Mars Aint Easy; The Challenge of Sending Humans to The Red Planet

On November 26, 2018, NASA achieved another millstone with successfully completing the landing of the InSight Rover. To date, NASA and the United States are the only agency and country to land on the fourth planet from the sun. This latest accomplishment is no doubt exciting and a prime example of what could be called real American Exceptionalism in our commitment to accomplish such amazing feats of exploration. However, I don’t know about you but I again have been reminded of my restlessness for a human mission to Mars. There is no doubt that we live in exciting times with Elon Musk’s SpaceX ploughing ahead for the Red Planet and NASA’s commitment to hopefully send astronauts there in the 2030s, but in times like these I can’t help but ponder, just why has this mission not happened already? What are the challenges of such an expedition that have kept us grounded to Earth orbit for decades? Looking back, ever since the last Apollo Mission when Gene Cernan became the last astronaut to walk on the lunar surface, we have eagerly anticipated our next challenge; Mars. Vouching for the next significant accomplishment in space exploration, we as space fanatics, have been waiting for the voyage that many say will be the greatest adventure in human history. Yet here we are today, in 2018, almost half a millennium after the last Apollo and still, humans have not touched down upon Mars. Ask any individual growing up in the 60’s or 70’s and they almost surely would answer that they thought we would have been to Mars by now. Maybe even had a permanent base on it’s surface.

So, what has happened? Has NASA truly become stagnant and paralyzed by the tragedies and failures of the Shuttle missions? Do we not have the money to pursue such an expedition? Do we not possess the skill and drive that got us to land on the moon? Well as it turns out, it’s a combination of all those things and more. Simply put and to quote Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C, “Mars is hard.”

One of the primary technical problems that comes with the mission to Mars, is the procedure of landing on the Martian surface. I assume it doesn’t surprise many that since Mars has such a thin atmosphere, that landing a heavy payload manned space craft on the surface of the red planet requires different mathematics than landing on Earth (1). Yes we’ve landed plenty of rovers (and again, super psyched for NASA on landing InSight) but the robotic rover’s lighter weight compensates for the difficulties (still not easy). Without the friction that comes with a denser atmosphere like our Earth, it would be difficult to slow down the landing vehicle with a crew of astronauts and all the supplies they would need and avoid smashing against the surface (1). Elon Musk knows of this problem quite well when he publicly stated he is willing to go and die on Mars but “just not on impact.” Other factors that will affect a safe or disastrous landing include the weather (enormous dust storms), the season, latitude and even time of day all must be accounted for when the day of the landing finally arrives (1). 8 million metrics tons of carbon dioxide enter and leave Mars’ atmosphere seasonally and this will drastically effect landing conditions (1). Until researchers can successfully model these atmospheric conditions, it is difficult to gauge the best time, place and atmospheric state for a team of brave astronauts to touch down.

As it probably isn’t hard for most to imagine, politics have played a large role in NASA’s seemingly snail’s pace in attempting to move humans beyond Earth orbit. Since NASA is a government agency, its goals are determined by the executive branch of the US government and unfortunately not every president has supported NASA fully. With different agendas, economic problems and global conflicts occurring, each of the 12 presidential administrations since NASA’s creation has had different priorities. At the end of Nixon’s administration for example, NASA’s budget went from being 4% of the federal budget to barely 1% (4). Thus, the rest of the Apollo missions were abruptly, cancelled. It has been hard for the agency to make steady progress on preparing and building for the Mars mission when one administration will come to office and set the goal to prepare to Mars and the next administration will cancel the project and set a different goal. In the early 2000s, President Bush the younger established the goal to return to the moon first and then the Red Planet and in consequence NASA established the Constellation program. Then the program was cancelled a few years later by the Obama Administration which set a new goal and focus for NASA; just Mars. Under these guidelines, NASA’s Journey to Mars program got underway in 2010 preparing to send Humans to Mars by the 2030’s (4). Now with Donald Trump in office, I bet you can guess what happened. Yep, change of plans, AGAIN. Scrapping Journey To Mars, the Trump administration has realigned the priorities from, just Mars, to the moon first and then Mars. Of course, it is not like with each changing of the goals of each administration that NASA has to completely start over again. Old projects and progress aren’t entirely lost, they are just made to fit and redesigned to meet the new ones. But without the consistent full support of our government, it has been difficult and will most likely continue to be difficult for NASA by itself, to send humans into deep space.

The price of building the right aeronautical vehicle to get us to and back from Mars is another frustrating issue when it comes to this mission. And how would such a craft, capable of withstanding the hazards of deep space and providing adequate refuge for our crew of astronauts be built? While NASA is entertaining its SLS (Space Launch System) and Orion spacecraft (a prototype left over from the Bush era) to take us into the depths of deep space, private companies are coming up with their own designs as well. SpaceX, the private company led by real life iron man, Elon Musk is perhaps leading the field in terms of designing the mission and setting a timeline to get it done. Currently he is shooting for 2024 as the year SpaceX will send Astronauts to Mars (6). Musk, like everybody else knows that we’re going to need a big fucking rocket to make the mission possible. So, he and SpaceX engineers have gotten to work on a prototype, dubbed ‘BFR.’ Yep, Musk is building on his already successful Falcon rocket that is being used to transport supplies to the ISS and has envisioned the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) or simply “Big Fucking Rocket.” In order to build such a durable and advanced interplanetary vehicle, SpaceX plans on building it out of carbon fiber deposits, which hold the potential to be stronger than steel or aluminum (5). More importantly the BFR will be a reusable rocket which will drastically reduce the cost that goes along with traveling to space. The BFR will consist of two parts: A 180 ft. tall space ship stacked on top of a 230 ft. tall Rocket, making it taller than the Saturn V rocket of the Apollo era (5). The project is quite ambitious but given the tenacity of Musk and drive of the engineers at SpaceX, which went from being an ankle biter in the aerospace industry, to a real player that NASA is investing in, it may ultimately be the private sector that propels the first crewed mission to Mars.

By far and large however, the biggest hurdles this mission must overcome is not the technical aspect but revolves around the direct health risks to the astronaut crew that traveling in deep space involves. How can we deliver a 4-6 manned team to mars and bring them all back in one piece? Maintaining the psychological and physical health of the crew even inside a soundly built ship, is arguably what will make or break the expedition. It is clear, Astronauts are going to need nerves of steel in order to combat the isolation, potential claustrophobia and other mental, emotional and physical trying situations that they no doubt will have to experience. In deep space, the astronauts will be exposed to extreme levels of cosmic radiation and the effects from the exposure alone could be absolutely deadly. Studies on rodents have shown that cosmic radiation causes brain inflammation and neurological-cognitive deficits that may be permanent (2). What an awful situation it would be if the crew arrived at mars and had no idea where they were. Worse even, it can potentially cause blindness. The dose of cosmic rays in deep space is so high, that the Apollo astronauts experienced bright and vivid light flashes when they closed their eyes. Suffice to say, one knows that these rays are potentially dangerous since they are producing biological affects that are personally felt and seen. Some retired astronauts have already developed early cataracts, which should be added that their time in space was much shorter than the time that Mars astronauts will spend on their deep space expedition.

To put in perspective the real challenge that space radiation poses to our Mars Astronauts, consider these facts: mSv is the measure of the biological effects of radiation on an human body. On earth, we are on average, exposed to 2.4mSv of radiation. On the International Space station, astronauts are exposed to 200 mSv and on a deep space mission to Mars the level of exposure will be 600 mSv (3). The current conclusion from these numbers is that astronauts will have a 30% chance of developing terminal cancer during their mission to the Red Planet (3). Unsettling to say the least. Possible solutions to this issue, is building more formidable shielding on our spacecraft to reduce exposure or developing highly fortified safe rooms toward the center of the ship that the crew can retreat to.

Besides the radiation astronauts will have to deal with the physical effects of living in different gravity fields during the mission. On their six-month journey to Mars, they will be in a weightless environment that we know from ISS astronauts, causes a slow progression of bone loss and puts pressure on the retina of the eyes. On Mars, they will have to adjust to a world with about 1/3 of Earth’s gravity, furthering possible muscle atrophy, bone loss and more. Put simply, the human body was made to live on and evolved on Earth with Earth’s gravity. It makes sense that in the foreign environments of space and other planets, nasty things start to happen to our bodies. After astronauts have returned to earth, readjusting back to Earth’s gravity could prove problematic and since we don’t know the extent at which the human body will be affected by living in Mars gravity, coming back might even be deadly. Potential solutions include strenuous exercise which is unfortunately more of a treatment and not a cure, and then there is artificial gravity. Figuring out a way to conjure an artificial gravity system is by far and away the silver bullet to this problem. It will prevent bone loss and the other issues that compound the longer one lives in microgravity. Interestingly enough, Elon Musk, who’s SpaceX very well might be the first to go to Mars, had an eye brow raising response to a question from a space journalist after giving a speech on his company’s plan to go to Mars at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2016. The question, asking how Musk plans on keeping humans safe from space radiation and regarding life support systems, Musk was pretty bland and responded, “the radiation thing is not too big of a deal” (7). Quite a strange response given Musk’s notoriety of knowing every nook and cranny regarding  the other challenges of aerospace engineering. It is possible that he and his engineers have made several breakthroughs on this problem and just haven’t revealed it yet. I hope for the sake of the mission, that that is indeed the case.

Going to Mars will be the greatest adventure and expedition in the history of humanity. Setting up a permanent base in prelude to building a colony would fundamentally change the course for our civilization. But the scope of the challenges we have in achieving this goal are lofty and truly no joke. Why haven’t we gone to Mars yet? Well it’s not a simple answer but it can be summed up in three words; Mars ain’t easy.

 

 

1.) https://science.howstuffworks.com/landing-on-mars5.htm

2.) https://www.nature.com/articles/srep34774

3.) http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zctgq6f#zwy8tfr

4.) https://www.businessinsider.com/why-nasa-has-not-sent-humans-to-mars-2018-2

5.) https://www.businessinsider.com/spacex-big-falcon-spaceship-construction-musk-mars-missions-2018-9

6.) https://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-spacex-mars-city-terrible-idea-2017-11

7.) “The Space Barons” ‘Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and The Quest to Colonize the Cosmos.’ Christian Davenport. Pg. 244.

 

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