This is a guest article by Anna Sekścińska, a high school biology and chemistry student from Gdansk, Poland.
Not long after reaching the Moon in 1969, humanity started thinking about another big step in space journey. Mars seems to be the most natural choice, not only because it is the closest one. Over the years space exploration continues, though almost half of the century after Apollo 11 mission, there are still no humans on Mars. Putting a flag on another planet would be a great achievement and opportunity for further developing; so many agencies are working on their own programmes. Nobody said reaching planets is easy, but what exactly stop us from going to Mars?
First of all, many problems start with distance. The shortest distance between Earth and Mars is 56 million km, 140 times more than from Earth to the Moon. Estimated duration of the voyage is seven months. During that time, astronauts will have to stay tuned, keep contact with Earth, and prepare for the landing. According to NASA, return to Earth might be involved with producing fuel and oxygen needed to its mileage, on Mars; using nuclear or solar energy.
“How exactly can we get on Mars?” is a question that may come to your head. There are many problems to overcome. Landing on Mars is much more challenging than landing on the Moon. Mars has stronger gravity and atmosphere that can cause overheating. Potential space vehicle would weigh at least 20 tons, though according to SpaceX, it is figured out. There are more than fifty possible places of landing, most of them around the equator and in scientifically interesting locations. Then we have to think about surviving on the Red Planet, which is not a hospitable place. NASA is testing a structure that can recycle air, water and wastes, which would help astronauts before they make a long-term shelter. Taking building materials would be difficult and costly, so one of the possible solutions is using Mars’ soil to build bunkers. Astronauts will also need proper dungarees, vehicles for exploration and many other tools.
Another major issue involves influence of space travel on astronauts. “I think one of the most challenging parts for the journey to Mars in terms of the humans and not necessarily the technology to get there is the risk of radiation exposure, and the in-flight consequences of the exposure to radiation, as well as the long-term health consequences of exposure.” says Lisa Simonsen, Space Radiation Element Scientist. Despite protection from the radiation, astronauts will need food supplies for the whole journey. At some points they also have to be prepared for doing repairs and maintenance in space. We must also remember about people’s physical and mental condition during the mission and afterwards. Lack of gravity for so long causes a lot of anomalies. In zero gravity a person loses 1% of bone mass every month. All fluids in the body go up to the face and sometimes press on eyes, which affects vision. Not to mention how that kind of experience can affect mental stability. Some simulations have been conducted, for example four volunteers agreed to spend a month, isolated from the outside world, though every simulation has its borders, and even the best one cannot convey the feelings of actual mission.
It is also important to mention costs of hypothetical mission and it is not only about money. Apollo missions cost US about 140 billion dollars. Plan created during George W. Bush presidency mentioned total costs of 450 billion dollars, when NASA’s annual budget for manned missions is 9 billion dollars. During the Space Race, NASA got 4% of federal budget, today it is 0.5% and many people do not want to change that because taxpayers want this 3.5% destined to different investments. Developing of the project could possibly be sped up if several agencies engage in “a race to Mars”, though there are no signs of this happening soon. Another kind of cost, significantly less discussed, is cost of human lives. During Apollo missions, many people died in many kinds of accidents and during Mars mission every mistake made during practice, experiments or actual journey, can cost another lives.
When asked about purpose of reaching Mars, Dava Newman, Former Deputy Administrator in NASA answered ”Why are we going? We are going to look for any signs of the history of life. Mars and Earth are sister planets – 4.5 billion years old each. […]Whatever we find out about Mars will tell us about life here on Earth.” Another point, presented by SpaceX, is possibility of future colony or even developing civilization on Mars, which may one day become the start of next big step in space exploration.
Coming back to Earth and current situation, reaching Mars is definitely a controversial and often discussed subject, though it still needs a lot of effort and list of problems is much longer than this article. We need to remember that it is not only about money and technology. It is also about the risk we are ready to take, consequences we can accept and what meaning does it have for us.