Humans could get to Mars in less than 10 years, if they put their minds to it. That is the message of the Mars Society, a group of scientists and space enthusiasts who met recently in Los Angeles. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan spoke with some about their vision for the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet.

They came to see astronaut Buzz Aldrin, one of the first men on the moon, and to hear the ambitious plans of people like Elon Musk. The Internet pioneer has founded a company called SpaceX to put payloads into orbit, and eventually to take tourists into space.

And they came to be inspired by people like Robert Zubrin, the aerospace engineer who heads the Mars Society, a non-profit educational and scientific organization with chapters in 40 countries. Zubrin says humans reached the moon with much simpler technology than we have now.

"We are much better prepared today to send humans to Mars than we were to send men to the moon in 1961, and we were there eight years later. Given the will, given a presidential commitment of the type we had from JFK in 1961, we could have humans on Mars within a decade," said Zubrin.

Zubrin foresees an exploratory base and eventually permanent settlements on Mars.

President Bush has committed the United States to returning humans to the moon by 2020, and using the moon as a base to travel on to Mars. The key to the quest is funding, and the Mars Society is urging the president and Congress to allocate more money to space exploration. A volunteer collected petition signatures.

"Anybody want to sign letters to the Senate?" said the volunteer.

Robotic missions to Mars have greatly expanded our knowledge. Two orbiters of the U.S. space agency NASA are circling the planet, and two NASA rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are still functioning on the surface. The latest NASA mission, the Phoenix Lander, was launched August 4, and it will analyze water ice in the Martian arctic.

Fuk Li, the manager for the Mars exploration program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says we are still in the early stages of discovery on Mars.

"We are still looking for the ingredients that are perhaps necessary for the formation of life. One of them is water," said Li. "And one of the themes that has been permeating through our exploration in the last decade is looking for water, follow the water. Try to see where, when, how much, in what form, that water is on Mars."

Space exploration may be driven in the future as much by individuals and private companies as by governments. Peter Diamandis is the man behind the X Prize to encourage private space flight. The $10-million prize was won in 2004 by a California team headed by aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan and funded by billionaire Paul Allen. Rutan has teamed up with British entrepreneur Richard Branson to develop a tourist spacecraft.

Diamandis heads his own company that offers weightless rides in airplanes that simulate the zero-gravity conditions of space. He has helped send private citizens, including millionaire Dennis Tito, to the international space station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. And he is planning a competition for rocket racers. He says we are beginning a new age of exploration.

"From here on out, we are going to have people opening up the solar system, and thousands of years from now, people look back at this time and say, that is the magical moment," said Diamandis.

The possibilities excite Emily Colvin, 22. She heads the Mars Society at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she is studying for a career in aerospace.

"I would ideally love to go into nuclear thermal propulsion, although I am also doing some other stuff on the side right now toward surface nuclear power, looking at the systems we could take to the Moon or Mars to power a base," said Colvin.

She says our human future is on Mars and other planets, and she hopes to be involved in the process of getting us there.