During the 1960s the US government raced against the Soviet Union in an attempt to become the first in various areas of space exploration. They have committed a significant amount of money and resources and successfully landed on the moon in 1969. However landing a man on Mars does not seem to interest American leaders to the same degree and no serious attempt has been made to this very day.

What's the reason behind this? Is it the lack of a second superpower to compete against? Is it the much higher cost of landing a man on Mars? Is it that the timeframe of such a mission goes beyond the 8 years of a single presidency?

  • 4
    Your question answered it. There was a race we wanted to win. There's no race to Mars.
    – user1530
    Sep 1, 2017 at 18:00
  • @blip There seems to be some interest from China and private companies.
    – user9389
    Sep 1, 2017 at 22:22
  • @notstoreboughtdirt eh...we don't seem compelled to race them to mars. As long as they keep pumping out iPhones, we seem to be happy.
    – user1530
    Sep 2, 2017 at 1:02
  • @blip The point is there is a serious world power aiming for a milestone we have planed to get to. The government doesn't seem to care this time.
    – user9389
    Sep 2, 2017 at 3:01
  • 1
    @notstoreboughtdirt right. I'm in agreement with you. We're not in a race this time. The moon race was a very particular thing during a very particular time during human existence and politics.
    – user1530
    Sep 2, 2017 at 3:43

4 Answers 4


What would be the point of simply landing a man (or woman - let's not be sexist :-)) on Mars? For a lot of people, the point of the Moon landing (beyond the obvious Space Race) was that it would be the starting point for manned bases and eventual colonization, which of course didn't actually happen. Without that ongoing colonization, it was little more than a publicity stunt.

Landing on the Moon is far easier than landing on Mars. It takes about a week to get there and back: you can take all the food, water, and air that the crew requires along with you. Travelling to Mars takes months, which means you either have to take supplies for that period, or build ships & bases that are capable of recycling everything. (Or obtaining them from the Martian environment once the crew arrives.) We simply don't have the technology to do that, nor any real reason to develop it other than the Mars landing itself.

Last but not least, what would be the point? There's no equivalent to the Space Race, so no political purpose, and a lot of vested interests wanting the money to be spent on their preferred programs. Morever, it would be a decades-long program. Kennedy could reasonably have expected to be President until 1969 (as Johnson was); whoever was President when a Mars program started would be long out of office before any landing, and his/her successors might well be of an opposite party that would demolish the program. (As has indeed happened with various space programs.) So lots of money invested, little or no political benefit.

  • 3
    The point of landing on the moon was simply that. Landing on the moon. Before the Russians. It really was a publicity stunt (with plenty of benefits, but that really was the primary intent). So yea, there's not real compelling reason to do a publicity stunt in terms of Mars.
    – user1530
    Sep 2, 2017 at 1:05
  • 2
    @blip: For some people, probably including most of the politicians, it was a publicity stunt. However, a lot of the public support, from within the aerospace community as well as the general public, was based on the belief that it was going to be the start of a permanent colonization program.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 2, 2017 at 5:04
  • The space race started the day after Kruschev announced they had global reach for their nuclear weapons, and days after the Sputnik crossed over the skies of the world. Now that ICBM's are well tested there's no reason to spend money in developing rockets.
    – Rekesoft
    Sep 4, 2017 at 10:55
  • @Rekesoft: Don't tell me that, tell Elon Musk :-) Or the people at United Launch Alliance, ArianeSpace, &c.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 5, 2017 at 5:08
  • As I much as I'd love to see SpaceX Mars projects go ahead, today's rockets aim for LEO only, and its main objective is being cheaper, not going further. And while I know that finding a much cheaper way to get to space would start a new phase of space exploration and utilization, I'm quite sceptical. :(
    – Rekesoft
    Sep 5, 2017 at 7:47

What's the reason behind this? Is it the lack of a second superpower to compete against? Is it the much higher cost of landing a man on Mars? Is it that the timeframe of such a mission goes beyond the 8 years of a single presidency?

Yes, all of the above. And more.

Another issue is that we didn't gain much from going to the Moon. It took a ten year program to develop the Moon rocket. Know how long they estimate it would take to develop one now? Ten years. Because we didn't make regular trips to the Moon, our capability to do so has deteriorated so badly that we're at roughly the same point we were in 1959. We went to the moon six times in four years and zero times since.

Another issue is that a Mars rocket would take resources away from other projects. So some people that favor space exploration would rather direct our resources to something else, e.g. more unmanned missions or a larger space station.

The truth is that there isn't much reason to go to Mars. Yes, we could learn some things. But it was much cheaper to travel to the Moon in 1973 (back when we still remembered how to get there), and we decided it wasn't worth it. Why would we learn more from Mars? We would likely make a few trips over the course of a decade or two and stop. Meanwhile, we could have been exploring automated mining in the asteroid belt and using that to build a larger space station.

We could build a Moon base with a catapult to launch things. It could be powered by solar panels built with rare minerals mined from the moon or the asteroid belt. We could stop launching things out of Earth's gravity well and only launch people.

Right now, we can't put people in orbit and let them live out their lives. People go in orbit for months at a time and then return to Earth. Before we start talking about Mars, why not explore what we can do in orbit? Put up a real space station with rotational pseudogravity. Put enough people on it to actually accomplish something. Allow the ultrarich to visit as tourists.

Mars is a huge step with a small return. At this point, we don't get enough to justify it. There are much smaller steps with better long term returns that we could take.

  • 2
    I agree with the answer except "we didn't gain much from going to the Moon," which I think misrepresents the day to day benefits we enjoy from having gone there... A few industries that benefitted here. A few more here. Sep 2, 2017 at 17:38
  • @DenisdeBernardy Most of those aren't benefits of going to the Moon, they're benefits of funding applied research. We could get the same effect from a project to build an orbital habitat, or an ocean one, or whatever epic endeavor ... if it could sustain enough national motivation.
    – Foo Bar
    Apr 10, 2018 at 2:32

Much of the space race was a proxy for actual war. The Soviet Union lost after spending much of its fortune on the space contest. The down card of Star Wars was the final bluff in the contest. Once the military aspect was satisfied there was little official interest in continuing the scientific cover story.

Besides, our government has plenty of other wars going. There’s not much hype in space compared to the evening war report.


Landing a person on Mars would be a lot more difficult than landing someone on the moon. But the real problem is landing someone on Mars, and getting them back to earth alive. You'd need to land on mars with a rocket that is capable of flying back to earth, against the much higher gravity of mars compared to the moon, carrying enough supplies for a person for the much longer duration. With current technology, impossible.

And times have changed. Not bringing back that person alive would be much, much less acceptable to the public than almost 50 years ago.


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