While the entire universe is of interest to us here on Earth, including our desire to establish a permanent presence on the Moon and even explore some of the heavenly bodies of the gas giant Jupiter. However, there is no doubt that sending a manned mission to Mars is what lies in our (relatively) immediate future. And there are several potential planned missions to the red planet, both government-sponsored and private missions.
Not only will such missions tell us much more about our planetary neighbor, but it will also provide the foundation to launch other missions even further into the outer reaches of space.
However, before we get there, there are a number of issues that will need to be overcome. And some of these are perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when considering a space mission to another planet.
For example, how will we combat such issues as loneliness or the lack of communication with those back on Earth? How will we ensure there is enough fuel to not only get them there but to bring them back? Or might a one-way journey be the only way to overcome such a problem, at least initially? And perhaps above all, what will we find upon arrival, and will we back on Earth be told of any potential finds?
Before we begin our look into a potential manned mission to the red planet, check out the short video trailer below. It is from the film The Martian, which while completely fictional, gives a good example of what life might be like if we did one day manage to send the first humans to set foot on another planet, not simply a moon, and then explore what might await them there.
Why Go To Mars In The First Place?
As we might imagine, there is much to consider and contemplate before simply setting off to the red planet.
Perhaps above all else, we might wish to consider the reasons to justify a mission to Mars. And while many would say to explore another heavenly body is reason enough, for those footing the bill – including the general public when part of that funding comes from public spending – there need to be very clear benefits to humanity as a whole.
One of the main reasons to not just explore Mars but to being a settlement there along with terraforming programs is the grim realization that should we remain solely on Earth, the chances of our extinction are increased dramatically. And while that might sound overdramatic to some, it is a real possibility that we have to consider.
For example, what would happen if a meteorite or comet suddenly appeared – only this time it was headed straight for Earth? Unless we had developed some technology that could shift the projected course of such a killer cosmic arrival then we would, essentially, be finished. Unless, of course, we could vacate our doomed world and relocate to a new home.
And while such escape missions would certainly not be as simple as jumping on a spacecraft with all you could carry, we might imagine that should we manage to colonize another heavenly body, technology would also continue to be developed and improve – possibly to the point of “motherships” able to transport huge masses of people. As cold as it might sound, even if a small percentage of the planet’s population managed to relocate to Mars, the survival of the human race would still be all but guaranteed.
A Very Real Danger Of Sudden Extinction!
We should note, a direct hit from a comet is but one of several ways humanity could become extinct without (relatively speaking) any warning. Although we will not spend too much time looking at all the grim ways we could meet such a collective end, just to highlight the need to have a “plan b” as far as a planetary home further, it is perhaps worth briefly considering how many ways humanity could meet this end should a cosmic relocation not be a possibility.
We are, for example, right in the middle of a pandemic right now in the summer of 2020. This itself should make all of us realize the very real danger of a contagious virus sweeping the planet that could, in a worst-case scenario, spell the end for almost all of the world’s population.
There is also the danger that we might bring about our own sudden demise in the event of a nuclear war. And while that danger is perhaps – at least from a general perception – not as pressing as it might have been during the Cold Years of the second half of the twentieth century, as long as weapons of such a nuclear nature exist on Earth, the cold fact is the potential of nuclear annihilation remains. If it was to happen, although the window for escape would likely be reduced to the nature of surprise in warfare, we might imagine that a small proportion of the world’s population would escape to a colony if one was to exist on Mars.
It might well be that our environment gets to a point of permanent decline to such a degree that a mass interplanetary immigration program will take place, sending the vast majority of the Earth’s population to a new home on the red planet.
The hard truth is, that we are at the mercy of our only home planet and the universe as a whole. And any of the above scenarios could strike literally at any time, and with little notice.
Are There Moral Implications?
As an afterthought to the above considerations, one point that is often leveled against such private funders and drivers of the colonization of Mars is that it will one day, perhaps sooner than we think, provide a “plan b” to the elite and extensively rich. If one day, for example, our planet was facing a sudden global catastrophe, or should the pollution of the environment reach such levels that survival on Earth was reaching an endpoint, in theory, those who had the money, influence, or both, would most likely be the first to step foot on loaded motherships to start again on a new world.
However, in reality, even if such mass migration was to take place – whether in our lifetime or not – upon arrival those who made the journey would face a life of back-breaking work in order to sustain and run the colony.
While great, neon city-like states may one day be a reality on Mars, with intricate transport facilities screaming through the many mountains against a red backdrop of the desert in between such metropolises, such an existence on the red planet is generations away.
As Musk himself said – barring some kind of disaster on Earth – the chances of dying on Mars are much higher. And, at least for the initial part of the explorations to the red planet – even after the first successful mission – the chances of dying while on the Martian soil or while in transit to or from the planet, remains exceptionally high.
While there is no doubt, if such colonies do develop into these brightly lit metropolises, there very well could develop a situation where an “elite” section of society looked to escape to a better world. Initially, though, any such journeys will not be for the faint-hearted.
A Very Brief History Of Mars Observation
We will explore the full and detailed history of the past exploration of the red planet in another in-depth article. However, it is worth running through very briefly the ideas from the past that have brought us to this point where, by comparison, we are seemingly on the verge of leaping from our world and into another one.
Like many of our cosmic bodies – including our own moon – humans have been fascinated by Mars since antiquity. And as well as the connections to each respective mythology, records of its movements can be found in the writings of the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Chinese, and Greeks.
Undoubtedly, though, the real exploration of Mars began with the birth of early telescopes, with the first recorded observation of the red planet through a telescope by Galileo Galilei in 1610. As telescopes improved, so did the detail that astronomers of the time observed. Perhaps the most significant advances in the optics of telescopes as well as the information that could be retrieved through their use began at the start of the 1800s. As the nineteenth century unfolded, the first maps began to be pieced together of the Martian regions.
By the late-1870s, came the sighting of long straight lines on the surface of the red planet by Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli. He would name these lines “canali” from which they became known as the Martian canals. Many very serious-minded scientists began to wonder if these “canals” were the work of an intelligent species, perhaps one that was still very much alive. However, by the early 1900s, with the further advancements in telescopic optics and lenses, it was discovered that these canals were actually various and very random natural features and not straight lines at all.
The First Steps From Observing To Exploring
It wasn’t, though, until the second half of the twentieth century as humanity ventured out into the stars that the first real observations were made. And it is there we will turn our attention to next.
Although a significant amount was learned of the probable service texture, atmosphere, and gravity of Mars from calculations on Earth, the vast majority was, as scientific as they were, educated guesses.
There were several failed flyby missions of the red planet beginning in 1960 by the Soviet Union. All but one failed to launch, with Mars-1, which did make into space in November 1962, suffering from communications failure before it could reach its destination.
However, two years later, on 28th November 1964, a little over three weeks after their own launch failure, NASA managed to launch the Mariner 4. It would successfully fly by the red planet on 15th July 1965. From this flyby came the first-ever close-up images of the Martian surface (albeit from orbit). As well as sending pictures back to Earth but it also collected invaluable data about the planet’s atmosphere.
One thing that surprised those back at NASA was the crater-like appearance to the planet, which appeared to look almost exactly like the Moon. It would eventually be revealed that this particular region of the planet was one of the few places on Mars to contain such craters.
Incidentally, just to demonstrate the astronomical costs involved in space exploration, the costs of the Mariner 4 mission – in 1964-65, remember – was in excess of $80 million, which today would cost somewhere over $600 million.
The short video below looks at the Mariner 4 mission.
The Viking And Pathfinder Missions
Further flybys occurred throughout the 1960s and 70s, but it wasn’t until the landing of Viking 1 and 2 in 1976 that the first fully successful landing took place on Mars. Although the Soviet Union had managed to land several of the Mars probes, all suffered from failures either during the landing or almost immediately following touching down on the surface. When the Viking landers touched down safely in July and September 1976 respectively, not only did they survive the landing, but began to send the first of many clear and close-up pictures of the Martian surface.
Perhaps the next significant development in the exploration of Mars occurred in July 1997 when the Sojourner rover became the first of several rovers that would explore the terrain after landing safely as part of the Mars Pathfinder program. Not only would the Rover send back detailed images of the red planet, but unlike the Viking, it would be mobile and able to explore the terrain of our cosmic neighbor. At least for several meters around the landing site. It would remain active for around two months, eventually ceasing transmission at the end of September 1997.
This mission was important not only for the successful deployment of the Sojourner, but it essentially laid the foundations for the Mars Exploration Rover missions of the 2000s, perhaps not least the airbag landing system which, as we shall see, will likely prove vital for a successful manned mission to the red planet.
The short video below examined the Pathfinder program and successful landing in 1997 a little further.
Robotic Rovers – An Indirect Human Presence On The Red Planet!
There were several other successful following the landing and dispatching of the Sojourner. The first occurred 4th January 2004 when the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit touched down on the Martian surface around six months after it was launched.
Three weeks later on 25th January, the Opportunity joined it. While the Spirit would cease communication in early 2010 (and was officially abandoned by NASA the following year), the Opportunity would go on to explore the Martian terrain for almost 15 years until contact was lost in the summer of 2018 during a huge global dust storm which overtook the planet.
This is an interesting development in itself. It is thought that the dust storm was sufficient enough to block the sunlight the rover required to recharge its batteries which ultimately led to its “death”. If we are to have a colony on Mars who will undoubtedly rely (although perhaps not exclusively) on similar solar power, what might become of them if a similar dust storm was to strike?
Half a decade after the landing of the Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars Science Laboratory successfully landed the Curiosity in early August 2012, which remains operational at the time of writing.
The next logical step, then, following the success of the Rover missions, brings us to where we are now – eagerly anticipating when humanity finally steps foot on Mars for real.
Things To Think About Before A Mission Is Even Launched
Before the many technical aspects of such a mission is even thought about, considerable thought will have to be put into the potential psychological aspects of sending a manned mission to Mars.
Perhaps one of the first things to understand is how a simple issue like loneliness might affect those on such a mission. Especially when, at least for the foreseeable future, any manned missions to Mars would likely consist of no more than four people, and most likely only two. And these missions, as we will move onto shortly, will take around 18 months to two years to complete.
Several experiments of placing people in isolation for such a prolonged amount of time have taken place over the years. And the results, generally speaking, are not very encouraging. For example, while any two people can likely get along for a limited amount of time, after the first month or so it was noted that such feelings as depression, anger, hostile behavior, and simply general mood swings quickly surfaced. What’s more, the people involved in the experiments would begin to limit their conversations to basic matters concerning the “mission” itself.
We should note, that as hard as it undoubtedly was for the people involved with the experiments, at the back of their mind they knew the outside world was beyond the doors of the facility itself. Once our crew – whether two or four people – set off and leave the planet, such feelings will be experienced in the equal loneliness of space, with no chance of opting out. Once they are on their way, there is no turning back. And against that backdrop, such feelings as noted in the experiments would likely become even more amplified.
“Attitude And Ego” Are No Longer The “Right Stuff!”
We will stay with this idea of loneliness for a moment, more specifically, some of the measures that could be put in place in an attempt to combat such issues.
For example, according to an article by Richard Hollingham on the BBC, one of the simplest things to do would be to ensure, as much as possible, that those chosen for such missions have the capacity to get along as much as possible. According to Hollingham, “exuding attitude and ego” is no longer considered the “right stuff” when considering who should be a part of such a mission.
As well as the obvious qualities as “being a team player”, Hollingham draws our attention to the research of Russian space psychologists who intricately study small details as “tone of voice” and “body language” as part of their overall decision-making process. Such things that those who are being studied, more often than not, are not even aware they are displaying such signals.
Hollingham then highlights that the crew of the Apollo 12 missions – in terms of cohesiveness and combating the potential coldness of isolation – were the most successful. And they perhaps achieved this by spending “most of their waking hours together”. They were, essentially, a family who relied and depended on each other.
On the other hand, when NASA astronauts were involved in the Shuttle-Mir missions of the 1990s, they quickly became cut-off somewhat from their Russian counterparts. Not least due to their “limited Russian language skills” which no doubt hampered communication and the ability to bond. We should also note that many issues outside of this also contributed to the lack of general cohesiveness of the missions, not least a collision with a supplies ship and a fire on board.
Space Missions Require A Constant Professional Relationship
It is also worth noting here that although the Apollo 12 missions were successful there are several differing views on the best way to establish and maintain such togetherness for a multiple-year journey that a manned mission to Mars would be.
Some claim, for example, that while “a good working relationship” is undoubtedly essential, it is also important to not become “too friendly”. As Simon Hollingham writes, “…after all, you are a crew rather than a bunch of pals”.
There is also the danger, depending on perspective, of personal and physical relationships developing. Aside from the aspect of preferential treatment or influenced thinking that could arise from such an issue, there is the possibility that such a relationship may breakdown and perhaps ultimately compromise the safety of the mission itself.
We should note that NASA claim they have not considered this to be a serious threat and essentially, would expect astronauts to be professional during such missions. And that is most likely correct. However, the fact is, that even the most professional person is still human, and susceptible to the vast array of human emotions. Furthermore, in a situation of more than a two-man crew, there is the possibility of jealousy and even affairs taking place. And as unlikely as these issues might be, some isolation research has shown such things to happen.
One of the members of the Apollo 15 mission, Al Worden, would claim that a “professional relationship” must be maintained throughout the duration of space missions. He would further elaborate that “there has to be someone in command, and there have to be people who work for them”.
Exposure To Constantly Changing Gravity
As well as the effects on emotions there is the physical impact that such a mission will have on the bodies of the crew.
For example, one of the main concerns would be the loss of muscle mass due to a change in gravity. Due to the gravity on Earth, the muscles in our limbs, back, and even neck, generally speaking, remain strong in order to keep us upright. However, when that gravity lessens, the muscles are no longer required to do such work, and unless they are maintained, will essentially weaken. And this would have a major impact on other parts of the body – not least the vital organs.
To combat such effects, our crew members would have to undertake and stick to a strict exercise regime throughout the mission to compensate for the lack of work that gravity normally gives the muscles.
What’s more, while there will be zero-gravity in space, once landing on Mars the astronauts will then have to adjust once more to the gravity of the red planet itself, which is approximately one third that of Earth.
These changes in gravity not only affect the muscles and skeletal frame but also can cause problems with balance and coordination, as well as potential long-term problems with vision and even bone density.
One measure to protect against the potential body and muscle damage while on the Martian surface is to purposely “weight” the protective body suits they will need to wear to protect them from the Martian elements, which would then essentially, trick the muscles into working as they would here on Earth.
Without a doubt, one of the most intriguing and perhaps strangest issues that astronauts on a mission to Mars would have to deal with is called Earth-out-of-view phenomenon. This is essentially when the spacecraft carrying our crew to its final destination becomes a certain distance away from Earth while still a considerable distance from Mars itself.
While the full effects of this are not known or fully understood, including whether it would affect all or just some members of the crew, the notion is that when the Earth becomes nothing more than a tiny dot in the sky with Mars being much the same, feelings of being lost or even drowning in the blackness of space might overcome them.
What’s more, a worst-case scenario could see feelings of loneliness or of being homesick develop into attempts at suicide, or perhaps murderous rampages due to a complete breaking down of rational thinking and increased paranoia.
While there would be communication between the Earth and the traveling space probe, barring advancement in communication technology, this would not be the instant communication of picking up a telephone or contacting someone on Skype that we are used to here on Earth. As the spacecraft approaches Mars it will take longer for an outgoing signal to reach Earth, and consequently for a return signal from Earth to reach the spacecraft. This means that as opposed to an instant conversation, communication would be akin to leaving a message on an internet forum and then awaiting a response.
If we take the average time a signal takes between the two planets, for example, it would take approximately 20 minutes, meaning that a call and reply sequence – assuming an instant response – would be around 40 minutes.
The Scott Kelly Mission – A Year In Space In Preparation For A Mission To Mars!
One of the most important research projects in preparation for a manned mission to Mars involved NASA astronaut, Scott Kelly who, along with Russian astronaut, Mikhail Korniyenko, would spend a year in space from March 2015 to March 2016.
In Scott’s case, his twin brother, David, would also be monitored during this time, only while on Earth. This would allow scientists, in theory, to compare differences in their bodies and, in Scott’s case, how and why space exposure might have caused those changes. Although the Kellys – particularly Scott – will be studied for years, if not decades to come, the initial results were released to the public in April 2019 – and they make for fascinating reading, to say the least.
For example, although the astronaut remained generally healthy throughout and after the mission, there were some intriguing changes to his body. Perhaps one of the most interesting findings was the potential affect the mission had on his telomeres (the protective caps at the end of chromosomes which indicate aging and risks to health such as disease). Kelly’s telomeres had become significantly more elongated than normal. They would, incidentally, return to normal following his arrival back on Earth.
Although further research will have to take place, this might indicate that as well as changes to the body due to the lack of gravity, that long term exposure in space might even make humans much more susceptible to disease. Researchers also noted that Kelly’s retina had thickened somewhat, as had his carotid artery, while there was further difference in his gut microbiome when compared to his control-subject twin.
The short video below looks at the One-Year Mission in a little more detail.
Important Steps, But Only Limited Information!
It is worth noting, however, as important a step in better understanding the long-term effects of prolonged time in space on the human body, the One-Year Mission – at least in relation to a manned mission to Mars – only offers us limited information.
For example, the International Space Station is in Earth’s orbit meaning it is also within the planet’s magnetic field. This means it isn’t exposed to the harmful radiation of deep space. As we shall examine shortly, it is this radiation that permeates deep space that remains one of the biggest concerns and obstacles to achieving a successful manned mission to the red planet. And seeing as we know the exposure would almost certainly be fatal, ways to keep out such radiation or of limiting the amount of time exposed to it are seemingly the only viable option.
More generally speaking, the results offered from the mission only tell us about one individual (or two if you count Kelly’s twin brother). There would need to be many more subjects sent into space in identical conditions in order to draw any firm conclusions.
Furthermore, the next step after further prolonged stays in Earth’s orbit would be to have astronauts performing missions further afield, perhaps even a prolonged stay on the Moon. Of course, such a stay would require a permanent basecamp on the Lunar surface, which in itself would take us that bit closer to Mars. As would the other technological advancements required – including devices that astronauts could use to monitor changes to their bodies themselves, which when in deep space with limited if any outside intervention, they would need to do.
The short video below looks at further planned missions to better understand the effect on the human body.
Assuming the above issues have been overcome – at least as much as is humanly possible – there are the launch and the journey itself. Not least the cost of it and who pays?
It is a given that money and where it comes from will be a major issue in getting a manned mission to Mars. And we will be talking millions, most likely billions and billions of dollars. And at a time when almost all government spending is being reduced, it would appear that a collaboration of sorts will be required between governments and private investors.
Indeed, as a side product of this private investment, we might expect to see the first significant steps toward space tourism. And while we might not see such recreational visits to Mars any time soon, journeys into the near orbit of Earth, and perhaps to the Moon might not be so far out of reach – for a price, of course.
There are, however, other issues other than money.
Of course, to get there the crew will require significant amounts of fuel. In our contemporary era, liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen are used for space travel. What’s more, this fuel has to be frozen for the majority of the journey and placed in storage. This, of course, adds more weight to the vehicle.
Furthermore, assuming enough fuel was retained for a return mission home, it would have to be stored at an extremely cold temperature – which in itself would require specialist storage equipment that would also have to be transported to the planet. If we take it a stage further, if the crew had to produce their own fuel as part of the mission, further equipment would be required.
Although there have already been successful unmanned missions to the red planet – so we know we can get there – those vehicles were carrying a significantly less amount of overall weight, not least as there were only a robot and essential equipment on board as opposed to several humans. And what’s more, there was no concern about having enough fuel to get back, something we will return to later.
There is no doubt that the issue of fuel, fuel storage, and fuel production are all key elements to any potential mission to the red planet.
We will return to several plans to overcome the return journey issue shortly. There are, however, other issues that revolve around the journey itself.
Space Debris And The Weight Of The Craft
Of course, once we have managed to actually launch our chosen spacecraft there will be issues (other than the psychological ones mentioned above) that will also need to be solved.
For example, perhaps the first might be the huge amount of space debris that is both in orbit around the plant itself, as well as outside of our orbit that are simply floating (at high speed, remember) around in space.
We have examined the issue of space debris previously, and while we will not do so again here, it is sufficient to say it is a real problem, and largely of our own making. And while it is an issue that can be overcome with intricate planning and precise navigation, it is a problem that ties up vital resources and time before we have even escaped the orbit of our own planet. We might also perhaps concern ourselves with the potential space debris we might leave scattered around the orbit of Mars if we assume such missions are successful and prolonged.
There is also the interesting situation that arises when we consider this change in weight due to the increased load of the human passengers, as well as the essential equipment they would require, not least food, water, medication, and anything else essential for everyday life. This would then require extra fuel to compensate for the extra weight, which would in itself contribute to the overall weight of the spacecraft.
When we consider such things, it is easy to see why a mission to Mars is so nuanced and complex.
Radiation And Space Elements
Another issue facing the crew of our Martian adventure is the exposure to space radiation from such things as solar storms. What’s more, there appears to be little that can be done to combat such exposure which, given the long journey of anywhere up to six months to a year, could result in serious and potentially immediate health problems, including heart and respiratory problems, and cancers.
Barring the building of a spacecraft that can somehow protect against this radiation, the only viable option would be to look at increasing the propulsion capabilities of such a craft so that it spent less time in space and so consequently exposing the astronauts to less radiation.
Not that they will be free of the danger upon landing, though. Unlike Earth, Mars doesn’t have a thick atmosphere to protect it from this space radiation. There would need to be, then, artificial protection provided to them on the planet itself.
This could come in the form of a specially built structure – similar to a biodome – with some proposing that a material similar to that which provided protection to the astronauts onboard the living quarters of the International Space Station. Other proposals suggest that the astronauts could set up their base camp inside the many lava tubes (huge underground caves) that exist on the planet, which should provide enough protection, not only from radiation but from the many volatile dust storms that roll around Mars.
However, given the exploratory nature of the mission, the crew will need to venture out to the surface at some point. This, of course, would require the use of specialized bodysuits that would not only assist in breathing, but would protect the astronauts from the harsh elements as well as being light enough to move in.
From Spacesickness To The Common Cold?
There are plenty of other issues to consider during the months-long journey to the red planet, perhaps not least of these is sickness – all kinds of sickness. We have already mentioned the expected impact such a journey would have on mental health. There are, however, a host of more physical sicknesses to consider.
One of the more persistent of these to strike our human space travelers is known as space sickness, something known about following the time astronauts have spent on the International Space Station. Essentially, the gyroscopes in the brain that provide spatial awareness (telling us we have moved position or that we are in motion) become confused somewhat in space. This leads to a feeling of intense nausea that can last for several days. In fact, astronauts who have reported suffering from this have claimed it is very much like suffering from seasickness.
There is also the possibility of something that (to most of us) is a trivial matter – picking up a cold. Simply the fact that the crew would be in a tightly packed environment and, for the most part, working in close confines to each other, such a cold could easily spread across the whole crew. And even if the infected crew member was placed into isolation, that would mean the crew is a person down for several days, something which could make a lot of difference to required tasks, research, and maintenance.
If we then add to this that, as we have already mentioned, the immune system, in general, begins to function far below its capabilities on Earth, and our crew members are already weakened before such an infection strikes. Once it does, though, simply fighting it off and letting it run its course might not be as simple as it is here on Earth.
Killer Infections, Dangerous Bacteria, And The Unknown
If we take that a stage further and factor in that, despite the isolation of crew members before such mission, that a flu-like virus might have somehow made its way on to the spacecraft and then ultimately infected a crew member, the consequences could be even more dire. Indeed, the spacecraft could quickly turn into a floating mausoleum in the far reaches of space.
We also know (although we don’t understand why) bacteria appears to be much stronger, more aggressive, and overall, much more dangerous in space. We have, for example, examined before the experiments with salmonella onboard the International Space Station. When it was studied, it was discovered to be much more potent than it should have been – around “3 to 7 times more virulent”.
We also know that such things as plankton has been discovered on the International Space Station, with much debate as to how they managed to arrive there in the first place.
This perhaps brings us to the next consideration. Without wanting to stray too far into science fiction territory, what if our astronauts somehow came into contact with bacteria in space, or even on the Martian surface? Not only would it almost certainly be one that they had not come into contact with previously, but the weakened immune systems combined with an increased strength of such a bacterium could also prove fatal. And that perhaps is before we consider the possibility of such bacteria surviving a return journey and arriving on Earth.
Although any findings and understanding are limited, there is a possibility that should illness or disease strike during a potential manned mission to Mars, whether on the surface of the red planet or on the way there, the consequences could be disastrous.
The Landing, Exploration, And Survival
Once our heroic crew has entered the atmosphere of Mars they will have to, of course, land safely on the surface, an issue in itself. This, however, is a real problem for those who wish to perform such a mission. Aside from very lightweight (by comparison) robot landings such as the Mars Rover, there have been no attempts to land something as heavy as a spacecraft on the planet.
The thin atmosphere of Mars means that such a heavy vehicle would simply speed toward the surface, and likely burn up while doing so. We will explore one of the NASA plans to overcome this problem shortly when we examine the Mars Ascent Vehicle.
However, there are other ideas that have been suggested. Not least rocket propulsion that would slow the spacecraft upon landing and so stop a fatal combustion in the atmosphere. Such technology, though, at least officially, does not exist, and certainly hasn’t been tested to the degree it would need to be to be used in such a momentous mission.
If we assume that actually landing on the red planet safely and without incident can be achieved, there are still other problems and hurdles to overcome.
The Need For A Robotic “Pre-Mission” Mission!
Perhaps one of the first things that comes to light when contemplating a manned mission to Mars – regardless of how long the astronauts might spend on the surface of the planet – is that unless there is limitless back and forth between a landing vehicle and an orbiting main ship, then some kind of base will already have to have been set up for them. Even asking them to build their own base will need to have some basic infrastructures put in place first.
For this, we need to return to years before our astronauts even left Earth. Whether it is NASA or a private company behind the eventual mission to Mars, they will need to have sent and successfully landed several unmanned ships to the surface of the planet before the astronauts arrive.
Not only will the materials and supplies essential to the astronauts’ missions be on these unmanned ships, but they will also contain robots who can unload, transport, and piece together the basic foundation and shell of a base. They could even, in theory, begin water extraction procedures and set up very basic agricultural processes. However, agriculture itself would prove difficult due to the lack of light and radiation on the planet, something which could only really be overcome by some kind of advanced hydroponics system. And if it was to be in place before the astronauts arrived, this would have to be transported and set up by our intelligent builder robots also.
While this sounds great in theory, in reality, despite the huge advancements in artificial intelligence, it would appear that further developments and mass production of the eventual finished robotic workforce are required. This, of course, is a mission in itself.
Many Specialized Areas Of Concern
If we assume, then, that our crew has landed safely and our obedient robot builders have constructed a basic basecamp for them, where would our crew set up a more permanent residence. We have already mentioned the possibility of the many lava tubes that can be found on the red planet. However, it is not absolutely certain what the crew might find down there if they were to venture inside. Perhaps they might find that they offer less protection from the elements than was expected. Or perhaps, as unlikely as it might be, an alien creature or creatures might reside there.
It is perhaps the safest option to construct a colony “village” or specialized buildings and living quarters – possibly connected by tunnel-like passageways – that provide protection from the elements and brutally low temperatures of Mars, as well as providing a similar gravity as one might find on Earth.
Furthermore, as well as the specialized buildings, there would need to be several areas of expertise covered by multiple members of the crew. For example, a person with significant medical knowledge and capability would have to be a part of the mission. Who, for example, would spot the signs of illness among the crew? Even more concerning, should a crew member become sick or injured, who would perform the surgery they may require?
We would also need experts in areas of agriculture (as mentioned above), psychology (for the general mental wellbeing of the crew), as well as someone with a general understanding of the known sciences. What’s more one of those people would need the ability to lead the group.
Of course, all of this is in relation to a return mission. However, those dynamics change again if we begin to look at the notion of colonization.
A Unique-To-Mars “Pressurized” Camper Van-Like Vehicle
There are many other things to consider with the exploration of Mars. We might, for example, look at potential vehicles for our interplanetary explorers to navigate the harsh terrain. And, according to the astro-geologist Dr. Jonathan Clarke from the Mars Society of Australia, they will have to be something along the lines of a “pressurized camper van”, further elaborating how experiments have been taking place since 2008 by NASA on their Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) named Chariot.
And these space vehicles are likely to be built and designed with a similar concept to the spacesuits worn by the astronauts themselves, with the thin atmosphere and lower gravity in mind. And something a lot sturdier than the golf buggy-like vehicles that astronauts used to navigate the lunar surface.
Indeed, if we imagine that a base camp has already been set up, such vehicles would likely have to be brought with the astronauts on their initial landing on the Martian surface. Let’s take, for example, the landing scene in the opening episode of the television show Mars by National Geographic. In that scene, the crew land some 75 km of course. In the grand scheme of things, that sounds like a pretty accurate landing, however, to walk such distances, in freezing temperatures and with limited supplies of oxygen, would be almost impossible.
The use of a lightweight but generally hard-wearing and resilient exploratory surface vehicle would not only be a benefit, it could be a matter of survival. And even if we assume an accurate landing, the ability to explore the Martian terrain for miles around (within a reasonable radius of the base camp) only opens up the possibilities for the overall exploration of the red planet.
Could We Live Off The Martian Land?
While it is perhaps preferable for an artificially intelligent robot to begin basic agriculture, the crew themselves will also need to concentrate a significant amount of time to this aspect of their time on the red planet.
We know that experiments with growing such foods as lettuce have taken place on board the International Space Station, for example. And it is highly likely that further experiments will take place should a permanent base be established on the Moon. However, it would need to be much more than lettuce that would need to be grown, and in (relatively) consistent quantities.
While this could perhaps be achieved in a biodome (if we assume we transported soil from Earth that remained useable following its cosmic journey), there is still a varied amount of technology required to maintain such a program, not least of adding to the number of items and landings required for the mission.
So, that leaves us to turn our attention to growing such vital food-stuffs in Martian soil, as well as the vast amount of land required to grow enough food to fully feed even a six-person crew. If we return to the view of Dr. Clarke for a moment, he notes that such a space would be at least a “substantial area of several hundred square meters person”. What’s more, there is no guarantee that the crops would grow as required, if at all, in the Martian soil. Even the gravity on Mars might change the growth or lack thereof of such crops.
Even should the Martian soil prove to be suitable to grow crops and vegetation in, a certain amount of processing will still have to take place, not least due to the freezing temperatures.
Water On Mars Could Prove To Be Crucial For A Prolonged Stay
With this in mind, while the above experiments will almost certainly go ahead during such a mission to Mars, given the dramatically insignificant weight value (in relation to fuel and even machinery), more than enough food would make the journey to the red planet with the astronauts, even if that remained in orbit and was “landed” on the surface at regular intervals.
There is also the issue of drinking water and even oxygen to breathe. And that’s before we factor in (if we assume that landing a full tank of fuel on the surface is a risk too far) that our crew members have to produce enough fuel to take off and reach the main ship in orbit following the end of the mission.
Perhaps one of the options that would likely solve several problems at once would be to continue to extract the frozen water that our robotic workers had located and tapped into prior to the human arrivals. Once extracted the water could be split into hydrogen and oxygen. This process could both aid in the making of propellant fuel, but also be used in breathing apparatus, as well as drunk as drinking water.
Even rehydration might be reached through the use of intravenous feeds that would also provide key nutrients and vitamins, and perhaps even medication to maintain good health, as well as to ensure our crew members are receiving what is required to remain at optimal level health. While a “feast” in the traditional sense might well take place at base camp once in a while for the sake of sanity and normality, it is likely that sustenance of the crew with, at least in part, will take place in such a way.
Some Things To Consider About The Future!
Of course, while we have spoken of a “professional relationship” between the crew members on a mission – albeit for a year to two years – that would be a return mission, if we were speaking of beginning a colony of sorts on Mars then such questions as who is actually sent in the first place and the likelihood of them becoming a couple would have to be taken into account, if only in terms of attraction and compatible personalities. Assuming we would only send limited humans to the new colony, even in waves, there would be an ultimate need for those within the colony to reproduce and maintain their own existence.
Might there be a need, then, with colonization in mind, to send couples, and even families to the red planet to begin such a colony, who would then, over years, meet and couple up within their own, albeit limited, community much as they would do on Earth.
Of course, this would require further medical knowhow of at least some of the colony on pregnancy and birth procedures, not to mention facilities for such things.
Furthermore, as such colonies grow, how would order be maintained? While the colony would undoubtedly be at the mercy of those on Earth due to the supplies they would send, and on occasion bring with them as space travel theoretically improved, how long might it be before the colony on Mars wanted some form of independence?
As brash as it might sound, what started as a colonization experiment in the early twenty-first century could evolve into interplanetary warfare by the start of the 2100s. And given the obvious intelligence and technical knowhow of those sent to colonize Mars, we might eventually fear their ability in such a cosmic conflict.
A One-Way Journey, At Least For Now!
Part of the problem of getting a manned mission successfully to the red planet is not so much the getting there but the getting back. Indeed, it is widely agreed that, based on the fuel and propulsion capabilities of our contemporary era, should a spacecraft manage to make it from Earth to Mars they will unlikely have enough fuel, or space to store it, for a return journey. And while this will no doubt be overcome through advancement in both propulsion and space vehicles, it remains a genuine concern.
Indeed, several privately funded missions have almost gone ahead as a one-way journey, with the idea of setting up a colony on the planet after landing. In reality, though, such one-way missions would end in disaster and death.
Of course, in theory, there are ways that this might be overcome. The costs, however, would be potentially huge.
Perhaps the easiest solution, barring some huge advancement in propulsion technology, would be to launch one, or several, unmanned crafts with the sole purpose of them carrying fuel that would be landed on the surface of the planet ready for a potential return journey.
However, we should note that there would still be issues with such a solution. Perhaps not least how the fuel would be utilized for such a return journey? Would the manned mission have to “dock” onto the waiting fuel and lift-off devices upon landing? Such a procedure would certainly be risky and likely could lead to disastrous consequences if something went wrong, perhaps causing a huge explosion.
Perhaps, then, the crew would have to assemble their return craft – if only partially. Or perhaps the main spacecraft that brought them to the red planet would remain safely in orbit while the astronauts themselves ventured down to the surface.
The Mars Ascent Vehicle – The Final Key To A Return Mission?
As outrageous as some of the above might sound to some, NASA does have plans for a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). And what’s more, once ready and fully tested (in theory) it could also solve the fuel issue for the return journey. This is due to the need to reduce the weight of the vehicle considerably due to the risk that it would simply crash into the surface of the planet, mainly due to the extremely thin atmosphere. There is even a danger that such extra weight of the fuel would cause the craft to burn up upon entry.
Once on the surface of the planet and having dumped its crew to go about the missions on the surface, the MAV will begin the process of making the fuel required for the return journey by extracting the elements it needs from the planet itself. There is a vast supply of carbon dioxide, for example, in the Martian atmosphere, and carbon and hydrogen can be obtained from the methane from underground water supplies.
Of course, the MAV would only produce enough fuel to propel the small, shell of a craft into the Martian atmosphere. Once there, it will dock with an Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) which, after having brought the crew there in the first place and remained in orbit around the planet, will then set off back to Earth.
NASA will also implement other plans to reduce the weight of the craft – or at least speed at which it heads toward the Martian surface. An inflatable heat shield will surround the MAV, which will not only protect it from burning up, but will slow the descent so much that it lands with little more than a rough bounce, at least in theory.
Further Potential Problems Of The Mars Colonization
Once we are there and have established a permanent residence, even before we get to the point of a potential conflict between the human inhabitants of Mars and those of Earth, there is a small mountain of issues to contemplate and iron out.
For example, given that there could be more than one manned mission to Mars in the next several decades, who takes responsibility for the region each respective mission decides to land in, and how are such borders worked out and maintained? Would we see territories (or countries) suddenly develop on Mars, either under the control of existing countries or even corporations back on Earth? And what if issues or even conflicts between these Martian territories spilled over to Earth and their respective backers?
While there are signed agreements and tentative rules in place (which we will explore in a moment), the fact is all that could change once we actually reach the red planet. Especially, if two missions plan to arrive at a similar time. How will landing sites and areas of exploration be negotiated?
Perhaps the most urgent problem regarding a human presence on the red planet – even a temporary one or an indirect one through the use of advanced artificial intelligence – is the discovery of valuable resources. Resources that if in large enough amounts, would likely become the target of commercial mining operations. And we should note, although only discovered in trace amounts at the moment, gold, nickel, cobalt, and zinc, could all potentially be discovered in abundance on Mars. Further evidence for large amounts of iron ore on Mars also exists.
In fact, while it once more sounds like a concept from science fiction, commercial corporate space mining operations is where we will turn our attention next.
Will International Space Law Be Adequate For Space Exploration?
There is, of course, the International Space Law and the Outer Space Treaty (which makes up space law), which has been put in place with these kinds of issues in mind. This treaty essentially means that space and any cosmic bodies can not be claimed exclusively and must be visited in the interests of unified exploration.
While this works fine in theory, and the vast majority of the planet has signed up to such treaties, the picture may become drastically different if one nation or corporation became suddenly more advanced in terms of space exploration. What, for example, might happen if one of two nations at odds on Earth suddenly became able to land vehicles on the Moon and ultimately Mars? It is perhaps a possibility that such laws will simply be dismissed once the odds are stacked a certain way.
These are very real concerns, however, which were perhaps demonstrated most clearly in 2015 when the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act was passed.
This would allow any citizen or corporation of the United States to “engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources”.
So, while space exploration, including the establishing of bases on the Moon or other cosmic bodies, must be carried out only in the interests of peace, commercial ventures, while still subject to rules, are separate to this. We know on Earth that commercial interests have often played a part – albeit behind the scenes – in conflicts and the action taken in them. It is probably not that much of a stretch of the imagination, then, to think that the same thing might happen in space.
In fact, according to some, the passing of the act and more specifically, the mining that very well takes place after, should be of concern to us all.
The Potential “Back Doors” Of The “Asteroid Mining” Act
According to an article on The Conversation platform written by Gbenga Oduntan, a Senior Lecturer in International Law at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, the 2015 act that essentially paves the way for asteroid mining is not only “dangerous”, but it is also “potentially illegal”. Furthermore, Oduntan writes that the act “goes against a number of treaties and international customary law” already in place to cover the “entire universe”.
Will many private companies whose real prize is to take control of Mars, for the sake of our discussion here, do so under the guise of a mining corporation? While such a scenario perhaps seems to be one straight out of that science fiction movie again, it is a scenario we might wish to consider as a potential danger. Not only to the exploration of Mars but space itself. As well as the risk that certain parts of space might suddenly become “out-of-bounds” due to commercial interests, there is the very real risk of rampant pollution and contamination of what is essentially, the natural world.
Perhaps, then, it was a coincidence that NASA confirmed evidence of liquid water being on Mars in September 2015 and the act for mining resources in space was signed into law barely two months later in November.
As we might imagine, for as many who have concerns (perhaps correctly so), there are others who see the act of freeing private space companies from the shackles of authority bodies, allowing them to venture into the great beyond as soon as the technology they can develop allows.
Whatever does happen over the coming years, both in space exploration and the mining for resources in space, that a back door exists for exploitation is all too accurate.
Check out the short video below.
What If There Is Someone, Or Something, Already There?
As unlikely as such notions might be, there is always the possibility that upon arriving on Mars, the crew discovers that there is already a presence on the red planet.
And this life might not be in the way we understand it. It could be nothing more than insect-like creatures, or perhaps something similar to reptiles. However, given their alien nature, such life could still prove dangerous to our potential crew.
Rather than being grey aliens or “little green men” such life could be nothing more than manifestations of energy, perhaps more in line with what we would view as from the realms of the supernatural. Or, if such life was in a physical form, it might be of an appearance and biological make-up that we simply will not have seen before.
The fact is, despite what we think we know of the red planet, no one will know for certain until such a manned mission arrives there.
And what’s more, as well as the potential discovery of life on the planet, there would also be the possibility that remains of a long lost civilization will be discovered there, perhaps all but buried under millions of years of Martian sands and dust storms.
Perhaps above all, the thing we should consider in the unlikely event that life – in whatever form – was discovered on Mars by any perspective mission that might one day land there, is whether the rest of us back on Earth would learn about it or not. We can be sure, rightly or wrongly, that there would be a whirlwind of conspiracies created almost as soon as the first human foot touched Martian soil, that is for certain.
A Brief Look At Future Planned Missions
Although there have been plenty of planned missions to the red planet that didn’t come to fruition (which we will examine in a future article), there are several such plans still very much in the pipeline. The European Space Agency, China, India, and Japan all planning missions to the red planet.
Perhaps what is most intriguing is that the two “big players” in the race to land humans on Mars, though, represent perfectly, each side of the divide – government-funded (NASA) and private enterprise (Space-X).
It perhaps should not be underestimated how important Space-X – founded by Elon Musk – is in the seemingly increased and urgent desire to reach Mars within our lifetime. And if NASA’s ambitions are lofty, then those of Space-X are astronomical, with a preferred target date of landing as early as 2024, with the landing of necessary equipment and infrastructure landing on our cosmic neighbor two years previously in 2022.
While the funding for Space-X is perhaps not endless, they are seemingly free of budget restrictions and sudden cuts to their budget. The same, however, can not be said for NASA, who very much have to consider both along every step of their potential journey. And that journey is well on the way.
While the previously mentioned Scott Kelly was orbiting the Earth as part of his year-long mission in October 2015, for example, NASA announced its plans to not only to establish an indirect presence on the Moon in the form of a manned orbiting space station but ultimately to colonize the red planet. Part of this strategy was the experiment that Kelly was involved in, to study and overcome the effects on the human body of prolonged time in space.
NASA’s Artemis Project – A Three-Step Approach To Mars
The next step – officially under the Artemis project banner – would be to establish the space station that would orbit the Moon in the same way that the International Space Station orbits our planet. This project – Lunar Gateway – will not only establish a permanent human presence around the Moon but will allow astronauts to, essentially, break free of their reliance on Earth.
This will be crucial in assessing how humans might react when alone in outer space, having to rely on what they have with them, and what they can produce themselves in order to survive. The project will also allow for the storage of crucial equipment for future missions, both to the Moon’s surface, as well as to Mars itself.
Following the completion and satisfactory implementation of Lunar Gateway, NASA then plans to establish a base on the lunar service itself and plans to do so by 2024. This will allow astronauts to “test” the ability of humans to reside for a prolonged amount of time on another cosmic body.
The landing of humans back on the Moon is planned to take place in a region near the lunar south pole. The crew will descend to the surface from the Lunar Gateway, which will remain in orbit, in theory, for the foreseeable future. Following the implementation of these two phases, the next step would be to send a manned mission to Mars.
We will examine these initial two phases the plans of the above mission in detail in a future article, as they are, and will be, fascinating in their own right, and very much deserve our full attention. For now, though, we will keep our attention on Mars, and a company who could prove to be a key factor in that realization.
Will It All Really Go Ahead?
For all the plans that are in place, with the proposed date of landing on Mars being somewhere around 2033, there are many who believe such a date is simply unrealistic. According to an article in Space News, an independent report from March 2019 stated that such a mission was simply “not feasible”. Although the report, completed by the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI), claimed that a more realistic date would only be several years down the line in the late-2030s, it would ultimately state that the proposed phases of the planned NASA missions would simply take much longer than the projected timelines.
The report continued that:
…even without budget constraints, a Mars 2033 orbital mission can’t be realistically scheduled under NASA’s current and notional plans!
Even if such things as general delay in development and technology or sudden cuts to budget were completely eliminated (which in itself is not realistic), the absolute earliest such a mission could be launched would be around 2037.
To achieve a 2033 target date, the report continued, would require that such technological developments such as deep space life support systems and even propulsion would have to be completely assessed and tested in full by 2022 at the latest, something that appears to be much too early given the development stage at the time of the report. What’s more, should such testing be overlooked in order to meet the proposed 2033 date, the risks of failures on such a mission were “dramatically increased”.
Even the proposed date of landing on the lunar service of 2024 was similarly four years to early according to the proposed findings, with 2028 being much in line with NASA’s usual “standard practices for program development”.
Could “Political Bravado” Hurt The Race To Mars?
Perhaps with the above in mind, we should consider the very real possibility that a manned mission to Mars could become embroiled in political bravado. If, as the 2019 report warns, there is a temptation to rush practices for technological development, not only could that lead to further significant delays in an eventually successful mission, it could potentially lead to the loss of life of the astronauts involved.
If you are reading this then the chances are that you are familiar with the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, with each success a propaganda point for the Cold War scoreboard. And while there is no proof that such safety measures were overlooked in order to win such battles into the heavens, there have been a small handful of disasters on each side, perhaps particular during the 1960s when the race to the Moon began to increase.
If we bring our attention back to the 2020s, with the many privately funded missions proposing to go to the red planet, as well as several other nations who have since developed their own space programs since the days when the United States and the Soviet Union were the only serious players in the space race, we might suspect that a need to reach such lofty goals first might override better judgment.
This concern might become even more urgent if nations that are (generally speaking), “at odds” with nations such as the United States and other western countries begin to make significant advances in space. After all, as we have examined above, as well as the exploratory missions, it is perhaps a safe bet that each space agency – whether privately-funded or government-sponsored – will be looking to mine resources, which could tip the balance of economic power here on Earth.
A Mission To Mars Will Lead To Advancements On Earth
As we can see, then, there is a mountain of things to conquer before a manned mission to Mars goes ahead – assuming, of course, that conspiracies of secret missions having already taken place do not turn out to be true. Not least of these are the multiple known and unknown variables that could arise during such a mission.
Whether we see the advances required to not only make a trip to Mars plausible but a reality in our collective lifetimes is open to debate. Some sources believe that the first humans will set foot on Mars within the next decade. Others believe that such exploration of our planetary neighbor remains beyond our era and will be something achieved many generations down the line.
Whichever viewpoint proves to be true, that such a mission would prove to be the next significant step in the evolution of humanity is without a doubt. And while space exploration often receives a very harsh public bashing when compared to the very real needs of those on our own planet, the fact is that many of the modern gadgets we enjoy today – both for recreation and for health – have been direct results of the need to use such technology in space exploration.
If we hadn’t have been attempting to reach the Moon, for example, anything from microwaves to pacemakers might not exist today. The list really is endless. Imagine, then, what advancements might await the populace of Earth as a result of a manned mission to the red planet? And once more, they will likely range from the recreational gadgets to the life-changing devices. Indeed, a new technological and terrestrial revolution might be a consequence of a trip to Mars.
Check out the video below. It looks at the possible exploration of Mars further.
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