The race to Mars

By Lyle Bateman
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

Martian sand dunes It makes for very good science fiction. Mankind has been fascinated by the red planet for millenia … ancient people told stories about the God of War when watching Mars transit the skies, and more recent thinkers have speculated on ancient civilizations living and dying on Mars. Even in the most recent times, when we have accepted that the red planet is probably lifeless, and at best only contains the most basic microbial life, Mars continues to fascinate humans.

Today, many people are looking to mars as the next step in our manned space exploration. Having already landed humans on the moon with Apollo, the conventional wisdom is that a manned mission to Mars is the next logical step in our exploration of the solar system. In early 2004, George Bush announced an ambitious plan to send humans to Mars by 2015, and while that plan was overly ambitious, fueled more by political considerations than by science, the fact remains that NASA and other space organizations are looking seriously at a manned trip to Mars in the next few decades. Plans have advanced so far that training labs are being set up and staffed to begin research into the human issues involved in long-term exposure to the cramped, closed environments of space travel.

There are many good, logical reasons to go to Mars, and there is no doubt in my mind that if society continues to progress as we have been, humans will walk the red sands of Mars someday. It’s even logical to say that Mars is the next logical step in our manned exploration of the solar system, after the moon. But that leaves an important question unanswered, IMO … have we truly “been to the moon?”

Don’t get me wrong, I am NOT a conspiracy guy who is questioning whether Apollo ever happened. There is no question that 12 men walked on the moon in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve explored the moon in the way necessary before we are ready to move on. Are we utilizing the moon in the way we best can? Are there things we can learn from more manned moon missions that we can apply to a manned Mars mission? What are the advantages to a manned mission to Mars that can’t be achieved by returning to the moon? And ultimately, is there an advantage to a permanent manned presence on the moon prior to going to Mars?

Like the Apollo missions of the late 60’s and early 70’s, there are a lot of unknowns involved in a trip to Mars right now. One of the biggest difficulties we have is extremely long travel time… even the shortest estimates still have astronauts in space for more than 5 months. There are obvious concerns with the close quarters required of the crew for the duration of the flight, and as recent events from NASA have shown, personality selection will be vital in a mission where half a dozen astronauts are stuck together for several months with no chance to back out part way through. The other major possible problem involves radiation from the sun, a constant concern for all space missions. Our atmosphere protects us on earth from the bulk of the radiation but for astronauts in orbit, and for the Apollo moon missions, radiation is a serious concern.

The moon missions were short enough that the radiation effects weren’t huge, and low-earth orbit provides a minimum of protection for ISS crew members as well on their extended tours. But the 6-9 months it will take to get from earth to Mars will expose the astronauts to huge amounts of radiation, without any protection from planet earth. In part, extended missions to the space station are designed to study some of the problems related to Mars missions, but its not a truly suitable location, given its position in low-earth orbit.

A manned moonbase would address many of the concerns that face astronauts contemplating the long trip to Mars. The distance and expense of traveling to the moon means that crews will be highly isolated during any extended missions to a permanent moonbase. This will provide an excellent opportunity to study the psychological stresses that astronauts will face both on the trip to Mars, and during any eventual work there, and the return trip, while still maintaining the safety valve of relative proximity to earth. Further, a moonbase would also be subject to nearly the same radiation levels as a Mars mission (nearly, because since the moon is a heavenly body that rotates, the location of the moonbase wouldn’t always be in direct sunlight … the moon’s surface would block radiation during lunar night, whereas the Mars capsule gets inundated with radiation for the entire trip) … a permanently manned moon base would be an excellent place not only to study the effects of that radiation on humans, but also to test various shielding technology.

Another challenge faced by explorers of Mars will be mobility. Like the Apollo crews, Mars astronauts will not be able to just wander around unfettered. Mars does have an atmosphere, unlike the moon, but it is both poisonous and far to thin for human consumption … as a result, astronauts will be forced to use bulky space suits for any activity outside their spacecraft or habitation modules. While suit technology has advanced tremendously since the Apollo days, much of that advance has come with the intention of operating in the fully zero-G environment of orbit, as opposed to walking around on a foreign planet or moon. As such, suits for the Mars mission will need to be designed for the sorts of mobility needed to walk in a gravity environment (both Mars and the moon are lower gravity than earth, but gravity and walking is still a consideration). Again, a permanent moonbase strikes me as the perfect testbed for such technology. Further, the low gravity, no atmosphere environment of the moon makes it an excellent location to build and launch future spacecraft from.

None of this addresses any of the very good reasons to go back to the moon for its own purposes, simply how such a trip will benefit our eventual trip to Mars. Many people see the moon as a huge lifeless hunk of rock that has very little of scientific interest, but thats not really true. Apollo missions barely scratched the surface of the science to be done on the moon, and what we can learn about the formation and life-cycle of our solar system from closer inspection of the moon is huge. While we tend to think of the moon as empty, it is actually a vast bed of resources, some of which are very scarce on Earth. While helium is one of the most prevalent elements in the universe, and earth has no shortage of standard helium, a special isotope of helium called helium 3 is exceedingly rare on our planet, but fairly common on the moon. Speculation exists that helium 3 based fusion reactors could be a huge boon for nuclear power generation, but little research is possible currently due to the rareness of He3 on earth. A permanent lunar site mining He3 would make that research possible, at least. Further, add the vast quantities of oxygen and hydrogen trapped in the lunar soil, and you have all the makings for not only oxygen and water for the crew, but also for the fuel needed for any spacecraft that might be built there. Heavy meteorite bombardment of the moon might cause some safety concerns for a permanent moonbase, but those meteorites will also provide a wealth of heavy metals and other resources, many of which are very hard to find on earth (earth’s atmosphere means most meteors burn up in our atmosphere, and disperse any useful material into fine dust at best).

Overall, I think a manned mission to Mars is inevitable in our march towards the stars. The questions I have relate more to when such a mission should happen, as opposed to whether it should happen or not. Ultimately, I can’t help getting caught up in the excitement over a possible trip to the red planet, but I also can’t help wondering if we are ignoring a necessary step in our march. We will go to Mars, maybe even in my lifetime, but if we choose to take on the mission before we go back to the moon, I think we’ll be opening ourselves up to potential problems that could be resolved by a more measured approach. The moon has been our closest companion throughout human history… even as the ancients speculated about the God of War as a tiny spec in the sky, the moon loomed far larger over our lives and worldview. It’s only fitting that we do not ignore her as we move out into our solar system … she has been a faithful mistress, and will teach us what we need to know, before we venture completely out of the earth’s shadow.