This week’s entry: Human Mission To Mars
What it’s about: Our nearest planetary neighbor has long been a source of fascination, from fears of a Martian invasion, to dreams of a Martian empire, to a supposed curse that affects both space programs and Hollywood. But ever since mankind walked on the moon (allegedly), we’ve had our sights on the next-closest target (only 142 times further away, which probably explains all the failed missions). While numerous probes have been sent to Mars, with more in development, landing a human being on another planet would be a triumph of human ingenuity.
Strangest fact: The most realistic Mars mission might be a one-way trip. A so-called “Mars To Stay” mission would eliminate the problems of toting enough fuel for a return trip all the way to Mars, and building a lander that could lift off from the Martian surface. Instead, the lander would be a permanent habitation, capable of providing food, water, and oxygen to its inhabitants. Future missions would build onto the initial Mars base, until we had a thriving colony—perhaps one that could mine fuel for a return trip years down the line. One of the loudest advocates of a one-way mission is Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who argues that the expense and resources of a Mars trip warrant more than a brief stay, and that “those who are on board should think of themselves as pioneers. Like the Pilgrims who came to the New World or the families who headed to the Wild West, they should not plan on coming back home.”
Biggest controversy: In May of 2012, a Dutch non-profit called Mars One began soliciting funding and volunteers for an ambitious, privately funded project to establish a permanent human colony on Mars within 15 years. Some of the cost of the mission would be recouped by an ongoing television documentary chronicling the journey. Scientists, engineers, and even NASA itself have criticized the plan as unfeasible, with some going so far as to suggest it’s a scam to separate donors from their money. Even Muslim leaders in the United Arab Emirates condemned Mars One, insisting that for any would-be astronaut, putting themselves in Mars One’s hands would be suicide, which is forbidden by Islam.
Thing we were happiest to learn: There are plenty of plans underway. NASA has considered no fewer than six different ways to get to Mars just during President Obama’s time in office. (The president himself predicted a Mars landing by the mid-2030s, in a 2010 speech that committed the U.S. to explore asteroids in the 2020s, and the red planet the following decade. The Russian, Chinese, and European space agencies also collaborated on the Mars 500 experiment, which put a group of scientists in close quarters for 500 days to study the psychological effects of a possible Mars mission by one or more of those agencies. China’s Eleventh Five-Year Plan includes plans to send unmanned missions to Mars over the next 15 to 20 years, and then send astronauts to Mars and back in the ’40s and ’50s.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: We still have a few technological hurdles to clear. Because Mars’ atmosphere is so thin, it’s impossible for a heavy ship to parachute to the surface, and retro rockets would make the ship even heavier. For a round trip mission, a rocket would have to be landed on the surface delicately enough that it could take off again. There are also the challenges of keeping astronauts healthy and alive in unprecedented exposure to low- or zero-gravity and cosmic radiation, not to mention the psychological issues resulting from extended periods of near-isolation for a small number of astronauts.
Also noteworthy: In 2014, NASA and a company called Techshot began developing small biodomes that would use cyanobacteria and algae to produce oxygen in Martian soil. In theory, small devices could be sent to Mars as a test, and if they worked, larger devices could start making oxygen in advance for a future Mars mission.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: While Mars is the likeliest next step in our travels through the solar system, plans have been proposed to colonize more or less every place short of the surface of the sun. Colonization of Mars discusses more long-term plans than the particulars of a manned mission, and links to pages discussing plans to colonize Mercury (most of the planet is unbearably hot, but the poles can get below freezing), Venus (the surface is much too hot, but we could live in an Empire Strikes Back-style cloud city!), the moon, the Lagrange points (where Earth and lunar gravity perfectly balance), Mars’ moons, Jupiter’s four largest moons, Saturn’s largest moon, Uranus, Neptune, dwarf planets, and the asteroid belt.
Further down the wormhole: Our fascination with traveling to Mars has been captured on film many times, from this year’s The Martian, to 1964’s fantastical Robinson Crusoe On Mars, to 2001’s far more scientifically accurate John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars. But the red planet’s best-loved star turn may be Total Recall, Paul Verhoeven’s reworking of a Philip K. Dick story. The film is considered a high point in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career, and at the time was one of the most expensive films ever made. We’ll look at the rest of that auspicious list next week.