It’s the start of a new decade! And as we enter the 2020s, “futurologists” and others are popping up, sharing their predictions for the technologies and events we can look forward to in the 2020s. One prediction that has cropped up on a number of lists is that we – and by “we” I mean humankind – will land at least one manned mission on Mars before the close of the decade.
Except… haven’t we been here before? Every decade since the 1980s we’ve been promised the same thing, both by people who try to make a living predicting the future and by governments and space agencies themselves. So why hasn’t it happened?
Money is of course a factor. NASA has seen its budget cut dramatically in the last few years, particularly by the Obama administration in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. When citizens are living on food stamps and unable to afford basic necessities like healthcare, it seems more than a little obscene to spend vast sums of taxpayers’ money – their money – on space exploration. Space exploration is seen by many as the ultimate luxury for a government, and is one of the first projects on the chopping block when financial savings need to be made.
The space shuttle programme is also a factor, and that ties into the financial issues mentioned above. The space shuttle was designed to be reusable – largely to help NASA cut costs. And overall that’s a positive thing, because it meant more manned space missions were possible during the shuttle’s lifespan. But the shuttle also stifled technological growth in the space industry. Because there was a reliable, reusable vessel to get humans and cargo into orbit, there was no need for a long time to upgrade it or design new spacecraft, and crucially, successive governments could get away with saying “no” when NASA wanted to undertake those projects, using the excuse that they already had a perfectly serviceable fleet of spaceships, so why pay to build new ones? Many people have said how the space shuttle’s limited cargo capacity has, in many ways, constrained the development of satellite technology by forcing practically every major satellite project during the shuttle era to fit certain size and weight requirements. But the shuttle also, in very real ways, slowed down the development of other spacecraft and other space technologies – including those that would have been required to get mankind to Mars in every decade since the 1980s.
Only six months ago we passed the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing. And sadly, within a couple of years we’ll pass the fiftieth anniversary of the last manned moon landing too. In my lifetime, no human being has stood on the moon or even left Earth’s orbit, yet that would have seemed completely incomprehensible to people in the late ’60s and early ’70s when space exploration was reaching its peak. Back then, the idea that we’d have gone on to Mars and elsewhere seemed an absolute certainty.
So there are definitely practical considerations from here on Earth – both financial and political – as to why a manned Mars mission hasn’t yet happened. But there are other issues at play too, and unfortunately they may mean that Mars by 2030 just isn’t possible.
The longest ever human spaceflight (achieved by Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov in the early 1990s) is one year and two-and-a-half months, or 438 days. A mission to Mars, assuming the best possible launch window, would take at least nine months each way, plus a mission on the surface of three months or so, for an absolute minimum duration of 635 days – almost 50% longer than any other previous human spaceflight. And unlike a spaceflight to low Earth orbit, there’d be no prospect of resupplying a ship once it had left on its mission.
A human could absolutely survive for that long in space; there’s nothing to suggest that 438 days is the maximum a human body can last under those conditions. But the problem is that it isn’t just a case of being in space.
When astronauts return to Earth even after relatively short missions in low gravity, it can take weeks or months to adjust to being in gravity again. The reason astronauts are carried from their landing sites when they get back to Earth instead of walking is usually because they physically can’t, especially after months in space. When the Apollo astronauts went to the moon this wasn’t as much of an issue for two reasons – the moon’s gravity is about 17% of Earth’s gravity, and the amount of time they spent in space was only a few days. A mission to Mars gets neither of these advantages, meaning the first humans to land on the red planet after a nine-month-long flight might not even be able to stand up when they touched down.
Mars’ gravity is much stronger than the moon’s, at around 38% of that of Earth. And as we have already covered, the travel time to get there is measured in months, not days.
There’s also the logistics of creating a spacecraft that is capable of getting to Mars, existing as a home base for astronauts while they’re there, and is capable of getting home again. It would need to be a huge vessel – capable of housing the astronauts both in space and while on Mars, and carrying enough fuel and supplies to complete a mission of that duration. Remember that the International Space Station, as well as previous long-stay space stations in Earth’s orbit, were always able to be resupplied, even on short notice. That obviously isn’t possible for a Mars mission, meaning that any spacecraft headed there would have to be entirely self-sufficient.
Realistically that means a crew far larger than the three-person Apollo missions, as there would need to be specialist engineers on hand with the technical knowledge to perform repairs to any part or system of the ship, as well as at least two pilots who could make independent adjustments to the vessel’s trajectory as needed. The ship would also need a dedicated medical facility – and at least one doctor. That would be in addition to the scientists and geologists and microbiologists that would be at the core of the work the mission wanted to undertake. And each additional person requires extra food, water, and air, adding to the weight and size of the vessel, which in turn would need more powerful engines and more fuel.
Then there’s the problem of cabin fever, and the issues humans have when living and working in close proximity with one another for prolonged periods of time. On a Mars mission, there’d be no escape from your colleagues, and no privacy. When experiments have been conducted, putting a group of people in total isolation for a year or more, issues almost always emerge. One famous study that aimed to look at the effect of a long-term Mars mission ended with the “crew” having split into two factions that weren’t even on speaking terms. During the moon missions, real-time two-way communication was possible, albeit with a short delay. On a Mars mission, the distances involved mean that communication would only be possible in the form of recorded messages, and real-time conversations both with the space agency and with their friends and family wouldn’t be possible for the crew – further adding to their isolation.
The duration of the flight also causes another issue – dangerous levels of radiation. On Earth, and even in low orbit, Earth’s magnetosphere shields us from what would otherwise be fatal levels of solar and other cosmic radiation. After leaving the protection of this magnetic field, astronauts would be exposed to much higher levels of radiation than is safe, meaning any spacecraft has to find a way to offer protection from that. And while it’s accepted that the Apollo spacecraft were suitable for the short duration to the moon and back, a spacecraft built to similar specifications would not be good enough for a months-long mission outside of Earth’s protective magnetosphere.
Then there’s the concern of Martian microorganisms. One of the main reasons we want to go to Mars is to find out if it supports life – but what if it does? It wouldn’t be possible to create a sterile environment on the Martian surface for astronauts to live in, at least not without making the landing vehicle/home base significantly larger and more complex. So if there are microorganisms present, either fully alive or in some kind of suspended state, what would be the effect of interacting with them?
This was a concern for the Apollo missions, too, and there’s a famous photo of President Nixon with the Apollo 11 crew – while they’re standing at the window of an isolation chamber to keep them quarantined. The risk of contamination is significant, and exposing a human to what is literally an alien microbe could be harmful or even fatal. And while living on the surface of Mars for literally months, it would be very difficult to prevent that kind of contamination, if there’s anything of that nature on the surface at least.
So the question I have is this – is a manned mission to Mars genuinely practically achievable with our current level of technology?
It seems to me that we’re missing some key pieces.
The first is some form of artificial gravity, both for the spacecraft and to use while on the planet’s surface. There are some great theoretical means of generating artificial gravity, but none have yet been realised. And unfortunately many of our attempts in this area are hampered by a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of gravity itself – we simply don’t know exactly why gravity works the way it does, even though we’re fairly clear on the how.
Secondly, we really need a faster method of propulsion than we currently have. Partly this is to keep astronauts safe from both radiation exposure and the effects of low gravity, but also it’s a practical concern to prevent astronauts succumbing to cabin fever and avoiding the issues that can develop from living and working in close quarters. If the time to fly between Earth and Mars could be cut even in half, that would be a great first step.
Finally, we need to be able to build a spacecraft larger and more powerful than any we’ve ever constructed. It needs to be large enough to hold its crew, all of their consumables, and have the ability to land and take off from the surface of Mars. Taking off from Mars is an issue in itself – with Martian gravity being a significant hurdle. The spacecraft would need to be able to exist as a home base for astronauts while on the surface, and be shielded from dust storms known to plague the planet. The engineering task of building such a vehicle is enormous.
With all of the issues above taken into account, are we really on course to land on Mars in the 2020s? It’s not impossible, and there are some incredibly clever and outright brilliant people working on achieving precisely this feat. But until the ship is built and the astronauts are suited up and sitting on the launchpad ready to go, I’m going to remain sceptical. We’ve been here before, and previous promises of Mars missions have come to naught. There are huge issues that still need to be tackled to make it a reality, and while it’s definitely possible we’ll get there before 2030, I’m just not convinced yet that it’s a certainty.
Fingers crossed, though!
This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.