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On a Scientific Mission to Mars

For decades, a human mission to Mars has been dreamed, discussed, and even worked toward—but it hasn’t happened yet. And there are many reasons including the significant technical challenges that stand in the way.

For one, it takes a lot of fuel to get there and viable techniques haven’t yet been developed to successfully harness enough energy to launch a rocket on a 33.9-million-mile road trip—and then bring it back.

Also, a trip like that would take a long time. More time spent in space means more potentially harmful effects on the astronauts’ health. Living in low gravity and being exposed to space radiation for long periods of time changes the human body, as NASA is now finding out, thanks, in part, to a recent year-long space mission by UT alumnus Scott Kelly.

But, UT engineering students led by UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for Nuclear Materials Steve Zinkle are working on overcoming these challenges by peering into “exotic” materials that can withstand extreme environments—as in those created by nuclear-powered thermal propulsion. That’s because one promising approach to get a rocket to Mars and back in a shorter time is by going nuclear.

Learn more about Zinkle’s work at