Mars One – Aren’t We Going Too Fast?

Mars One is perhaps the hottest news in the aerospace and astrophysics fields. It gives hope to our species as a next step in becoming in a multi-planet civilization. This highly ambitious project of landing groups of brave men and women on the red planet does however have its fair share of critics some of whom include researchers at MIT and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. So I am curious to ask. Aren’t we going too fast with this project? Is 2024 the right time for human settlement in Mars?

Lessons from the Past

Every space mission prior to this have had several trial runs. For example the lunar missions involved first sending an orbiter around the moon followed by impactors/landers. While America went onto send humans to the moon the Soviet Union did unmanned sample returns. So it is clear that space missions to any celestial body should be done in stages.

NASA and other space agencies including India and Japan have achieved orbiting and landing capabilities on other celestial bodies. Therefore unmanned missions to Mars with the capability of returning samples from Mars in my opinion should be the next stage. Russia in 2011 attempted the Fobos-Grunt which was a sample return mission to the satellite of Mars called Phobos. The failure of the mission to even leave the Earth orbit proves how difficult it would be to pull off ambitious space programs.

When we talk about Mars missions, most of us only look at the success stories. We must all take a look at the number of Mars missions by both America and the Soviet Union which failed.

The Challenges

The challenges involved in long term spaceflight are quite different compared to missions to Earth orbit or even to the Moon. The biggest challenge is communication. Calculations show that the time delay for radio signals between Earth and Mars can vary from 3 minutes to up to 22 minutes depending on the position of the two planets at any given time. This makes all sorts of “real time” communication known to us useless. It is possible to have a web server orbiting around Mars that periodically synchronizes with servers on Earth. That way a copy of the world wide web can be provided for the astronauts in Mars. Emails can also be taken care with this solution.

However, the early astronauts going to Mars are not going there to use YouTube and Facebook. Their mission can go critical anytime and the time delay between the two planets will make a distress call an impossibility. Further, even if distress call does reach Earth, there is no way a rescue team can be sent and by the time a communication is sent back, the mishap could have already occurred.

This brings us to the second challenge – training. What type of training can equip a person to handle critical situations in an alien environment with no hope of getting help? Can the team be divided in qualifications or should every team member have all the qualifications. I remember one of my previous professors who said that a degree in medical sciences is important for every astronauts going to Mars despite their work. So dual degree specializations like engineering + medicine or physics + medicine should in his opinion become part of learning curriculum for astronauts to Mars. The justification he gave was that no crew would want to be in a situation where their only doctor is dead.

But is medicine the only compulsory specialization? How about instrumentation? Shouldn’t the astronauts who wishes to colonize Mars be masters in instrumentation? Teaching every crew member in everything will increase the cost and not teaching would be risky. So there is a tradeoff between cost and risk. According to Mars One website, the crew will undergo training starting this year until 2024. That is a total of 9 years training. It would be amazing if the crew does survive that training.

The Return

Some candidates selected for Mars One have told that many English people migrated to Australia and never returned. That may be true, but if they really want to return to England they can do that tomorrow. Christopher Columbus did return to Spain after his voyage to the West Indies. Vasco da Gama did return to Portugal after his voyage to India.

I am not being paranoid but let me give a scenario. Like in many science fiction movies, what if there is a life form on Mars that we haven’t yet found? What if this life form infects humans in negative ways? In such scenarios, the uninfected/unaffected crew members must have an option to escape the planet.

There is a difference between being brave and being foolhardy. A mission to Mars is amazing. But it shouldn’t be a suicide mission and definitely not a one-way trip. Even if the intention is to colonize the planet the crew members should have a chance to return home if the mission fails. And when it comes to Mars missions, the past teaches us that failure is part and parcel of it.

The Right Method

With all the problems described above, going to Mars is certainly the most risky and the most costly exploration program ever conceived. As Dr. Tyson already pointed out, private companies aren’t interested in investing in an endeavor with so many unknown parameters and huge risk. According to him this can cause Mars One to fail to get funding.

Should we then abandon the mission? Of course not! We are explorers by nature. Mars One or any other similar missions should never be abandoned. However, there must be some tweaks done to the existing methodology. As I said before, it should be done in stages. The following is a rough sketch of what can be done.

  • Sample Return – All space agencies in the world including the private ones should at least try one unmanned mission that involves going to Mars, taking samples and returning them to Earth. The more such missions we try, the better equipped we will become in preparing for a human spaceflight. This will also teach us about landing and take off with heavy payload on Mars.
  • Manned Orbiter Missions – It is a good idea to send a manned orbiter mission around Mars. Astronauts can spend a few orbits around the planet and return. This will simulate all the necessary physiological and psychological aspects in deep space missions. simulate long term manned spaceflight by send humans in an orbit around the Sun.
  • Space Stations – Orbiting space stations around Mars is a solution to the safety and return problem. The backup crew can live in the space station while the landing party conducts their business. Further, the landing party can come aboard the space station for the backup crew to go down. This will ensure better efficiency. In addition, during distress, the entire mission is not at risk. Perhaps a secondary landing party can be deployed to investigate problems. At least there will be one person to come back and tell the story.
  • Data Banks – Huge data banks with information crafted by specialists from around the world should form the primary reference of the astronauts in addition to the internet facility that I mentioned before. Every possible scenario involving medicine, engineering, planetary geology, biotechnology etc. that the astronauts might find themselves in should be thought out and the solutions must be given. It may take months, years or even decades to develop. But it needs to be done nevertheless.

Conclusion

Though a huge fan of Mars missions, I think we as a species are still not equipped with the technological prowess to pull off a manned trip like Mars One. I certainly believe that we are going too fast with the Mars One mission. 2024 is only 9 years away and we still haven’t fully understood the effects of long term manned space missions in deep space. The only data we have are from long term space station missions and the psychological impacts on the astronauts and cosmonauts who spend a long time in space are not that good. A well planned and well coordinated effort is the way to go. There is no need to rush. There is no space race between any superpowers these days.

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