Think You Could Move
to Mars? Pack Lightly
A curious thing happened while we were mourning the Space Shuttles’ demise, and lack of a recognizable project to follow it up: NASA got busy with Mars. Thus, even if such news are breaking at least 54.6 million kilometers away, and often farther than that, we take it.
Last time we checked it, there were two rovers on the surface, and a satellite orbiting the planet named after the Roman god of war. And as we’re already researching ways of sending humans for a permanent visit up there, no one has mentioned anything about armies to follow.
It belongs to Mars, for example, the most spectacular event connected to space exploration in recent memory: last August’s landing on the planet of one of those rovers, Curiosity, through an ingenious and complex succession of stages. Or so we were told, since there’s no real-time footage of it.
But even the animation NASA prepared detailing the landing beat by a large margin the next-best thing, the docking of privately-built Dragon capsule on the International Space Station last October. While that was the promising opening salvo of a new era of commercial cargo trips, Curiosity’s pictures are way hotter.
This week, it’s supposed to crack its first Martian rock open, and astrophysicists and scientists of all stripes are beside themselves about it. In the meantime, elsewhere in the traffic-free red surface, the other robot, 10-year-old Opportunity, is taking its chances, albeit in a diminished scale.
It’s when we’re planning on sending humans to Mars, though, that will forever attract all the headlines, of course. It seems bound to happen, despite the enormous risks and astronomical costs; the question is only when, but we’re not about to answer it at least before this decade is out.
One thing is for sure: NASA and the diverse array of research projects dedicated to such a historical trip are not daunted by its challenges, be it human body limitations, psychological vulnerabilities, or even the possibility that that Roman god decides to step in on Earth first, and ruin our plans for the future.
ONE-WAY TICKET FOR COLONISTS
Besides the longer distance, there are so many differences between traveling to the moon or to Mars, as it may have seem a cross-country horseback ride in the 1800s, and to fly from New York to Paris tomorrow morning. Even if the principle would be similar, all else about it would have to be recalculated.
Nevertheless, the Netherlands-based nonprofit Mars One has jumped on the race and plans on landing a human on the planet by 2023. Last month, it published its ‘basic astronaut requirements,’ more or less a laundry list of dos and don’ts that it believes will assure the feasibility of such enterprise.
It’s asking for young, healthy, uncomplicated candidates to undergo an eight-year basic training, with one important difference compared to the early days of the space age: they won’t need to be pilots, or engineers, or have any related expertise. Just a good cheerful attitude and the necessary drive.
Oh, yes, and also be fine about not returning to Earth. Ever. That wouldn’t be too much of a problem for astronauts ‘of a certain age,’ but they needn’t to apply. So, the question remains as to what kind of young, vibrant, idealistic person would be willing to drop everything and report for duty.
After all, Mars may be appealing from a distance, but even those who moved to, say, Alaska, or joined the Foreign Legion, by comparison, most likely had the hope of one day returning to the places they’ve left behind. Not from Mars, though, not with Mars One, anyway. Which is kind of a bummer, but never mind that.
Way before reaching that conclusion, that Earth is not worth missing out such an extraordinary trip, there would be more pressing decisions to be made, and endurance tests to go through. Case in point: spending a couple of years in a contained environment, just for training purposes. That would be simply impossible to many people.
Also, since we’re talking about colonists here, there would be a huge number of survivor skills to be mastered, and an inter-disciplinary set of attributions, crucial to be absolute second nature to those who’d choose to go. So perhaps, along the way, Mars One may consider revising its requirements, after all.
STROLLING ON FIELDS OF GLASS
It wouldn’t hurt their prospects having some specialists to shore up tricky corners, where new and untested technologies would be put forth for the good of the whole crew. And there hasn’t been any mention about other psychological, sexual, ethical, moral, and even humane aspects of such a trip either.
The rewards, however, would be beyond life-changing for such daring travelers. In Mars One’s conception, all equipment necessary for the first team to survive out there would precede it, via robot crafts. New personnel would arrive every two years after that, until, supposedly, it’d come time to, well, populate Mars.
Unlike what well-known sci-fi literature has envisioned though, there are no plans, at least not initially, to create a breathable atmosphere on the Red Planet. Even though there’s some research pointing to the possibility, so-called terraforming Mars, believe us, it’s way beyond what science needs to accomplish first.
At the same time, we know exactly what to expect from such alien landscape, though. We could perfectly provide for humans living there, as long as they’d be protected from the environment. There’s, though, a so far insurmountable obstacle for our bodies out in Mars and everywhere else in space: radiation.
Even if we could compensate for the loss of bone density, which happens in thin atmosphere conditions, and other physical problems of low-gravity adaptation, there isn’t any technology to protect us from the constant bombardment of infinitesimal particles capable of going through solid steel as if it was made of fabric.
At the molecular level, the impact on the human body would be devastating, and long-term exposure to radiation would be even worse. At every conceivable test, and even in the shortest amount of time, the disruption to chemical and genetic processes of our bodies would simply kill us faster than we could defend ourselves.
THE FUTURE WE MAY BUILD
That could as well be the end of any human aspirations to travel and live outside Earth. Someday, though, we may not have a choice, so research won’t stop pushing forward. After all, half a century ago who could say that a human would survive the staggering, earth-shaking pull necessary to overcome gravity, strapped in several tons of explosives?
The history of human accomplishments, both on the ground and aiming up high, is one of leaps and jumps, often without the benefit of a parachute or even previous knowledge. The vision that we may project towards the future is one of life’s best engines, propelling our craziest desires to become at least part reality.
There will always be a portion of our dreams that will remain unfulfilled, unrealized, impossible even. But we’ve done wonders with even an small amount of courage, dare, intention, and, let’s be honest, the human innate thirst for destruction and for new starts. Perhaps there’s a reason that our next natural step in space would be on Mars.
We’ll have no problem if the only battles we must wage to get there are against our own nature, and the limitations of the human body. No small amount of research and effort towards overcoming such challenges would be wasteful. It’s crazy to think that we’d survive outside Earth. And that’s exactly why we should be imagining how that would be.
* Space Snacking
* Out There
* Martian Summer