looking at the Mars missions from the roots of sci-fi in the 1990’s to those that are proposed for the coming decades, there’s a link in the description that will take you there and if you have come over from Isaacs channel, welcome to Curious Droid and the first part of the Manned mars missions that were planned for the post Apollo period but never got off the ground and I hope you can take a little time to have a look around this channel and some of the other video’s I have done.

Now if you haven’t heard of or seen Isaac’s channel then I recommend you hop on over, after you watched this of course, because this kind of sets up his video, but his channel deals with science and futurism and covers a whole loads of things I’ve never even thought of but I found highly informative and entertaining, well worth a visit if you like your futurism on the grand scale.

Ever since Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert H. Goddard, Hermann Oberth and Robert Esnault-Pelterie discovered the principles of rocketry and astronautics in the early 20th century, We have been planning on going to mars, though back then it was much more an academic issue with a large dose of science fiction. But with the development of the V2 rocket lead by Werner Von Braun whilst he worked for the Germans in the 1940s, the possibility of space travel become a reality. By 1948 when Von Braun was working for the US developing it’s rocket capability he had published the book “The Mars Project”.

This has become probably the most influential book on the subject of manned mars missions, even though it was a rather grandiose scheme which called for a fleet of 10 spacecraft carrying 70 or more people. Von Braun used the idea that if Columbus had set off to find the new world with a single ship then he probably would never have made it back to Spain.

Although his book was looked upon as sci-fi by some, von Braun provided detailed calculations to support his theories and many of the ideas he put forward like reusable shuttles, orbital assembly and multiple spacecraft have greatly influenced NASA’s long-term plans for manned interplanetary missions, even if they have been greatly cut down in scale. He also covered the main problems for getting men to Mars, such as the effect of weightlessness on the human body, Radiation from the Sun and Cosmic rays, using spacesuits to move from one ship to another if one was to be disabled and also the psychological effects of people living in an enclosed space for long periods of time

Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, there was still the belief that if you’re going to go and do a space mission then you go big. Just like Apollo was a huge effort employing around 400,000 people, the Mars proposals from both the US and the Soviets were equally large, especially when national pride was at stake and the spin-off was a new range of advanced weapons.

In the Soviet Union, their answer to the Saturn V, the ill-fated N1 Rocket had actually been designed in the 1950’s to launch a manned Mars mission.

The 1st serious Mars planning done by the Soviets was headed by Mikhail Tikhonravov in 1956 and was known as the MPK or the “Martian Piloted Complex”. This would have the crew on a 30-month mission to land on the Martian surface and stay there for just over a year before returning. There were even plans for a nuclear powered Mars train made up of 5 modules which would travel across the martian surface.

By 1959 a group within the OKB 1 design bureau had started development of an interplanetary spacecraft called the TMK which was to carry a 3 man crew for a Mars fly by and drop remote control landers to the surface. A launch date was pencilled for June 8th 1971 and returning to earth just over 3 years later.

To overcome the effects of Weightlessness it was proposed that the TMK would rotate about its axis to create a form of artificial gravity a bit like the space station in the film 2001. However, because of it ’s small diameter, the Coriolis forces created could have induced nausea that would have been worse than the weightlessness itself.

Radiation was still an unknown quantity but with data from unmanned probes, it was thought that the cumulative radiation dose for a return mission to Mars would have been within safe levels but that didn’t account for solar flares. This was to be addressed by having a radiation shelter which was a shielded tube in the centre of the craft with simplified instruments & controls.

Even as far back as the 1950’s it was realised that chemical rockets would be just on the edge of usability when trying to get a manned mission to Mars and back again and that Nuclear, on the other hand, could provide greater power with a much lower mass making for significantly shorter transit times and the secondary ability to generate electrical power once at mars.

In 1954 Ernst Stuhlinger, who worked on Von Brauns team became interested in Electrical propulsion after reviewing a paper on the subject by Hermann J. Oberth. Stuhlinger believed that a spacecraft could be designed that would give a greater thrust than a chemical rocket if it set off from orbit.

The nuclear electric engine became interplanetary propulsion system favoured by the Soviet chief designer Sergei Korolev, basically, a nuclear reactor creating electricity to drive a plasma-ion thruster.

By 1962 in the US, NASA commissioned the Project EMPIRE studies to look into the human exploration of Mars and what would be required. Three companies were involved, Ford’s Aeronutronic division, General Dynamics and Lockheed missiles and space. Ford suggested a dual flyby of both Venus and then on to Mars by launching and arriving relative to Mars at the midpoint of the interplanetary trajectory, a sort of planetary double whammy. They suggested using either Saturn V, Nova or Super Nova rockets to launch into orbit and then nuclear injection stage and chemical rocket manoeuvring. The whole mission would last about 21 months and cost $12.6 billion plus the cost of launch vehicle development, that’s about $100 billion in today’s money.

General Dynamics suggested just a Mars mission with a crew of around 8 and again with the Saturn V and the NERVA nuclear engine option. They said that with nuclear engines an optimal launch date of 1973-75 that the whole mission could reduce to 400-450 days including a 30-50 day stay in the Martian orbit with a possible landing and sample return. The team said that it would require eight Saturn V’s to assemble the Mars mission vehicle which would have a payload of 400 tons. Their proposal would be over a 10 year period from 1965 to 75 and cost $24.5 billion, $196 Billion today.

Lockheed’s proposal was for a mission to Mars that would last 670 days for up to a crew of 12 and would be a precursor to later missions to land on the surface. Again it would use the Saturn V / Nuclear NERVA propulsion combination but one of the interesting differences was that the team suggested that a craft rotating at 3 rpm could create 0.4g of gravity during the interplanetary phase helping to offset the effect of weightlessness.

Although none of the EMPIRE missions moved beyond the initial design phase, it was the first time since The Mars Project that detailed proposals were carried out and shared to the rest of the space community, this in time would convince many in NASA that manned missions to Mars were feasible.

By 1969 Von Brown had been refining his ideas for mars. His final plans had two ships, each with a six-man crew that would fly in a convoy and the entire setup apart from the Mars lander was to be reusable for future missions.

After the first moon landings, there was a brief enthusiasm for more manned spaceflight. Von Braun proposed his vision of a manned Mars mission as part of the Post Apollo integrated plan which included a manned shuttle in its original form by 1975, space stations thereafter, plus continued development of the Saturn V as the launch stage and the NERVA nuclear thermal upper stage for the interplanetary part of the journey.

The beauty of this setup was that the proven space station modules would be used as the living quarters for the Mars missions. The Saturn V was by now a well-proven way to get the main parts into orbit and the NERVA nuclear engine had been tested and was ready to be put into space. The only new hardware required would be the Mars Lander. Testing was envisaged starting in 1978 with the 1st Mars mission in 1982. The shuttle would be used to refurbish the Mars craft in space with further missions planned for 1983, 86, and 88 with a 50 person Mars base by 1989.

However, as we know things didn’t go to plan. There was resistance from senior figures within NASA to manned missions beyond the moon. By the early 70’s the public’s interest in space had waned, the war in Vietnam was like a political albatross around the neck the US government and costing a fortune. There was little public appetite for more hugely expensive space missions, Studies put the cost of a Mars mission at between $12 and $32 Billion or about $93 to $250 billion in today’s money. Mars was seen as a dead and pretty uninteresting place, which was confirmed, rather ironically by the Mariner 7 fly by the day after Von Braun’s big 1969 mars presentation to NASA.

With the change in administration in 1972 and even with Vice President Spiro Agnew endorsement of a  Mars Mission, Nixon slashed NASA’s budget and the only thing left of the post-Apollo plan was the much-repurposed space shuttle and the left-over Saturn V rockets which were used for the Skylab space station. The NERVA nuclear engine which was reliant on the post-Apollo plan also went.

In the Soviet Union the failure to produce a workable N1 rocket and with similar economic issues to the US, the Soviet Mars projects were also shelved indefinitely.

With the development of the N1’s replacement, the giant Energia rocket in the mid 1970’s and the Soviet Space Shuttle Buran, there was a brief flurry of interest in a Mars mission once more but after the collapse of the Soviet Union both the Energia Rocket and any remaining ideas for a Mars mission where shelved.

Although there were successful robotic missions to Mars in the following decades, interest in manned missions in the 1980s and 90’s was limited to the die-hard planetary scientists and enthusiasts.  Even sci-fi gave up on mars during this time as it slipped from much of the public consciousness and this is where our part 1 of the story ends and we hand you over to Isaac’s SFIA channel for part two in the series.

However, we aren’t quite done yet. The logistics of planning a mission as complex as sending men to mars back in the day when most of the working out were done with slide rules is truly amazing. Just like Apollo, it would have been a massive undertaking bringing together thousands of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians and it’s truly incredible to imagine the full complexity of the operation.

But to begin to get a grasp of how these things work in the trenches, you might start small. For instance, how fast must we launch an object from the surface of Earth to get it to leave? You can look up the answer if you want, but if you’re like me, then you want to create things for yourself. Our sponsor for this collaboration,, is dedicated to just that — turning you into a living, breathing, and most importantly, calculating scientist.

Head over there and prove for yourself just what it takes to get an object up and off a planet, and headed to a new home like Mars. Having a strong math and science skillset is crucial because it opens up so many ways to explore the universe. To support Curious Droid and learn more about Brilliant, go to and sign up for free. Also, if you’re ready to launch off the planet, the first 200 people will get 20% discount off the annual Premium subscription.

Paul Shillito
Creator and presenter of Curious Droid Youtube channel and website


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