Look outside at dawn or dusk, and you'll see it: Venus, the planet on our doorstep.
We can't land humans there, but it's a captivating place—and we should go there as soon as we possibly can.
Check out this deep-dive on missions to Venus, or read along below!
Venus is the Hell of the Solar System—and humans should go there as soon as possible.
I know what you're thinking. Wouldn't Venus kill you in seconds?
It would. You'd roast in 460 degree heat … nearly twice as hot as an average oven.
But you wouldn't even make it to the surface. The atmosphere is 90 times thicker here, so it's less like walking on the surface and more like swimming at an ocean floor.
The pressure is so high here that you and your spaceship would be crushed long before you hit the ground.
Sounds bleak. But we didn't always know it was such a death trap.
Venus is totally covered in cloud. To the human eye, it's featureless, so its inside*** was open to interpretation.
In the early 20th century, many thought Venus was hiding a paradise planet, with tropical forests and even potentially roaming animals.
This influenced science fiction, but also gave Venus a scientific allure ... A place worth visiting.
So, space agencies did.
The First Steps
When NASA's Mariner 2 arrived in 1962, any leftover dreams of paradise were shattered.
The place is bone dry, with an atmosphere almost completely comprised of carbon dioxide.
This is a greenhouse effect turned planetary furnace, boiling off any chance of habitability.
And yet, the missions kept coming.
The Soviet Union was particularly committed to Venus, sending an entire family of missions under the name Venera: 28 launched.
Venera 3 was the first to land … hard. It crashed.
5 and 6 focused on studying the atmosphere, each sending under an hour of data before they failed.
On and on it went, until Venera 9 ... Which captured our first ever photos of the surface.
Colour was added in Veneras 13 and 14 ... Showcasing a flat, rocky, and punishing surface.
But then, interest waned, with no purpose-built missions launched from 1989 until 2005, with Venus Express.
Mars, clearly, was the preferred candidate for exploration, both robotic and crewed: Inhospitable, for sure, but brimming with potential.
And yet, Venus may be the better pick.
To learn why, we shouldn't look at the surface, but in the clouds.
50 kilometres up, to be exact.
Up here, the temperature is merely balmy, about 75 degrees Celsius.
The atmospheric pressure is more favourable too, virtually the same as on Earth's surface.
And then there's the gravity, much closer to Earth than Mars.
In fact, these conditions were so promising that NASA and a team of university researchers hashed out an entire mission concept: HAVOC, or the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept.
HAVOC relies on airships, inflated at the destination, to sail among the toxic clouds.
Robots would go first, followed by a 30-day, and then a year-long crewed mission.
There would be plenty for astronauts to learn, dropping probes and balloons to study the history of the planet, and searching the clouds for complex molecules and even life.
There are other benefits of going here over Mars: for one, astronauts would be well-protected from radiation in the clouds, and would have little need for space suits.
This is just a concept.. but in reality, we don't even have to choose one or the other: Astronauts could fly past Venus on their way to Mars.
This two-planet trip would actually be quicker and cheaper than a direct trip, allowing astronauts to use Venus' immense gravity to swing it towards Mars.
This kind of manoeuvre would also gives the crew an opportunity to abort to Earth if something goes wrong, after all, we're talking about humanity going interplanetary for the first time.
In fact, an early Venus-only mission would be a perfect dress rehearsal for going to Mars … completed in about a year.
This is all decades away, but space agencies are getting excited about Venus once more.
Take VERITAS, an orbiter to search for active volcanoes and map the planet's surface with radar.
Even more exciting is DAVINCI, which includes a descent probe to investigate the planet's lower atmosphere.
This would be our first descent to Venus since 1984 … meaning radically improved technology to tell us everything we need to know about atmospheric gasses.
As the probe plunges closer to the surface, we'll learn about the history of water on the planet … and whether those warm clouds could be hospitable to life.
The findings from these missions will help us understand why our planets are so different … offering a window to our Solar System's past and its future.
And those discoveries can be extrapolated to other planets … distant ones … orbiting faraway stars.
Ultimately, it's not a race. Mars holds us captive with its desolate surface, one that we can touch, and feel, and study.
People want to go there … geologists, and engineers, an entirely new breed of astronaut.
But I humbly request that you take a moment to consider our nearest neighbour, in substance and in size, and maybe even history.
You might want to be the first to touch down on Martian soil … but imagine, for a moment, being the first human to see another planet right there in front of you …
A shining jewel in the black, hiding its mysteries but offering so much in its heart.
Venus is worthy of your attention … and if you want to go to Mars right … you should swing by here first.