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Since ancient times, man has been fascinated by the red planet who bears the name of the Roman god of war. With the advent of space exploration in the late 1950s and the successful Moon landings of the Apollo missions, man dreamed about venturing further out in space. Looking at our two neighboring planets, as Venus is a hot acid bath, Mars was naturally envisaged as the next big goal of space exploration.
Past Mars Plans
The first non-fiction scientific work about a Mars mission was elaborated by Wernher von Braun, the renowned former Nazi rocket engineer who after the war worked for the US army and further on became the director of NASA's Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
In 1952, he published Das Marsprojekt, in which he worked out the technical aspects of a mission to Mars. The plan envisaged a crew of 70 on ten 4,000 ton ships to be assembled in Earth orbit. For the touchdown, von Braun had foreseen a winged vehicle as at the time Mars was assumed to have a thicker atmosphere.
In the late 1950s, around the time NASA was established, US engineers envisaged nuclear propulsion for space travel. Compared to chemical propulsion nuclear rockets would allow for much greater payloads and potentially be suited for interplanetary missions. Yet Project Orion never made it past ground testing over concerns about nuclear fallout. The Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 eventually put to end to nuclear rockets.
Planetary Joint Action Group
Even before landing on the moon, NASA had formed the Planetary Joint Action Group to study piloted interplanetary missions. In 1966 there had been plans for a piloted Mars flyby of a crew of four to take place around 1976.
Yet the times were not propitious. In 1965, the Mariner 4 probe had sent back home the first close-up pictures of the Martian surface: a huge disappointment to all those who had had high hopes of finding indications for some sort of life on the red planet. Furthermore, the burden of the Vietnam War and racial social unrest at home prompted members of Congress to focus more on earthly matters, and funding was declined.
Having been ahead in the space race early on, the Soviets wanted to regain the initiative after the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Under the TMK project (Tyazhely Mezhplanetny Korabl or Heavy Interplanetary Spacecraft) the Soviet space agency had contemplated sending a crew of three on a three-year-long Mars flyby mission in 1971. On close approach, the crew would have dropped a remote-controlled lander to the Martian surface.
But the Russian N1 rocket never flew. After four launch failures, the whole project had to be abandoned.
Space Exploration Initiative (SEI)
In 1989, on the anniversary of the first Moon landing, President George H.W. Bush launched what came to be known as the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). Plans envisaged the construction of a space station, a permanent Moon base and ultimately sending astronauts to Mars. Ideally, the first crewed landing was envisaged for 2019 to coincide with the 50thanniversary of Apollo 11. Yet the whopping estimated budget of 450 billion alarmed members of congress and SEI did not go ahead.
After President Bush's plan had been ditched two aerospace engineers, Robert Zubrin and David Baker, in 1991 came up with a much nimbler and less cost burdensome proposal: Mars Direct. The project foresaw a robotic precursor mission assembling fuel for the return trip using Martian resources, thereby decidedly reducing the payload to launch from Earth. Zubrin considered all the required technology basically already available and initially had set 1999 as a feasible launch date.
Although the project did not get the green light from NASA, some of its elements are still under consideration: for instance, NASA's Mars rover 2020 will make experiments designed to make fuel and oxygen from Martian resources.
Zubrin later established the Mars Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the human exploration and settlement of the red planet.
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In 2013, a small private Dutch organization briefly came in the headlines when it launched a global astronaut selection contest for a one-way only mission to Mars. While not an aerospace company, Mars One's founder Bas Lansdorp claimed the aerospace market could already provide all the necessary equipment for a simplified Mars mission that got rid of the return trip. Funding was supposed to be provided mainly by broadcasting rights and selling of merchandise.
While the mission concept got rid of the return trip, it would have been complicated by the obligation to care for the volunteer Mars settlers for the rest of their lives. Initially Mars One had envisaged the departure of the first crew in 2022. But then the schedule had to be repeatedly postponed until the organization finally went bankrupt in 2019 without having gone into any serious planing. For its almost total lack of expertise, Mars One has also been dubbed a suicide mission or even outright scam.
Challenges to Overcome
- cosmic rays
- long mission duration (1-3 years)
- communication time delay (8-40 minutes)
- psychological stress
- landing heavy payload
- reliability of life-support systems
- distant supplies
- harsh environment
Mars is far away, hard to get there and it costs an awful lot of money. At the time of the Apollo missions, NASA's budget reached almost 4.5% of the federal budget, while nowadays the agency gets a puny 0.5%. At the time of the cold war, there was a vital interest in the pursuance of space exploration as a political and military strategy. Today the necessity and the benefits of a manned Mars mission are less clear.
Furthermore, financing a Mars mission is challenging because of the long planning stages. When J.F. Kennedy in 1961 announced the ambitious plan to send an American to the moon by the end of the decade, he expected to still be in office by then. But a crewed mars mission would span over several successive administrations which makes it hard to set up a focused strategy. Financial crises' and the state's high debt burden further complicate the financing of expensive space missions.
The Earth's atmosphere and magnetosphere shield its surface from high-energy galactic cosmic rays (GCR). As soon as man leaves his home planet he finds himself exposed to a hostile environment with adverse health effects. While the average annual dose of cosmic radiation on Earth is about 0.4 millisieverts (mSv), on a trip to Mars astronauts would get a whopping (estimated) 1,200 mSv. (a six-month stay at the International Space Station equals about 80 mSv).
Weightlessness and Microgravity
Prolonged weightlessness causes muscle atrophy and deterioration of the skeleton. This was not an issue when we went to the moon, but a trip to Mars would take 6-8 months for the outward journey alone.
Astronauts returning from the ISS (International Space Station) after months in space can't walk and need help to get up, but nobody will assist the first astronauts on Mars. In part this problem can be countered through artificial gravity by rotating the spaceship, but it is unclear how far bodies will be affected by a long trip in space.
Once on Mars gravity is about 38% that of Earth. It is unknown how this would affect the physiology of the astronauts and whether their bodies could completely readapt once back on Earth.
Environment and Life-Support Systems
Mars lays at the outer edge of the habitable zone, yet the red planet's climate is much harsher than this fact might suggest. The average temperature is minus 80 °F (-62 °C), with record lows of minus 225 °F (-143 °C) at the poles and brief warmer peaks of about 70 °F (21 °C) at the equator during summer. Mars has also an extremely thin atmosphere made up mostly of carbon dioxide.
A crew on Mars would have to abide strictly within their living quarters (short ventures outside in proper suites exempted), but any malfunctioning of the life-support systems could potentially be fatal. Spare parts could take years to arrive and even for live support from Earth there is a communication delay of 8 to 40 minutes depending on the planets' respective positions.
Landing Heavy Payloads
When spacecraft arrive at Mars at a speed of 12,500 mph (20,000 kph) or more, the red planet's thin atmosphere does provide only modest deceleration. Therefore the landing procedure has to be arranged through rockets. These, in turn, require a propellant that significantly reduces the usable payload capacity of the spacecraft.
The heaviest object so far to have landed on Mars is the Curiosity rover weighing roughly one ton. It landed successfully through a mix of breaking systems including heatshield, parachute, rockets, and a sky crane.
But the lander of any crewed mission would be far heavier than that. Though it is not an insurmountable problem, aerospace engineers have yet to figure out how to land a crewed capsule on the surface of Mars.
Moving On Towards Mars
It took only 12 years from Sputnik 1 (1957), the first artificial satellite, until the first manned moon landing (1969). In spite of extraordinary technological advances and a couple of successful robotic missions (rovers Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity), 50 years on we are nowhere close sending a crew to Mars. Above all this proves that getting boots on the ground on Mars is really hard.
The space agencies of the superpowers all have the long-term goal of sending humans to Mars sometime in the future, yet no precise schedules exist: Russia tentatively plans to send a crew between 2040-45. China has the ambition to launch its taikonauts someday but does not expect to be ready before 2050. Even NASA does not have a hard deadline, although the goal is to depart sometime in the 2030s.
NASA's Journey to Mars Plan
Huge hurdles need still to be overcome before sending a crew to Mars. At this time, under its Journey to Mars plan NASA is gradually developing all the technical capabilities required for a crewed mission. The program is designed in three major phases:
1. Earth Reliant Phase
The research work is focused around the ISS: this phase comprises the study and contrast of the effects of microgravity on the human body, (including the twin study on astronaut Scott Kelly and his earthbound counterpart), testing of life support systems, cultivation of food in space, advancing communication systems, 3-D printing, and performing extravehicular operations.
2. Proving Ground Phase
Spacecraft and living facilities are tested around the moon in a deep space environment (yet with the possibility to bring home the crew within a matter of days): a series of exploration missions will test the integration of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule. Tests will also include a robotic mission collecting a boulder from an asteroid and developing concepts to minimize resupply needs.
3. Earth Independent Phase
The experience gained on the ISS and in the cislunar space will pave the way at some point to launch a crewed mission to Mars. First by going into Martian orbit, including its moons, and eventually descending on its surface. By this time transit and surface habitats should be running only on routine maintenance. The first astronauts will begin harvesting Martian resources to create fuel, oxygen, water, and other materials required for a permanent Mars outpost.
Aerospace and rockets were once the domain of state agencies. In more recent times a number of private companies have joined the fray.
In 2016 Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX announced an ambitious plan to built a Mars colony of 1 million people within the next 40-100 years. SpaceX was established in 2002 with the ultimate goal of making mankind a multi-planetary species.
Musk has a proven track record of setting and missing unrealistic deadlines. Yet his engineering accomplishments are without precedent. Who would have thought it possible to establish a private rocket company from scratch? Or successfully build reusable rockets like the Falcon 9?
SpaceX is eagerly working on the development of its starship and super heavy rocket and tentatively targets the first Mars missions as early as 2022 (cargo) and 2024 (crew). A manned Moon fly-by in 2023 is also in store.
In his presentation Musk focuses heavily on the engineering required to get to Mars but has very few details on habitat and life-support systems.
It should not come as a surprise that the envisaged launch dates will very likely have to be postponed.
Who Will Be the First to Go?
Although private companies have entered the race to Mars, at this time it seems that only NASA has the overall capabilities to launch a manned mission in the reasonably near future. But it might well be that a private business like SpaceX will contribute to a significant level to this enterprise.
Currently, NASA is busily working to fulfill the president's goal to send a crewed mission sometime in the 2030s. A landing on Phobos, the larger of the two natural satellites of Mars, might well precede the descent to the surface of the red planet.
In any case, a Mars sample-return mission will be crucial before a crew is sent on the trajectory to Mars. This upcoming July NASA will launch the Mars 2020 rover designed, among others, to collect samples for a future return mission and also equipped with instruments to split carbon dioxide into oxygen to make propellent.
A New Frontier?
Some contend that going to Mars is crucial for mankind's long-term survival should a catastrophic event on Earth occur. Others argue that the exploration of space is imperative to advance mankind, as no geographical areas for discoveries remain on Earth. In any case, the potential conquests of space territories will be far different from the discoveries of past explorers. Before beginning to settle and terraform Mars, we should make sure we are capable of taking care of our home planet.
Would Do You Think?
- The Journey to Mars, by NASA (NP-2015-08-2018-HQ)
- The Case for Mars, by Robert Zubrin and Arthur C. Clarke
- The Smithsonian History of Space Exploration, by Roger D. Launius
- Space Faring: The Radiation Challenge by NASA
- Wikipedia: Mars / Mars One
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Marco Pompili