With the technology built for the Moon landings, would it have been possible to send people to Mars?

If no, what would have been the earliest year technology would have been available?

@Fred said 'moon landings relied on computers on Earth for guidance and landing'

In 1981, the Space Shuttle first launched; did it contain advanced-enough technology to not require assistance from ground control?

We do not need to produce anything on Mars; everything can be sent there ahead of time using unmanned missions.

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    $\begingroup$ One thing that made landing on the Moon in the 1960s less difficult was its proximity to Earth which enabled the use of nearly "primitive" computers on Earth to assist with guidance control & landing. I imagine with Mars being more distant, better onboard computers would be required than what was available in the 1970s. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Aug 26, 2022 at 11:36
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    $\begingroup$ In my opinion we don't have the necessary technology yet. We know that propellants or fuel should be produced on Mars for return flight, but it is only theory and we did nothing like this on Mars. We need technology thoroughly tested on Mars. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Aug 26, 2022 at 12:13
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with getting to Mars is not the availability of computer technology; it is the time required to get there and the difficulty of keeping the crew alive for that time. You might enjoy watching former astronaut Stan Love's excellent presentation on this topic youtube.com/watch?v=fturU0u5KJo $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2022 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Bob If the return fuel is not produced on Mars, we need an incredible big rocket to send the fuel there. A much bigger rocket than we have, about some hundreds to a thousand times more payload. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Aug 27, 2022 at 1:25
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    $\begingroup$ @JörgWMittag I'm voting for much later than that. From realistic reports that I've read, sending humans to Mar now or in the near future is a one way suicide trip. $\endgroup$ Aug 27, 2022 at 13:11

3 Answers 3


In March 1966 the American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics and the American Astronautical Society jointly convened the Stepping Stones to Mars conference, which envisioned a manned mission to Mars in 1986.

At that conference, Ernst Stuhlinger, one of Von Braun's team at Huntsville, produced a very detailed plan for a manned Mars mission using four spacecraft, each with a crew of four, to Mars. The mission would use technology that was largely available at the time such as the NERVA engine (which was being developed in 1966 and was flight-ready when it was cancelled in 1973). The full story is here.

Paul Swan presented the Avco/RAD study, at the conference, which examined the process of investigation and exploration by a crewed mission.

David S. F. Portree has produced an interesting history of Mars mission planning.


Strictly speaking the technology isn't available today, although it could have been available sooner if dedicated funding was done.

The Apollo program could not have reached Mars for a number of reasons. Life support was too limited, there wasn't enough propulsion, the lander couldn't land on the Mars, etc. At best a flyby could have been done of another planet, perhaps Venus, and there were concepts for sure out there.

The question you are really asking I think is at what year could we have started, say, an Apollo type effort and landed on Mars. The biggest challenges to landing on Mars are (In no order)

  1. Life Support/ food
  2. Building the lander and subsequent ascent vehicle
  3. Building a habitat that can survive for months (Really closer to 20 for some paths)
  4. A vehicle capable of launching all of this stuff and more to Mars.

Of these the single biggest obstacle is building the lander that will land on Mars. The current general path that every US mission has used to land on Mars involves a heat shield, parachute, and final either rocket power or airbags to finish the landing. None of these architectures would work with a human rated, mostly they can't use the parachute.

Life support has been in the neighborhood since we had continually inhabited space stations, of which the first was MIR.

The knowledge of Martian weather and surviving on Mars is likely the trickiest bit. The Viking orbiters and landers did discover a lot, but I don't really feel like we would have had a good Mars mission until after MGS.

Putting it all together really requires 2 different plans. A radically accelerated schedule could have been started as early as 1976 with the Viking missions and maybe had a mission land in the mid-1980s. A more measured approach could have been started with MGS and been successful in the early 2000s.

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    $\begingroup$ "the lander couldn't land on the Moon" ?? Also, re life support: Earth orbit stations are continuously resupplied, not an option for a trip to Mars. $\endgroup$ Aug 31, 2022 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble Woops, should have been Mars. Agree with the continually resupplied portion, in theory with the launch of enough supplies it would be possible on Mars, but... $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Aug 31, 2022 at 15:52

It’s impossible to say with any accuracy because it’s an alternative history question that depends on all manner of complex assumptions about technological development in different areas as well as finance and politics.

Assuming that a Human Mars mission might be possible by 2029 would put it 60 years ahead of the Moon landings. Through much of that period the US human space program has been lacking true sustained long term vision and goals. It has been subject to all manner of political, budgetary and other short term influences causing what can only be described as derangement.

Congress had and still has no interest in space policy goals only aerospace jobs and has continually tried to second guess which space policy goals would produce the right blend of jobs for big aerospace companies in key states. So the aerospace industry jobs tails wags the space policy goal dog.

The result has been the hugely expensive shuttle and ISS, plans for Mars, plans for a human visit to an asteroid, at least 2 different initiatives to return to the Moon and the SLS.

In order to have advanced faster, this madness would need to be written out of the story somehow. The 90 day report in 1989 put a 400 billion dollar price tag on a human Mars landing back when 400 billion dollars was a lot of money. This made the whole idea impractical and it was shelved.

What was needed then was someone to realize that the primary problem was one of affordability, cost reduction and reuse not just technological development. The other thing needed would have been some overriding political driving force (perhaps the Chinese had already reached Mars) that would put the nation on a virtual war footing and open the money spigots to achieve the goal of landing humans on Mars.

With that perhaps the rate of progress might have been doubled so instead of the 40 years of dithering between 1989 to 2029 we might have had 20 years of massive investment and dedicated hard work to a single minded goal landing the first humans on Mars by 2009.

That’s my guess and IMO given the huge number of variables that’s about as good as it gets. The likelihood of such a scenario is however another matter.

  • $\begingroup$ If it costs 400bil in 1990s, why isn't it at least as expensive for SpaceX? $\endgroup$
    – Bob
    Sep 1, 2022 at 14:08
  • $\begingroup$ Because the 90 day report was based on taking everything needed for the whole trip including all of the return propellants and IIRC they were planning on storable hypergolics which are lower performance than LOX which would have meant a humongous "Battlestar Galactica" style mission. It would also have thrown every single booster used into the ocean including all those required to provide propellent in orbit for the outbound mission and the propellant required to send the return propellant to Mars and and... $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Sep 1, 2022 at 14:17

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