Is a Mars Mission Feasible?

In an interview late in his life, Carl Sagan speculated on the number of reasons humans would want to colonize Mars. “I don’t know why you’re on Mars,” he said. “Maybe you’re there because we recognize we have to carefully move small asteroids around to avert the possibility of one impacting the Earth . . . maybe we’re on Mars because we recognize that if there are human communities on many different worlds, the chances of us being rendered extinct by some catastrophe on one world is much less. Or maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there, that the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Or maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process.”

In theory, everybody wants to go to Mars, at least in the sense that it remains the aspirational goal of nearly everyone interested in space travel to send humans to Mars and possibly establish a colony. Even Apollo astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins want us to do it. At one point, the president apparently offered NASA an unlimited budget with the mandate that they stop everything else they’re doing and focus entirely on Mars. The consensus (and an obvious conclusion) is that we won’t get to Mars during this presidency, but it’s not clear the president knows that. Whether he knows it or not, his administration is compromising by encouraging stepped-up “lunar missions seen as vital steps toward sending Americans to Mars by 2033.” Congress apparently wishes the administration was moving even  faster to Mars, and the U.S. House of Representatives has continued to pressure the administration to prioritize Mars over more Moon landings.

Numerous private sector forces also give us reason to be optimistic. Those companies will need massive government funding, though. They often operate at fairly marginal profit lines, particularly when they’re developing cutting edge technology with high development and production costs. Making the jump from Earth-based demonstrations to the feasibility of replication on other planets is a huge leap of faith that private investors are unlikely to want to take on their own. 

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said last year that he did not “rule out a first human mission to Mars as soon as 2033.” He pointed out that NASA is working on such a plan based on already-existing (or near development) technologies used to get to the Moon, and it’s that assumption that the technology can be transposed that is responsible for the otherwise audacious speculation that we could actually get to Mars in 13 years. Less optimistic analysis says such a mission could not be conducted before 2037, but for those of us watching from home, a four-year difference in projections seems like splitting hairs. More rovers are planned in order to collect soil samples from Mars to aid in planning human settlements there. 

But the naysayers — and there are many — say that, at present, too many feasibility issues exist. These include cost (which is more of a political question) and technological capacity. The cost has to be looked at as a function not only of the distance to Mars (and thus the need to pack tremendous amounts of supplies for both the journey and the stay), but also of the cost of each individual piece of the project.  “A trip to Mars would take six to eight months each way, plus the time it would take astronauts to explore the planet when they get there,” according to experts. Other consultants point to the high cost of transporting things from Earth to Mars, in the magnitude of $1.5 million per pound of instruments, robots, food, etc. 

Then there’s the dangers found in both the journey to and the “settlement” of the planet. As George Dvorsky at Gizmodo writes, “a Martian colony would be miserable, with people forced to live in artificially lit underground bases, or in thickly protected surface stations with severely minimized access to the outdoors” — a recipe for sickness, depression and other dysfunction. Mars has no magnetic field, thin air, and therefore major vulnerability to radiation

On the question of radiation, NASA appears to want answers sooner rather than later. The agency is sending radiation sensors on its upcoming lunar launch tests to track exposure levels, which can help scientists calculate the amount of radiation in the much longer journey to Mars. We already know that there would be a lot of radiation exposure on the trip a lot there and back, and that any travelers would be sitting ducks — fried ducks, even — on the planet. Being there would be dangerous unless one were so well-shielded that their body wouldn’t be in contact with anything Martian or human. At that point, why not only explore it virtually? 

Orbital missions may have to suffice — assuming the radiation of the journey can be mitigated. Perhaps the orbital station could serve as an interim mission allowing very short trips to the surface, probes to both Martian moons, and more. 

Several years ago, Bethany L Ehlmann, Professor of Planetary Science at the California Institute of Technology, wrote a feasibility study and CBA on a Mars mission. Ehlmann concluded that the mission would be economically feasible, that technology could be developed to overcome the radiation risks to travellers, and that ultimately such a decision is “political” rather than scientific. That may very well be; as with so much of what we take to be “natural,” feasibility is in the eye of the beholder and is a question of what we are willing to prioritize in terms of economics and human resources. But given the political and economic playing field as it currently exists, we could not presently get to Mars (at least get to the surface long enough to establish a semi-decent base camp) without cutting some dangerous corners. 

Until then, whenever “then” is — and meaning whenever we make the political decision that the comprehensive mission is feasible — we will likely keep stepping tantalizingly closer. We already know it isn’t impossible. In many people’s minds, that means it’s inevitable. 

 

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