Visit or settle: a one-way trip to Mars

Would any space agency really send astronauts to die millions of miles from Earth?

Mars featured image

A lot of people are thinking about Mars right now. The public soaked up Mark Whatney’s adventure in The Martian, NASA is making breakthrough scientific discoveries with its rovers, and multiple space agencies are planning future robotic missions. Some of these missions are seen as stepping stones towards a far greater goal: to bring humans to the red planet.

We’re still a long way from landing humans on Mars but the ball is rolling. NASA are spending several billion dollars every year in their “Journey to Mars” programme that aims to land humans on an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by 2030. Other nations have stated their ambitions for the red planet but the biggest player could come from the private sector. Elon Musk’s SpaceX aims to send their robotic Dragon capsule to Mars in 2018 with a long-term goal of bringing humans to Mars on future missions.

Image: NASA

A successful human mission to Mars might involve multiple nations and cooperation between public and private teams. Intentions for human missions have been stated by the European Space Agency, Russia, India, Japan, and China. Think what could be achieved if they all worked together. NASA has already announced their support of the SpaceX mission to Mars in 2018.

The Dragon spacecraft is already successfully ferrying crew and cargo to the International Space Station but landing on Mars will be much more difficult. Landing humans there will be among the greatest technical achievements of all time and it will cost an absurd amount of money. NASA’s programme alone is expected to cost over $500 billion. With NASA’s programme already facing cuts, any ideas that can save money will improve the likelihood of astronauts on Mars within our lifetime. One idea that could make missions easier isn’t popular because it’s wildly controversial.

Another home

The technical challenges of a Mars mission are great and numerous. A major one is distance. Mars can be 250 million miles away at its furthest from the Earth but sometimes comes within 30-40 million miles of us. That’s why SpaceX is aiming for a 2018 mission since Mars will be about 35 million miles away. The average distance is around 140 million miles. So it’s tough to get there at all, no matter what you intend to do once you’re there. Getting back again is even harder as it would be difficult to launch from the surface of Mars and get back into space. It’s hard enough launching from Earth.

But what we do once we’re there is something to think about. The short-term goal is to land astronauts on Mars, let them conduct scientific experiments, then bring them home. The long-term goal is to set up habitats, colonise the planet, and eventually terraform it and thus become a 2-planet species. Our population is increasing, we want to explore beyond the Earth, and we don’t know how long our own planet will be habitable. From climate change to asteroid impacts, there are plenty of good reasons to consider settling in on Mars.

Image: OffWorld Designs

So it’s worth considering but it’s a long way away, it costs a lot of money, and it will be extremely difficult to bring people to Mars. It’s harder the more people you send because of the extra fuel and resources it requires. All of this is tough but we’re only talking about getting the astronauts to Mars in the first place. Bringing them back again makes everything even more difficult. However, there is an idea that could make all of this easier: don’t bring them back.

One-way trip

It takes fuel to move astronauts through space, food and oxygen to keep them alive, and years spent in a little spacecraft to get them from planet to planet. By making the first human mission to Mars a one-way trip, many of these logistical problems could be halved. This would undeniably be easier in terms of space travel but the new problem is how to stay alive on Mars. Last November, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden stated that 2030 was still the goal for landing humans and that robots could be sent first to dig out an underground base that would protect astronauts from environmental dangers. Clearly long-term survival on Mars is something the space agencies are already thinking about.

Image: NASA Ames Research Center

Dutch company Mars One have claimed they could perform a one-way trip and have accepted applications for astronauts but their mission design appears to be infeasible. The main reason the mission is unrealistic is due to the limitations of current technology. Mars One will not happen, so sorry if you already applied. But assuming that human missions do become realistic in the next few decades, could we actually send people never to return?

Mars to stay

The long-term goal is to colonise Mars, so why not start straight away? That’s the argument made by proponents of “Mars to stay” missions. To eventually build cities and terraform the planet, we have to start somewhere so why not with one-way missions that will also make them cheaper in the short-term? These aren’t necessarily suicide missions where astronauts roam around doing science for a few days then die for a noble cause. Proponents suggest that the first missions create settlements for permanent habitation on Mars. Perhaps older astronauts would be favoured if they were willing to retire several hundred million miles away.

The idea of colonising Mars is very old and has become a staple of science fiction. The first serious proposal during the space age came from George Herbert in 1996 but there have been many proponents throughout the years including Buzz Aldrin. The arguments are always similar: getting humans off Mars is the hardest part of a human mission. If the first mission is a settlement rather than a visit, this hurdle is overcome.

Other common themes involve robots preparing tunnels and caves, eventual creation of biospheres, future missions increasing the Mars population, and genetic engineering to ensure the health of settlers and their children. NASA is already studying how to grow potatoes on Mars like Mark Whatney in The Martian. We can already land rovers on Mars so it wouldn’t be too difficult to send additional medical supplies and improved technologies from Earth to sustain the Martian population.

Image: 20th Century Fox via giphy.com

Is it even possible?

Building robots to create shelters on Mars? Technically possible. Getting humans to Mars? Technically possible. Growing food there? Technically possible. But surviving there for good? The jury is out. Mars lost its protective magnetic field long ago, allowing solar winds to strip away its atmosphere. Astronauts on the surface of Mars would face radiation levels much higher than we do on Earth.

Current astronauts floating in buckets face radiation and zero-gravity that we know takes its toll. For example, cancer rates are marginally higher for astronauts. But what about astronauts once they’re on Mars and in underground bases? We won’t know until we send missions there to evaluate the possibilities.

While the radiation is rightly seen by many as an argument against long-term survival on the red planet, it doesn’t put off proponents of one-way missions. Astronauts travelling to Mars and returning would have to spend so much time there and in space that the radiation damage could be unavoidable. Theoretical physicists and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss argued, “If the radiation problems cannot be adequately resolved then the longevity of astronauts signing up for a Mars trip would be severely compromised in any case. As cruel as it may sound, the astronauts would probably best use their remaining time living and working on Mars rather than dying at home.”

Would anyone want to go?

One-way missions of exploration aren’t new. We have a history is riddled with colonisation and the settling of new worlds without the expectation of returning home. In some ways a one-way mission to Mars would be no different. But the psychological toll of leaving Earth for good could put people off. After all, nobody has ever really been hundreds of millions of miles from their home planet before so we don’t know how difficult it would be. But it seems a mission like this wouldn’t be short of volunteers according to Lawrence Krauss. “One of my peers in Arizona recently accompanied a group of scientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on a geological survey. He asked how many would be willing to go on a one-way mission into space. Every member of the group raised their hand.”

It’s going to be incredibly difficult and time-consuming to get humans to Mars at all, so maybe we should make the most of it by opting for one-way missions. On the other hand, would any space organisation willingly send astronauts to die on a mission? The private Mars One claimed it would send the public to die on Mars but has proven itself to be mostly fiction.

Perhaps the best idea would be a compromise of sorts. The need to start living on Mars doesn’t necessarily require suicide missions. Astronauts could land on Mars and stay long-term but as a “tour of duty”, where they return to Earth after a number of years on the red planet. New teams could replace old teams and we would get the benefits of permanent habitation without the need for anyone dying there. Once a Mars base is advanced enough, perhaps older astronauts could choose for themselves whether to return or retire on Mars.

Naturally it’s a controversial topic and many people are outright against sending astronauts to die off-world. But it isn’t just about saving money; it’s about making the advances we need if we are to explore Mars properly and make use of its resources. The immediate benefits would be scientific but the long-term benefits could literally save our species. So it’s worth considering at the very least.


Main image: Össterreichisches Weltraum Forum

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