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.

References

MS in US – A Crude and Interesting Process!

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This is a very interesting topic of which the information is often garbled by misinformed people. Doing an MS in US is not child’s play. The effort involved is huge and if you do not follow the procedures well, you might end up messing the whole thing. My personal advice to anyone aspiring to do an MS or Ph.D in US would be to create a backup plan. Please understand that US is not the end of the world. There are other countries that give you the same type of education and standards. For instance you can opt for Great Britain, Europe, Canada and Australia in addition to applying  to US. I am telling you this because getting a visa to go to US for your education is a horrendous procedure and there is absolutely no guarantee that you would be successful.

I also suggest that you approach a proper overseas consultancy that offers training and guidance in all the procedures involved. A word of caution that I would like to give at this moment is that the overseas consultancy that you choose would help you with all the processes up until your admission in the university. They are totally useless in your visa interview at the American Consulate. Hence, make sure that you do you homework and make your own informed choices based on the information available online and from your friends.

The process of going to US for MS can be divided in the following steps:

  1. Program of study
  2. Institute and department
  3. GRE and TOEFL
  4. The Paperwork
  5. Visa

Let me explain each one in detail:

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1. Choosing the program of study – This is very tricky for most students. They do not know as to what they really need as a branch of study. In America, it is possible to become an engineer even if your undergraduate is in medical science. I personally know someone who did his undergraduate in Agricultural Engineering and is currently doing his Ph.D in Neurobiology. So, it is definitely possible. There are many reasons why you chose a particular branch of study in your undergraduate. You might have chosen to become an engineer just because your parents wanted you to do it. Or you might have done the same because your friends chose it and you were under peer pressure. Let it be any reason, American education will fix all that and you have opportunities to change the silly mistakes that you did as an undergraduate student. Mind you, your life is not to be wasted doing things that you do not like. It is for you to realize your own goals and aspirations.

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2. Choosing the right institute and department – I have heard students ask, “I have 55% in my B.Tech, can I apply in MIT?” This is ridiculous. MIT, Caltech, Princeton, UCLA, Purdue, UTexas etc are beyond the reach of average students. Most people who study in these institutions have been in prestigious institutions in their undergraduate such as IIT’, NIT, BITS etc. Or they might be exceptionally good in their academics. So, do not waste your time in applying to these institutes. Grad Schools and Happy Schools Blog and sites similar to these will give you sufficient information regarding how to choose an institute that matches your taste. Something I know from personal experience is to choose the universities that have a good distance/online learning option. I am telling you this because if you do not get through the US visa process, you still have an option to study from here and then apply for visa at a later time.

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3. GRE and TOEFL – These are two essential components of your graduate admission. You ought to take this no matter what. There might be institutions that do not require GRE or TOEFL scores but you might have a tough time getting through the visa interview since they ask all sorts of questions if you have not taken your GRE or TOEFL score. The GRE Subject Test is not required in 90% of the institutes but if you are wise enough, you can take that also to be on the safer side. But my advice is not to waste your time on that since there are plenty of universities in US that do not require the subject test.

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4. The paperwork involved – This part is interesting since no one realizes the amount of paperwork involved in the process. You should put in paper each and every aspect of your application process. Just as you do your online work, so should you do the paperwork. It is very important to have both online and hard copies of all your documents. Let me give a brief account of all the paperwork that you have to go through:

  • GRE and TOEFL scores –  They send you the paper format of your scores. Keep them ready. In addition, they send the paper format of the scores to the universities that you have chosen. Make sure that you send them.
  • Your SOP (Statement of Purpose) –  This is also known as Statement of Objectives. Either way, this is an important aspect of getting your admission in any institute. You should write down in paper as to why exactly you want to choose a particular college and course. You should write down your interests, what you have done so far to that field and what you will be doing after you have finished the program. This needs to be more objective than passionate. However, you can add your emotions here than there to show certain level of passion.
  • Your SOR (Statement of Research Interests) – This is for students applying for Ph.D. You should let them know why exactly are you doing a Ph.D and what exactly is your area of research interest. You don’t want to go to America or any other country without an idea in mind as to which part of which subject you want to research. The professors also look for this because they might have some project in hand an will be looking out for people who can work for them. If you can find a research problem, then even better since you can put that in your research proposal.
  • Academic resume  – This is another tricky part. You might have seen job resumes several times. This is slightly different. You can convert your job resume into an academic resume if you know where to change. Your objective should be to get admission and not to get a job. Further, you have to put your academic profile before your job profile so that the professors and the department heads can see them first.
  • Official Transcripts – I am sure almost all of you have your degree certificate, your provisional certificate and your mark sheets of your  undergraduate performance ready.  But that is not enough. You need to get something called the “official transcript”. It is created by the university you studied and can be either given in your hand or sent to your chosen American university depending on where you studied. Either way, make sure that you keep a photostat copy of your mark sheets since you have to submit them at the time of application of transcripts. If you can get it in your hand, you can send it to the US university through courier. Or you can arrange for the university to sent it. This is important because they need to understand your strong and weak points. This will particularly help you at the time of funding since the professors need to know in which area you can work and which one you cannot. It doesn’t matter if you had backlogs. No one really cares about it if your overall undergraduate score is above First Class.
  • Affidavit of Support – This is a letter from a notary or any other gazetted officer. This will show on a stamp paper that your parents or whoever is sponsoring you for the education is capable enough to support you. It is basically a legal document that can convince the university that you are not going to seek unauthorized employment in USA during or after your studies and that you intend to return to your home country after you are done with your MS program.
  • Bank statement – The universities are not actually looking for a step by step bank statement of your past 6 months’ transactions. If you can get a letter from the chief manager of your bank that you and your parents have sufficient savings in your accounts to support your studies, it is more than enough. But, you are always welcome to take your 6 months’ statement with you for your visa interview.
  • Application Receipt – This is the receipt of the application that you made to the university. I know that you get an online copy of the application receipt in your email and also that the university is well aware of your application. Nevertheless, it is important as a standard office practice. If you don’t understand what I mean, please check with your parents who have been in office and paperwork for decades. We have been brought up in computers and hence we don’t understand the value of paperwork. So, make sure that you print out your application receipt as well as application fee receipt.
  • Recommendation Letters – This is yet another important aspect of your application. Though most universities require only 2 recommendation letters, my advice is to produce 3. You can get one from your principal, one from your HOD and one from your lecturer. That will create a 3-tier effect to your application. While preparing your recommendation letter, try to limit it to just two paragraphs. Also do not use superlatives like, “he has been the best”, “she was one of the most brilliant” etc in the letter. Keep the language moderate and professional. Your faculty will anyway tell you the corrections that you need to make.
  • Photostat copy of your mark sheets, certificates, GRE and TOEFL scores  –  Despite sending your official transcript, you should also send the photostat copy of your mark sheets and your undergraduate certificates. This is for quick reference since the GRE score, TOEFL score and official transcripts reach the university at different times. They need to match them with your application ID. So having a photostat copy of these documents is worthwhile.
  • Covering letter – This is included in the package that you send to your  university. This letter will summarize all the documents that I have described above. You should mention that though you are sending the photostat copies of your mark sheets, certificates, GRE and TOEFL scores, you have sent the originals of the same separately. You should also give the list of documents included in the package that you are sending so that they can look for it if something is missing in the package or inform you about the same.
  • The package

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    This is a brown paper envelope of sufficient size that can hold all your documents without bending. Instead of writing the address of your department, I suggest that you print out the recipient’s address on a paper and paste it on the envelope. This is much better than letting people decipher your handwriting. Your package must also include the photostat copy of your passport and your recent passport size photographs (3 of them). Now, try to courier it rather than using registered or speed post. Courier will help you track the shipment all the way to the university online.

    Getting your visa

    I am not going to talk much about this part. All I can say is that it is a horrendous nightmare. As mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, you should apply in multiple countries other than USA. I am not very positive about you or anyone else getting through the US visa interview process. If you do, you might be one of the lucky people who made through. Make use of information available online regarding the visa interview processes and try to get through. Create a backup plan just in case things don’t come out the way you wished them to be. Be confident and answer questions promptly. Give them a feeling that you are a genuine candidate but do not let them feel that you are desperate in going to US.

    Scholarship

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    Please do not think that scholarship is for the most brilliant students. Even if you are an average student, you have chances of getting funded. It all depends on the availability of projects with the professor and your good luck. Every professor seeks funding from various agencies for projects related to his/her areas of expertise. He/she would certainly need people to work to get the project running. So in most cases, you can get a GRA (Graduate Research Assistantship) or a GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistantship). Again, I would like to repeat what I told in the beginning. Do not choose big shot universities. Try smaller ones since you have better chances of getting scholarships there. Also, once you have made your application, fix an appointment and try calling the professors. Talk to them and let them know your interests. Do not be surprised if you hear 99 nos and 1 yes because that 1 yes is what will get you what you want. Further, do not be picky in your research areas in the beginning. Have a general idea about things. You always can choose  your favorite subjects at later points of time.

    Miscellaneous

    The miscellaneous items that you need to learn are software skills. You ought to know programming in Matlab, Autocad, Astrogator etc in order to survive MS in any country. Especially if you are funded, you will be expected to write programs that simulate various scenarios. Also you should be good in math and data analysis. No matter how dry these subjects sound, you ought to get them in your head. Join social networking pages of the universities and connect to students who are studying or have studied in your chosen university and get to know more.

    I think I have pretty much covered everything that is required. I will devote separate, elaborate posts on each of the aspects I have mentioned in here in due time. If you have any questions or suggestions, do let me know. All the best!