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Boots on Martian ground – crazy or brave?

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One of the last pics taken on the Moon – December 1972. Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan, taken by astronaut Harrison Schmitt

Jacinta: Recently we attended a ‘Science in the Pub’ session, in which a group of three or four scientists/academics gives talks with Q&A on a topic of interest to the public. The topic the other day was indeed most topical, dealing with recent findings about the surface of Mars and future ventures to uncover more.

Canto: But we were most intrigued by the Q&A at the end, which was a friendly but passionate dispute about the wisdom of a ‘personned’ voyage to the Mars surface. Two of the speakers argued that we were far from ready, and possibly never would be (together with the ‘isn’t stuffing up one planet for us?’ claim) while the other suggested that we should really ‘go for it’.

Jacinta: Yes, and I was all for the more cautious approach, clapping my hands and nodding my head off at their caveats and their bemusement that such a suicide mission should be taken seriously at this stage…

Canto: And I tended to agree with you, but something the other speaker said really struck me. He compared this wild project to the Apollo mission, so daring and unlikely for its time, yet ultimately successful. And – this really caught my attention – that sixties adventure produced, in proportional terms, more PhDs in physics and engineering, in the USA and elsewhere, than has ever been experienced historically.

Jacinta: Need to fact-check that* but it’s more than plausible. So let’s look more closely at the pros and cons of this crazy idea of boots on Martian ground.

Canto: Okay, first we look at the problem of actually getting there. According to Mars One (a Dutch venture that recently went bankrupt but never mind) it takes about seven months, following the route known as the Hohmann Transfer Orbit. Now, we’ve obviously managed this trip with unpersonned vehicles, but a personned one…

Jacinta: Shit that’s a terrible word, but I suppose if ‘manned’ was once acceptable then ‘personned’ now has to be, politically.

Canto: Grin and bear it. A personned one would presumably have to be bigger and more accommodating in various ways. And of course we’ve never contemplated a return voyage for the Mars rovers…

Jacinta: But we’ve done return trips to the moon. We have the technology. But of course the journey to the moon took – what, a day or two? How are these colonists – a bus load of them perhaps? – going to endure, or survive, a months-long voyage?

Canto: We’ll get to that hopefully. First let’s look at any trip. There’s a period called a launch window, the optimum time for starting off. These periods come around every 26 months, but there are high-energy launch windows and low-energy ones, because the Mars orbit is quite eccentric, the second-most eccentric planetary orbit in the solar system. The low end requires only half the energy of the high end, and the next low-energy launch window comes round in 2033.

Jacinta: But Elon Musk says he’ll be ready to launch a humanned (is that better?) mission by 2024. He must have energy to burn.

Canto: A human mission, that’s settled. Actually Musk made that claim about a 2024 mission here in Adelaide just a few days ago. NASA is apparently keeping quiet on the issue – they’re planning a mission in the 2030s, very sensibly.

Jacinta: Or not, if you feel we’re far from ready.

Canto: Well let’s continue with the problems. The first one is radiation – not only on the planet Mars, but in deep space. We know that on the International Space Station, which is inside the protective magnetic field of the Earth, astronauts are exposed to 10 times the radiation that we have to deal with on the surface. I’m not sure if that means the ship is exposed to that radiation or the people inside it. I don’t know how radiation-proof you can make a spaceship, but I do know that exposure to these massive levels of radiation will increase risks of cancer, central nervous system damage, cardiac and circulatory problems, nausea, cataracts and no doubt much else. Presumably SpaceX is dealing with all this somehow or other. The plans seem to shift a bit, but it’s believed that they’re going to send a rocket out in 2022 (sans humans) – and presumably bring it back, so they can, inter alia, check out radiation levels inside and out.

Jacinta: The BFR, it’s called (Big Falcon Rocket). What about the astronauts that went to the Moon? Apollo 10 orbited the Moon about 30 times – that must’ve made them sick, if not from radiation. Apparently the best way to radiation-proof your ship requires adding mass, which requires using additional fuel on launch, etc.

Canto: The SpaceX launch vehicle is called Super Heavy, and that includes the upper-stage Starship, the part that makes the full trip and back, so presumably they’ve thoroughly planned for radiation effects. I do get the impression that Musk and his team are super-smart super-planners. It’s not pie-in-the-sky stuff, as Mars One seems to have been. And they have super-rich backing, I’m sure. Musk has said it’s not unlikely that some will die (just as some first-fleeters no doubt died back in 1788 – but they were only convicts, not cashed up adventurers), but I’m inclined to believe that the percentages will be low.

Jacinta: Humans appear to be more valuable these days, she said cynically.

Canto: The whole world will be watching, much more than in 1788. Anyway, another problem will be isolation. There won’t be a busload of adventurers on the first human trip. Just focusing on the SpaceX venture, they’ve got an ambitious plan to have something like a city on Mars by 2050. Again, this starts to remind me of the first fleet, and subsequent fleets. Think of Port Jackson in 1788, then think of Sydney Town thirty-something years later, with a population of 12-15 thousand. Hazardous voyages of many months’ duration, with many outbreaks of disease along the way…

Jacinta: Yeah mainly because of dodgy traders in ship supplies, disgusting treatment of convicts, cramped unsanitary conditions and the like…

Canto: So there’s no comparison. The human traffic will be a much more of a trickle, and the technology will be state-of-the-art. The proven successes of SpaceX, by the way, are what is bringing backers in. Which brings me back to isolation. It isn’t even known yet how many passengers will be on the first voyage, and they will have to get along extremely well, as they commence the incredibly arduous process of terraforming the region around their landing site – in the absence of ready food, water, and air! No lifeline to Earth. Terrifically hostile environment with massive dust storms, freezing temperatures, health issues due to low gravity and radiation…

Jacinta: It doesn’t so much sound like a problem of isolation as a problem of community and problem-solving…

Canto: Well it’s isolation from the basic stuff we need for survival and from expert treatment and procedure when things go wrong – health-care, technological fixes, raw materials and the means of transforming them and so forth…

Jacinta: Hmmm – can we look at the positives now?

Canto: Well – the food issue. The diet will have to be essentially vegetarian, based on hydroponics. They’ll be growing this stuff on the ship on the way over, presumably. Those first visitants and their followers won’t be in for a holiday – it’ll be work work work. But you can pack a lot of dehydrated stuff such as spices and sauces to taste things up. That would mean having a water supply of course, and that’s not clearly guaranteed.

Jacinta: Yeah but you’re looking at the practical life-and-death stuff. How boring haha. I’m thinking of the inspirational effect of having live human boots on the ground on another planet. I’ve read somewhere that humans could find out stuff about the planet – whether there’s actual life, what the atmosphere feels like, how actually manageable it might be to terraform the place and create a future there – thousands of times more quickly and effectively than any robot could. And in many ways I’d rather see SpaceX succeed in this than a national organisation like NASA. Okay SpaceX might be seen as quintessentially American, but Musk and his team won’t be looking at it that way I’m sure, they’ll be drawing their expertise from anyone around the globe who can contribute. One of the many things I love about science is its international collaborative character. It’s another bulwark against the petty nationalisms of Trump, Xi, Putin and co.

Canto: Okay, let’s stay healthy and watch what the future brings…







Written by stewart henderson

July 11, 2019 at 4:08 pm