Monday, March 14, 2011

One-Way Mission to Mars

About four decades ago, Elton John sang, “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids ... In fact, it’s cold as hell.”  As Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun, this statement remains true today.  So, when the first human visitors land there some decades from now, they will probably have left their kids at home on Earth – and they will probably never see them again.

I am not predicting that the first manned mission to the planet Mars will fail.  I am merely predicting that the first trip to Mars will be a one-way trip. 

The brave souls who volunteer to take on this expedition will probably do so realizing that their lives will never be the same.  No more blue and green Earth.  They will most likely live out the remainder of their lives trying to survive on the inhospitable planet, while using any extra available time to establish some kind of home base for future human visitors to make use of.

Why will the first Mars settlers never walk among us again?  It is for the same reason that sending people to Mars is such a challenging endeavour in the first place: it takes a lot of fuel.  If we send the spacecraft with the quantity of fuel it will require to eventually lift off of Mars and return towards Earth, the entire original payload will be simply too heavy.

Thus, if a manned mission to Mars is to occur before an alternative method of space travel, such as the space elevator, is implemented, the trip will be one-way.  In all likelihood, an adventure to Mars will precede the space elevator’s construction.  Therefore, NASA had better start digging through its potential list of candidates, and identify anyone that is qualified to undertake the mission, comfortable with the concept of never returning to Earth, and also mentally sane.  The list will be a short one.

The interplanetary transit will be significantly more challenging than a trip to the moon.  Because of the distance between the Earth and Mars, in the best case when they are nearest to one another (200 times greater than Earth to moon), the one-way trip would take about 6 months to complete (as compared to the 3-day trip to the moon). 

The vast majority of the 6-month journey would be spent orbiting the Sun in order to transition from the Earth’s sphere of influence to that of Mars.  This would represent the longest stay in a zero-g environment that any human to date will have endured.  Doctors continue to dream up ways in which bone-density loss can be minimized during this time.  Without any intervention, the Mars astronauts would lose bone mass at a rate of 1.5% per month; this is roughly ten times the rate experienced by post-menopausal women.

It has been said that astronauts who see the Earth from a distance, even in low Earth orbits, feel a higher appreciation for the planet.  The psychological effects of a trip to Mars would be even more profound.  Those astronauts who take on a mission to Mars would be the first to see our planet for what it truly is: a tiny blue dot.  Indeed, they would see our home planet disappear into the darkness of space.  It is unclear the degree to which an experience such as this could cause one’s mental state to be impacted.  The human brain may have trouble dealing with its new reality.

After half a year of travelling through space, and with over one hundred million km on the odometer, a very different celestial body than Earth will present itself.  Mars will appear as a tiny brown dot.

The surface gravity of Mars is about one third of that on Earth.  Just about every one of us could dunk a basketball on a ten-foot rim on Mars.  The low gravity of this planet is just one dramatic change that our astronauts will feel.  Mars is cold, dusty and windy.  If you ever complain about the weather here, don’t even think about moving there.  Fundamentally, it comes down to existing in an environment far removed from the one on which you evolved. 

Settling on a foreign planet will be the toughest task of the mission.  Man’s state of the art technologies will aid in making the physical challenges associated with settling on Mars feasible.  Still, there will be some unforeseeable challenges that the astronauts themselves will need to adapt to on the fly.  However, it is the mental challenges these pioneers will face that cannot be understated.

The first in the Mars science fiction series by Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars, published in 1993, documents the first manned mission to Mars.  Appropriately, the first third of the novel focuses on the careful selection of the astronauts, with a psychologist’s evaluation of the mental profiles of each castaway.  Not only did each member of the group require a high degree of mental toughness, but the dynamics of the group also required in-depth analysis.  The fictional mission is set in the year 2026.  Considering the current slow pace of government-funded space initiatives, the real flight will probably be a decade later than this.

To prepare for the psychological trauma of the non-fictional trip, a focus group of six brave volunteers entered an isolated chamber on the outskirts of Moscow for a 520-day stay.  The Mars500 study began in June of last year, and is now roughly half complete.  The study is modeled as a return trip, which to me appears unrealistic, but I digress.  The majority of the “crew’s” time is spent in isolation in realistically small quarters emulating a space vessel.  The midpoint of the study has the faux-astronauts experiencing 30 days outside their vessel, on a simulated Mars.  I wonder how Moscow residents feel about having their landscape compared to that of the red planet.

As with most long term engineering projects, there are numerous facets to a mission to Mars that must be studied.  The fact that psychological effects are currently being documented is encouraging for those of us that would like to see this mission begin sooner than later.  I remain optimistic that the historic journey will occur at some point in the coming decades.

In the words of Canadian Astronaut, Robert Thirsk, “I believe that the Mars astronauts are alive today.  They are probably in elementary school.”  


Serge said...

One solution would not be to send cargo trips to Mars with fuel in advance of the human mission to Mars?

Moreover, if we could produce energy with materials already present on Mars it would help as well. No idea if that could be feasible though.

The Engineer said...

The first option could be possible if multiple unmanned probes did the job. But, orchestrating multiple Mars landings is not cost effective.
The second option would be ideal, but we would need better knowledge of Mars' surface composition.