Are We Ready to Be Martians Yet?

Humans last set foot on another celestial object in 1972 when the Apollo 17 mission to the Moon was undertaken. Since then, we’ve only been in space around the Earth and that’s pretty much it.
NASA AA2 test flight 1 photo
Photo: NASA/Tony Gray and Kevin O’Connell
But there are highly ambitious plans to take humans to the closest planet, Mars, and this is definitely something that should get you excited since it will be humanity’s biggest technological achievement ever.

But why haven’t we even set foot on the Moon in four decades? Well, it’s been said that there is no longer an incentive to put people on the Moon, because it’s been intensely studied (albeit from afar and using satellites and probes) and the necessary social and political context is no longer in place.

In other words, sending people to the Moon was America’s way of showing off its technological prowess during the Cold War. By the standards of the time, it was a huge effort to get it done and during the 1960s, NASA was receiving around 4.5 percent of the entire federal budget (roughly ten times more than it gets today). It also had a clear direction to aim for, whereas now, each new president that arrives in the White House seems to want to change priorities.

For instance, during Barack Obama administration, NASA was asked to prioritize putting astronauts on a near-Earth asteroid, but this came at the expense of the Constellation Program (whose goals were to put people back on the Moon and eventually get them to Mars too) that was supported by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. Now that Donald Trump is in office, the direction has been changed yet again, to something along the lines of the original Constellation Program (getting people back on the Moon and eventually on the surface of Mars).

NASA’s current stated goal is to get humans in Mars’ orbit by the 2030s and maybe have them actually land on its surface by the end of that decade. But since there doesn’t seem to be a clearly defined path, a clear time frame for when the firsts boots will touch the Red Planet’s surface cannot be established.

Basically, the plan is to first have the LOP-G space station up and running on its lunar orbit. This small orbital station will be used as the actual starting point of the mission to Mars. Many of the systems and tools that are to be used on Mars will first be tested on the Moon to ensure they. LOP-G will also be the first space station to orbit outside the Earth’s protective magnetic field (the one that shields us from harmful cosmic and solar radiation) and it is vital to gauge this radiation’s effect on the human body.

Mars is at a minimum of 54.6-million km (34-million miles) away from Earth, but this distance increases to 401-million km (249-million miles); the average distance between the two planets is around 225-million km (139-million miles). The crewed mission to Mars would set off at the exact time when the distance is the shortest, but even so it would take an estimated 9 months for a one-way trip (with current propulsion tech). In this time, the astronauts on board would be bombarded with radiation and its effect on the human body needs to first be understood before the mission gets the green light.

The 9 months needed to reach Mars could be cut if more advanced propulsion technology becomes available. In fact, the speed that the spacecraft carrying the pioneering astronauts is one of the mission’s main limiting factors, since just keeping the crew alive for the duration of the two-way trip is arduous.

High hopes have been placed on new propulsion tech developed by NASA, such as its ion thruster which requires far less propellant than conventional chemical solutions. It’s been already proven to work, but the current model only produces 5.4 Nm of thrust, and even if there’s no resistance in space, that’s by no means enough thrust for the Mars mission.

Getting astronauts to the surface of Mars is a monumental task in and of itself, but it’s only part of the challenge. Once the astronauts would reach Mars, they’d have to wait for around 500 days before they could return; the return trip would take the same 9 months. The length of the mission poses serious problems and scientists are still looking to solve them right now.

First is the problem of bringing enough breathable gases along for the trip. One solution would obviously be to bring enough for the entire mission from Earth, but since one of the engineers’ main goals is to keep weight as low as possible for the spacecraft and lander, this doesn’t seem extremely plausible.

One solution proposed has been to send the entire supply of breathable air before the astronauts arrive there as part of a separate uncrewed mission. Another is to bring some gases from Earth and then try to extract what little oxygen there is on Mars (both from its atmosphere which is 95 percent carbon dioxide, or more likely from water frozen under its surface).

Water for the astronauts’ daily needs will be extracted from the Martian soil by heating it until what little water there is will evaporate and will be captured as vapor. Naturally, much of the water used by people during the mission will be recycled since it is far easier to recycle it than to extract more of it from the ground.

Oxygen needed to create breathable air could also be obtained from splitting water molecules, although this requires a lot of energy to achieve and it wouldn’t be the optimal way to go about making it.

Regarding astronauts’ need for food, their diet will consist of fresh food they will grow themselves on the Martian surface. Growing plants on Mars shouldn’t be an issue since the Martian soil is not devoid of nutrients and the carbon dioxide that plants need is plentiful in the Martian atmosphere. Sealed and packed food from Earth would also be an option, but this type of sustenance would only really be used in emergency situations.

Basically, NASA has a rough idea of what it wants to do and how it wants to proceed, but the fine details regarding how it’s going to get people to Mars, keep them alive for the trip there, on the surface of the Red Planet and then on the return trip are still being analyzed. The problem is not necessarily technology - because the mission could be achieved with our current tech level - it’s more about maintaining a consistent direction. Not changing it as has been the case with each of the last U.S. presidents, who once elected cut funding for the projects their predecessors were supporting.

In other words, yes, we are ready to do it. We have the know-how (which will further evolve by the time the mission is slated to commence) but we need NASA to more seriously commit to achieving it. Sure, there are challenges, and overcoming them will require us to come up with new solutions - but the biggest challenge is probably getting the public on-board and supporting the idea.

That was the case with the Apollo space program that put man on the Moon. Had it not been for the overwhelming public support, that edged everybody involved to make it happen, there is a high likelihood that we, to this day, would not have set foot on our moon. Public support is key and if that box gets ticked, then one of the biggest hurdles will have been overcome.
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