Race to the Red Planet

From NASA to SpaceX, Matthew Nicholson outlines why we want to go to Mars, and who is going to take us there.

Source: NASA

In 1898 H.G. Wells published ‘The War Of The Worlds’, a story of Martian invaders descending upon Earth to harness its resources and cure the crippling overpopulation on their home world. Decades after the story was concocted, we are close to it becoming reality, almost.

A manned mission to The Red Planet would be the single most important moment in human history, shadowing all that came before. Not buried under mounds of political motivations, religious beliefs or rampant ideology, it will be the point when our species escapes the shackles of our pale blue dot and become a multi-planetary civilisation. NASA say they will conduct such a mission in the mid-2030s and announced that their plan would consist formally of three steps.

The first, using the International Space Station to further research on the effects of space travel on the human body. If anyone is going to make it to our neighbouring planet, they will need to survive months in a weightless environment. Since the body has almost no resistance to movement in such an environment, the muscles atrophy and bone density diminishes. Even balance is affected,  as the sense is largely decided by gravity and orientation, rather than sight. I recall a story of a recently returned astronaut closing his eyes in the shower and falling over as a consequence. While the Earth’s magnetic field protects us from harmful cosmic rays, in open space no such protection is offered. Both the Sun and deep space would bombard any Mars crew with subatomic particles, increasing their risk of cancer later in life, or even causing acute radiation poisoning. The terrestrial way of blocking radiation is to use lead as shielding. But lead is heavy, and therefore incredibly expensive to fire into orbit, much less send to Mars. NASA is currently experimenting with lighter substitutes, such as Hydrogenated Boron-Nitride Nanotubes, but these are still a while away from practical use.

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NASA have plans to expand their reach beyond the orbit of the Moon. Beginning in 2020 with the Asteroid Redirect Mission. This is the second step. When thinking of asteroid fields, science fiction dupes us into thinking of areas of space densely populated with large clumps of rock, only navigable with the help of a Wookie. In reality, asteroid fields are quite sparse, and mostly made of dust. ARM will attempt to move a large enough specimen into a stable orbit with the Moon. Once there, all the technology for a Mars mission can be tested in cis-lunar space.

The final step consists of being able to truly abandon the safety of Earth. It is an attempt to create a hospitable environment that is not reliant on the Earth replenishing supplies every few months. This entails generating all of life’s essentials; oxygen, food and water, on the seemingly barren wasteland of Mars. Details of this process remain vague, as although a manned mission will almost definitely take place in the 2030s, Earth ‘independence’ will presumably take decades, if not centuries.

One cannot talk about a manned mission to Mars without mentioning Elon Musk and his company SpaceX. Founded in 2002, SpaceX is the only viable contender with any chance of beating NASA. Winning a contract over competition like Boeing to supply the ISS has given SpaceX the funds to pursue rocket technologies that are both cost-effective and efficient. As the majority of the costs from space travel comes from the spacecraft, not the fuel, Musk and Co. have devised an ingenious system to combat the current wastefulness, where much of the spacecraft will break-up during the initial launch. The bottom section of the SpaceX rocket lands itself on a floating barge in the ocean, allowing it to be refuelled and reused. The first successful re-flight occurred last month, and it is the probably the first of many. Musk’s innovations have set in motion the necessary large scale colony on Mars within a few decades. The rocket of choice will be SpaceX’s soon-to-be-built Interplanetary Transport System and is a mammoth piece of design. It will be bigger than any rockets built today, including NASA’s Saturn V, and will have a cargo capacity of a Boeing 747. No, that doesn’t mean it could carry the same as a 747. It means the ITS will be able to carry 747s as cargo, giving a further insight into the rocket’s size. Musk is certainly a credible player in this modern space race and if he wins, economists predict the opening of a massive private market for space exploration, overtaking anything which has come before.

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With all of this talk of Mars, one would well within their rights to ask: Why? Why are we spending so much money and time to get to a place with temperatures that can fall 70°C below zero, an atmosphere that would kill any human within a minute and pressures so feeble that one’s blood would boil? There are two answers to this question. The first, to ensure the survival of our species, history and culture, in the face of mass extinction events. A meteor has once eliminated 75 per cent of all plants and animals, if we wait long enough it will certainly happen again. Having a permanent settlement on Mars will significantly increase our survival chances. The second reason, less pragmatic than the first, is to say that we, as a species, are destined to explore and to push the frontier. Carl Sagan once said, “Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few—drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds”. His words should echo in our minds as we travel further than ever before.