Mars: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
These days it seems everyone is talking about Mars: from Matt Damon’s harrowing adventure in The Martian to Elon Musk’s constant talk of wanting to “die on mars, just not on impact,” our culture is obsessed with the Red Planet. At times it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. So let’s take a moment to step back and look at the current status of the strenuous, beautiful, and complicated relationship between us and our next door neighbor.
This time we’re going to take a look at all the ugly details that make going to Mars incredibly difficult. These are problems that are not easily solvable in the near future, even if we were to throw money at the project the way the United States did in the 60s. They’re problems that are not necessarily specific to Mars itself, but to space - and all the ways it tries to kill us.
The idea of starting with the ugly parts is that we can only go up from here, so don’t let this section get you down. The fact is, space is hard; and there’s a few things even we humans can’t conquer. For starters, you can’t go to Mars whenever you want. Unlike our trusty Moon, Mars orbits the sun at a completely different rate than Earth - one Mars year is 1.88 Earth years. This means that there are only certain windows in which going to Mars makes sense; i.e., it costs the least amount of energy. As anyone who has seen The Martian knows, these occur about once every two years. Once the window passes, that’s it. It’s like catching a bus - once you miss it, there’s nothing to do but wait fifteen minutes for the next one. For those who advocate the construction of an entire Martian infrastructure, with fueling depots, orbiting stations, and bases on the Martian moons, this poses a significant problem. Imagine a construction site where you can only receive supplies every two years, and any problem with a single shipment means waiting an additional two years. Even for a single manned round trip this would mean that any terrestrial help is more than two years away - far too long for anyone but Mark Watney to make it out alive.
Aside from the launch window, going to Mars also poses significant health risks we have yet to solve. Weightlessness is not kind to the human body. Astronauts on the International Space Station usually grow between one and two inches during their time in orbit, along with developing puffy faces as fluid in their bodies redistributes. This strains the heart greatly. In addition, most astronauts lose between one and two percent of bone mass per month, and their muscles waste away in the zero-G environment of space. For astronauts returning from the International Space Station, these effects are annoying, yet not critical - upon returning to Earth, they receive immediate medical attention to prevent them from injuring themselves until they are strong again. For Mars explorers, however, this is not an option. Anyone arriving on Mars will most likely have been in space for at least a year already. They may not be able to perform the necessary tasks to keep themselves alive on the Red Planet or accomplish the goals of the mission - a dangerous state to be in when you’re 225 million miles from home.
In addition to being physically weak, astronauts may also arrive on Mars a bit dumber or even sick. The culprit? Radiation. Often overlooked, radiation is one of the greatest challenges to human exploration beyond the Moon. Interplanetary space is rife with all kinds of harmful radiation, most importantly high energy cosmic rays. NASA predicts that any round trip mission to Mars would expose astronauts to at least 0.66 sieverts of radiation. For perspective, the agency currently restricts career radiation to one sievert. This is a problem that will plague human exploration of our solar system for a long time to come. Near Jupiter, for example, radiation is so bad as to even damage unmanned probes. Unfortunately, there is currently no clear solution to keeping future human explorers safe from harmful radiation, and many of the ideas being proposed today are simply too heavy or clunky to get into space.
Solving these problems is no easy task; some may even be unsolvable, something we must instead learn to live with or work around. Luckily, these issues have not deterred the thousands of people who are working day in and day out to grant humanity a chance to escape our terrestrial home. As we will see in the next two sections, there is good reason to be optimistic - sprinkled, of course, with just the right amount of skepticism.