Mars or Bust, Scientists Call for Suicide Mission Volunteers!
Has NASA really put out a call for people who want to volunteer for a one way mission to Mars? Well, not yet, but two scientists did float the idea to test the waters so to speak. And it turns out, which shouldn’t be too surprising, that there are indeed people who would volunteer for a one way mission to Mars. Hell, theres been times in my life when I would have considered it … now is not one of them. So why are space scientists bringing this up? Well, the USA and NASA (not to mention other nations) are starting to think about sending people to Mars and possibly an asteroid or two. These are basically the next logical targets for human exploration. (Venus and Mercury are closer, but there’s nowhere to land on Venus, and Mercury has a variety of nasty complications.) And the bottom line is, unlike 1950s scifi movies, missions to Mars especially are effectively one way missions.
There’s two reasons for this. The first is that getting people back from Mars is a huge problem, much harder than getting them there in the first place. It means sending enormous amounts of fuel on the trip for one thing, and even if that is worked around, it means a huge expensive return vehicle has to be somehow brought along. And secondly, since the mission is going to last for years in any event, and all sorts of things could foul up a return mission, mission planning has to include the possibility that the return ship may not work. And when it comes right down to it, it makes a lot more sense to use your payloads sent to Mars to contain every possible thing to make long term survival possible.
Basically in some very real senses we are getting back into the age of exploration again. When Columbus and his ilk set sail, they knew that they might be gone for years and planned accordingly. And missions to Mars are the same. It will take six months to get there, and once people are there I think it’s a good part of a year or longer before the planets are aligned for a trip back. Might as well plan for the long haul, it will increase the chances of the mission succeeding. Sound crazy? It’s not, bear me out. This is pure speculation on my part how this could happen, colonizing Mars, here’s my plan:
1. Three likely sites on Mars are chosen, two rovers are sent to each site, and two communications/weather satellites are orbited. (All in pairs of two to hopefully avoid the failure of a single item crippling the mission.) The best site is chosen, access to water and a large cave are the main requirements we are looking for. Water for obvious reasons and a cave to shelter from solar radiation and small meteorites.
2. The most likely looking site is chosen. At least one robotic supply ship is landed at the site. To both add to the supply pool when the colonists arrive, and to make sure the robotic supply ships actually work. If possible, robotic ships could also be landed that started to collect water, and possibly even start stockpiling rocket fuel. (With water and solar power, water can be split into oxygen and hydrogen, a fine rocket fuel.)
3. Then the colonists arrive. With proper planning even if somehow they lose all of their equipment in the landing, for example by landing too far away from the chosen colony site, they can still survive if they can get to the pre-supplied colony site.
4. And then they settle in for the long haul. Presumably supply ships from Earth will still periodically arrive, including more colonists if all is going well. Presumably at some point rocket fuel can be manufactured from local water. And sometime down the road, maybe even decades later, ships for those who want to return would be feasible.
Crazy? Not at all, humans have done the same thing all the time throughout history. Risky? Absolutely. The biggest risk is that human biology might be incompatible with living on Mars, the low gravity being the biggest worry. It’s only 38% Earth normal. That might be enough, especially with exercise and maybe even sleeping in high G centrifuges, to avoid the eventually crippling bone loss and weakness that long term exposure to weightlessness brings. Might be. It’s also possible that this plan will result in the Mars colonists getting ever weaker and finally dying despite our best efforts. Well, if we’re gonna colonize other planets, that’s a risk we’re going to have to take. There are plenty of people who would be glad to take it, humans are an amazingly diverse and curious lot.
So, would the gentle reader volunteer for a trip to Mars, knowing that at best it would be ten years or longer before a return was possible, and no guarantee that it would ever be possible?
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s from an episode of a show that truly impressed me as a young lad, for its time it was wonderful creepy scifi. Kudos if anyone recognizes it.)