Photograph by Phillip Toledano
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March 2016: Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko is greeted after returning from six months on the International Space Station.
Photograph by Phillip Toledano
MagazineFrom the Editor

Planning the First Voyage to Mars

The red planet has become humanity's next destination as well as a major fascination.

This story appears in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

In winter the temperature at the poles of Mars can reach 200° below zero Fahrenheit. But make no mistake: The red planet is the hottest topic in space.

Astronauts might begin a mission to explore Mars in 2024, as SpaceX company founder Elon Musk projects. Or, as NASA contends, it may take longer: The space agency puts the date in the 2030s, and then not to land on Mars but just to orbit it.

At National Geographic, exploration of new frontiers is in our DNA. As far as Mars goes, we’ve already launched—and landed. This month:

  • National Geographic will unveil a six-part television series, MARS, blending documentary footage of today’s efforts to reach the planet with a scripted story focused on how we might eventually build a new civilization there. It premieres November 14.
  • Our book division is publishing Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet, featuring incredible space photography and comprehensive explanations of the science that may ultimately enable Mars colonization.
  • In our Kids magazine a handy guide gives answers to questions that Mars-bound youngsters might have, from “How will I go to the bathroom?” to “What will I eat?”
  • Our social media efforts include a series on Snapchat Discover in which we invite our audience to take Mars quizzes on topics such as “Could you survive on Mars?”
  • Finally we have “Mars: The Race to the Red Planet,” this magazine’s cover story, by Joel Achenbach. It examines our long-held fascination with Mars—18,300 people applied for the eight to 14 slots in NASA’s next class of astronauts—and what it would take to actually pull off a mission.

Everything about sending astronauts to Mars is hard: safeguarding them against radiation from cosmic rays, preventing bone loss in a zero-gravity environment, keeping them psychologically stable during what would be, at a minimum, roughly a two-year journey there and back.

“This is not a business trip to a different city, when you miss your apartment, your home, family,” said Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, who spent nearly a year on the International Space Station. “This is about missing the Earth as a whole. It is a completely different emotion. There is a shortage of greenery, for real, like not enough forest, summer, winter, snow.”

It will be a brave person indeed who ultimately lands on Mars. You can count on National Geographic to document that journey—and maybe even plant a flag.

Thank you for reading.