Doug Bonderud

Feb 19th 2021

Red Planet Road Trip: Space Travel to Mars Meets Speculative Sightseeing


Mars is getting a lot of media coverage lately. From NASA’s latest launch to talks of a Red Planet settlement, there’s growing interest in space travel to Mars and what it could mean for humanity as a whole.

Setting questions of logistics and legality aside, if we really could colonize Mars, what would a fun day out look like on the fourth rock from the sun? Here’s a speculative sightseeing itinerary for your first Red Planet road trip.

Laying the Groundwork

If you’re road tripping on the Red Planet, you can’t just hop in a tour bus and hit the road. Lower Martian gravity — coming in at just 37% of Earth’s pull — means uneven terrain and hilly regions would pose more of a problem than they would in familiar 1-g territory. Dust may also be a problem, assuming we haven’t entirely terraformed Mars by the time of your excursion. Any sightseeing vehicle would need the ability to keep dust out and deal with any particulate matter that makes its way into critical components. Finally, you’ll either need self-enclosed transport that provides breathable oxygen or a reliable spacesuit to keep yourself from suffocating in the planet’s minimal atmosphere.

And on Your Left…

With these essentials squared away, the tour can get started. First stop: the landing site. This would almost certainly be the least exciting part of your tour. As Matt Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab puts it, any great landing site for space travel to Mars will be a “smooth, flat, boring place.” It makes sense, since flat and wide-open landing zones make it easier to safely set down spacecraft and reduce the risk of something going wrong. Consider NASA’s latest rover, Perseverance, which will touch down on Mars in February 2021. Its planned landing site is Jezero crater, which is just north of the equator and 28 miles in diameter. This area was likely once flooded with liquid water, and it may contain evidence of ancient organic matter.

After a quick spin around the colony landing zone, it’s time to hit the biggest tourist attractions on Mars, including:

  • Olympus Mons — “Big” is the operative word here. This shield volcano is the size of Arizona and three times taller than Mount Everest, coming in at 16 miles (25.75 km) high. Because the mountain has a side slope of just five degrees, hands-on tourist groups could climb to the summit and see the 53-mile wide depression caused by magma draining out of ancient rocky chambers.
  • Valles Marineris — Mars also boasts the biggest valley in our solar system, the valles marineris. It’s four times the length of the Grand Canyon, and it was likely formed thanks to substantial volcanic activity in the Red Planet’s Tharsis region.
  • Medusae Fossae — Wind-sculpted rocks in this region have given rise to speculation about ancient Martian aliens. While the more plausible explanation is volcanic eruptions followed by substantial weathering over time, this is still a can’t-miss stop for any tour.
  • The North and South Poles — For more extreme Martian adventurers, polar trips could prove popular. Thanks to the planet’s thin atmosphere, temperatures at the poles drop to a frigid minus 195 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, which is cold enough to condense airborne carbon dioxide into ice. In the summer, the planet’s north pole gets warm enough to sublimate this CO, creating a more familiar water ice cap.

The Undiscovered Country

All aboard for the magical mystery tour! While digital topographical mapping of Mars is complete, robotic rovers have only visited a small portion of the Red Planet’s points of interest.

One region that has yet to be explored fully is Cydonia, which contains “the Face on Mars.” Pictures of this landform were originally captured on April 8th, 2001 by the Mars Global Surveyor, and sharp-eyed observers quickly noted its resemblance to a human face. While this structure is almost certainly of natural origin, exploration trips to Cydonia could be a big draw for Martian tourist companies.

Another option is Martian cave diving. As Scientific American notes, surface imaging has identified more than 1,000 caves in the Tharsis Bulge region that may be good candidates for human colonies due to their width, depth and access to lava tube “skylights” — or they might contain evidence of unknown alien civilizations. Either way, this would be a memorable trip.

No Refunds

The notion of people going to Mars has long captured the imagination of governments and private businesses alike. Some ambitious entrepreneurs are even selling Mars “land deeds,” which are great novelty gifts with zero legal value. However, it’s worth noting that, for the first nouveau-Martians, the trip will almost certainly be one-way. Even if crews make it to the surface of Mars and set up colonies without any accidental loss of life, Mars landings aren’t exactly known for their soft touch. Any spacecraft that lands on the planet would likely take substantial damage on impact and then be purposely cannibalized for parts to help build a new human future on the Red Planet.

For the first people going to Mars, it seems there will be no refunds and no returns, but these Martian explorers could help lay the foundation for one of humanity’s greatest achievements: a self-sustaining off-world habitat. And who knows — in fifty years you might be able to book a quick ride on the Earth-to-Mars express and reserve your spot in a rollicking Red Planet road trip.