Sending humans to Mars: Nice idea, but fraught with risks

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

A three-day conference in Washington, D.C., this week brought together nearly 500 scientists, entrepreneurs and NASA officials to take a hard look at sending humans to Mars. While many embrace the idea and are even willing to give their lives to it, others are a little more cautious.

The National Institute of Aerospace hosted the Humans2Mars conference to bring together experts in all aspects of planetary exploration, space flight and human performance to identify the realistic steps needed to move forward with what many consider the next "giant leap" in human exploration.

Even Buzz Aldrin, who made the first landing on the moon with Neil Armstrong, was there with his vision of a trip to our planetary neighbour.

Interestingly, the biggest push to get footprints on the red sands of Mars is not coming from NASA, the only agency to put humans on another world. The impetus is coming mostly from the private sector. And they think they can pull it off.

Denis Tito, the first private space tourist, who paid $20 million for a week on the International Space Station, is now supporting a Mars fly-around mission called Inspiration Mars. Launching in 2018, two people will spend 501 days in a small habitat to travel all the way out to Mars, come within 160 km of its surface, swing around the back side of the planet and use the gravity of Mars to slingshot themselves back to Earth. This mission would not involve a landing, which might be a little frustrating for the crew after traveling all that way and coming so close.

It would be the planetary equivalent of Apollo 8, the very first mission to the moon, where astronauts went into orbit around the moon, took the famous Earthrise picture and returned home without landing on the surface.
The Mars One Mission is a one-way trip for a small group of colonists who would live out the rest of their lives on another world. Thousands have already signed up, and the mission would be paid for by a reality television series, documenting the entire process, starting in 2024.

Billionaire Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX, the company that builds low-cost rockets and currently has a supply ship docked to the International Space Station, believes he can build a huge colony on Mars in the near future. He would even provide the transportation on his Falcon 9 Heavy rocket at $500,000 per seat.

Of course, NASA has been talking about sending astronauts to Mars for decades, but they are restricted by budget cuts and are currently focused on building their own heavy-lift rocket and a mission to capture an asteroid. They don't see a Mars mission until 2030 or so.

In the past, the biggest obstacle has been developing the technology to leave the Earth, make a soft landing on another planet and survive on the surface. Now, that technology exists. It's just a matter of paying for it, and there seem to be entrepreneurs out there who believe they can get to Mars much cheaper than the traditional government-contractor route.

The big issue now is life, both human and Martian.

Spending a year and a half confined to a small space with only one other person, just to get to Mars and back, is a huge psychological challenge. It has been suggested that an older married couple make the first trip because they know how to get along with each other and resolve conflicts. Whether they would still be married at the end of the journey is another question.

Interplanetary travel is also physically unhealthy, due to exposure to solar and cosmic radiation. Instruments on robots that have been to Mars have shown that outside the Earth's protective magnetic field, astronauts would be exposed to more radiation on the way to Mars than is currently allowed by safety guidelines on Earth. Once on the surface, they would be exposed to even more radiation because that planet has a very thin atmosphere and extremely weak magnetic field. A younger crew could have their reproductive systems damaged by the exposure.

Then, there is contamination of Mars itself. We still don't know whether there is or ever has been life on Mars, and if it is similar to our own. Robots that are sent to Mars are sterilized at high temperatures, then sealed in capsules before launch to prevent earthly microbes from reaching Mars. But people tromping around on the surface, living in colonies and driving around in vehicles would contaminate the planet. Of course, that wouldn't be the first time explorers have brought infection to native communities.

Worse still, Martian microbes could infect the humans in ways our immune systems might not recognize, or alien infections could be brought back to Earth by returning astronauts.

These are just some of the issues - along with availability of resources on Mars, local water supplies and emergency contingencies - that need to be examined before humans make the next "small step" on another world.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't go. Just trying to get to another planet stimulates the development of new technologies, as well as a better understanding of other worlds, our own planet and the limits of human ability. Those are pretty lofty goals. Then again, as poet Robert Browning suggested, our reach should exceed our grasp.