After Successful Moon Landing, the Next Human Target Has Been Planet Mars. Technological Challenges Aside, Is This Quest Commercially Viable?
ON 25 MAY, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the United States president spoke to congress and in his speech, he issued NASA (the US space agency) a historic challenge: to land a man on the moon and bring him back home safely. This message was regarded as a national need in the background of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the competing superpower.
The time allotted for this daunting task was less than a decade. And indeed, mankind achieved the gigantic leap on the moon on July 20, 1969. Much has changed since then; the Cold War rivals are now partners on the international space station. Having conquered the mysterious moon, humankind is now looking at new horizons beyond lunar surface. NASA is now keen about journeying to the Mars and beyond.
In my previous article The Superdrill: A Journey to the Core, you can read an account of an earth-drilling project in which the Russians superseded the Americans. Here we talk about the realm of space travel where the United States has not only taken the lead but is also harboring far more ambitious goals. Though a considerable range of conspiracy theories claim that American moon landing was a fake, traveling to Mars and beyond will be a hell of a ride.
Furthermore, in the twenty-first century, human ambitions are far beyond footsteps or flags; they aim to visit Mars and colonize over there. Can humans settle on Mars or other planets and why should or should not we do that? These are the central ideas of this article. But let us first look at the historical background of this seemingly futile endeavor.
Why Bother Traveling to Space
Humans are explorers by nature. However, the first step that humankind placed on the moon was not just out of curiosity. Nor was it to prove our technological credentials against other creatures. The real motivations behind space travel and consequent moon landing were purely political. The United States and the Soviet Union, the two extant super powers were locked in a fierce struggle in proving their dominance. This struggle is called the Cold War.
During the cold war, the two mighty giants were competing in many fields ranging from economy to social philosophy. Technology was no exception. Though it might seem a little immature, but the US and the USSR were contesting like two bored kids challenging each other over apparently trivial things.
Though the United States claimed the final victory in the space race; the Russians had several firsts: the first man into the space (Yuri Gagarin), the first spacewalk, the first space station, the first satellite around the moon, and the first lunar pictures taken from space. As the Americans clinched the conclusive triumph by successfully landing Neil Armstrong and his two crewmembers on the lunar surface, the conquest was finally over.
The space race between the US and the USSR inadvertently contributed to a plethora of technological developments. To name a few, earth satellites for weather forecasting, microcomputers, graphic designing, compact discs, earthquake prediction systems, radiation leakage detection devices, flat-panel televisions, the GPS, and many more are a consequence of space research.
Success begets further desire. Landing on the moon was an unprecedented achievement in mankind’s history. However, we do not sit contended with the memories of five decades old victory. We are looking forward to new horizons beyond the moon.
There could be several attractions alluring mankind to travel to moon or other planets and possibly colonize them. Least of them could be that humankind is less vulnerable to extinction — at least in logic — if they reside over more than one planet. It is analogous to the common advice: do not put all your eggs in a single basket.
The NASA Constellation Program
In 2004, NASA launched its new moon-bound vision, followed by the Constellation Program (2005-2009) aimed at completing international space station as well as repeating the epic act of lunar travel. However, the ultimate goal was to journey to the Mars in a crewed flight; this time NASA was looking forward to a sustained human presence in space. And all this was to be accomplished before 2020 — easier said than done.
Rather than trotting around the moon for a couple of hours, the Constellation astronauts would embark on missions that could last months. For this purpose, researchers at NASA would have to develop new tools for enabling prolonged living on the moon. Not only would they need to build semi-permanent habitats but also space stations for maintaining supplies for the moon or Mars dwellers.
The foremost technological challenge in this case is that NASA’s current rockets are smaller and less robust for the task at hand. Thus, NASA is developing new rockets called Ares I and Ares V that will be larger, taller and stronger than their 1960s Apollo counterparts. While engineering a return trip to moon and beyond will not be a trivial pursuit, experts agree that the biggest hurdle will be the financial challenge.
How much money can the United States expend on a fancy mission like this? During the Cold War era, based on the political heat between the two super powers, the significance of moon landing was enormous. During 1960s, a vast majority of Americans reckoned the expense of Apollo as justified against national security threats.
Today there is no cold war, and there is no competing super power. What would be the rational for such an ornamental pursuit in the harsh economic climate of the twenty-first century, many Americans ask. During the Apollo years, NASA’s budget was almost five percent of the federal budget. Today, it merely accounts for less than one percent.
Contrary to these arguments, NASA maintains that there are a host of good reasons for continuing space exploration ambition. Proponents of this initiative argue that it should not be viewed as a superfluous space thrill. Rather, this will lead to technological advances like high-efficiency batteries, energy storage systems and newer life-support mechanisms. The subsequent new inventions could be equally beneficial on earth and could lead to countless technological innovations.
Neglecting NASA’s pleas for substantiating the Constellation Program as a worthy goal, the Obama administration cancelled the program in 2011 shifting course from one of its election campaign promises. Having already spent $9 billion on the program, the fiscal burden was too much to bear for the United States. Will 2030 be a realistic timetable? Probably not.
A Trip to Mars
In 2013, Mars One — an operation aimed at conquering the red planet — started inviting applications for a 2023 Mars colonization mission. If you are offered any such choice, will you accept? Before signing up for any such adventure or possibly a misadventure, please be informed about your destination and the likely perils of this vast undertaking.
Mars has fascinated human curiosity since olden times. Archaic humans believed that the red dot in the sky was stained with the blood of fallen warriors. Actually, it has been named after the mythical god of war which the Romans called Mars. Mars is the fourth planet of the solar system and the one most similar to earth. It is this similarity that has given way to the thoughts of possible life at Mars.
Mars is smaller than earth; its diameter is about half that of the earth. While a Martian day is only thirty nine minutes longer than our day, a year at Mars is nearly double; 687 earth days to be precise. Just like earth, Mars has seasons too; minimum temperatures in winter can be as low as -200 degree Fahrenheit at the poles and the summer temperatures at the equator can reach a maximum of 80 degree Fahrenheit. The force of gravity at Mars is only 38 percent of what we feel at ground.
The quest for reaching Mars started as early as 1960s; since then 43 missions have been launched out of which only 23 have been successful. Apart from the United States and Russia, a number of other countries including Japan and China have tried their luck with the red planet, India being the latest contestant in this race. However, all of these attempts have been unmanned — the probability of your survival in a Mars trip is fifty-fifty (in best case scenario).
It is certainly possible for humans to travel to the Mars. But why should we go there when the journey will be expensive, dangerous and very long. This will be a one-way journey; once you embark the journey, there is no going back. The money and other resources required to carry all that stuff for building a reliable lifestyle on the distant island will be mind-boggling.
Various reasons are propagated for selecting Mars as an abode; some of them are quite trivial though. For instance, some proponents of Mars colonization say that Mars has a lot of iron in its soil. But that does not qualify as a strong economic reason; we have a lot of iron present in the earth’s crust.
We do not live in a Cold War era anymore, so there is no point to prove by landing on Mars first. No doubt the race for moon landing blessed us with numerous technological spin-offs; however, it’s no longer a wise investment.
With the currently available technology, it takes us only three days to commute to moon; by contrast, a trip to Mars would take eight month one way. Having finished a long, persistent journey, you will surely like to stay and roam around a little bit, before starting another eight months travel back home. It would take a heroic reserve of patience to handle confinement in an enclosed, sterile environment and still performing entrusted duties.
Being away from family and friends, you will be accompanied by the same people all the time. It would be no less than a traveling jail. Some researchers have suggested that women are better suited for Mars travel because they are lighter in weight and consume less food so a space vehicle carrying women will be easier to design. But weight of occupants and supplies is not the only constraint. Even if you have all the necessary means to travel to your beloved red planet, it is not simply a matter of entering a spacecraft and starting your journey.
The Martian trip can only be favorable during a time period called a launch window — a particular interlude when any rocket or spacecraft must lift off to attain a precise landing on another celestial body. This window depends upon the relative positions of the launching and receiving bodies (earth and Mars respectively). The launch window for Mars opens after every twenty six weeks; so if you miss this shuttle, you will have to wait for another six months before availing the next trip.
In reality, any spacecraft launched from earth would go to Sun’s orbit and after around eight months, it would intercept the Mars orbit around the Sun. Many things can go wrong during the voyage: electronic malfunctions, wrong speed of the spacecraft, faulty trajectory, lack of fuel, or worse still collision with a straying space rock.
Suppose you availed the launch window, and by a rare stroke of luck, successfully landed on the red globe. How will you inform your relatives about your safe arrival? What if you need support from earth? The first challenge you will face is to communicate with your earthly counterparts.
The radio time between earth and moon is merely 1.5 seconds. By contrast, it might take up to twenty minutes to send a radio message down to earth and another twenty minutes to receive a reply and that too if they have a ready-made answer to your question. For the fast-forwarded humans of the twenty-first century, it would be a terrible nuisance.
Irrespective of whether it can support any life form or not, Mars is far from an ideal place to spend a vacation. As you disembark from your enclosed space vehicle, you should be ready to face a hostile environment full of carbon dioxide. Worse still, Martian air is so thin that it does not hold any heat. The average temperature at the equator is -50 degree Fahrenheit; the atmospheric pressure is so low that water cannot exist as a liquid.
The Martian Colony
Imagine all technological obstacles in commuting and settling to Mars are removed and we have successfully landed a tribe of twenty humans on the red planet. A group of twenty people cannot be called a colony. With vast areas of land available for colonization, and assuming our current biological growth rate of 1 percent, it would take 394 years for these twenty people to multiply and achieve a total population of a thousand humans.
When will they touch the million mark, I leave this to your mathematical skills. But assuming a maximum planetary capacity of 10 billion Martians, it will take two millennia to outstrip the planet’s absorbing capability. Though exact numbers are hard to conclude, we humans have taken much longer time for claiming similar populations on earth.
The primary reason for this relatively slow growth is that throughout the course of history, humanity on earth has been repeatedly afflicted by natural and manmade catastrophes like famines, plagues, wars etc. It occurred only a few decades ago that we grasped and apparently defeated these inextricable adversaries.
What unforeseen diseases the aborigines of the red planet will have to encounter, will the Mars-dwelling farmers be efficient enough to save their crops from unpredictable weather patterns, will the technology-loaded Martians be any less belligerent towards their fellow humans? We simply do not know.
Why not Earth?
After successful moon landing, the next goal on human space agenda is to conquer and possibly colonize Mars. While there were purely political motives behind moon landing, there is no ongoing Cold War and there are no super powers at a technological conquest. Moreover, travelling to moon and spending a few hours is one thing, while spending a lifetime at a distant planet like Mars is an altogether a different situation. The required technological advancement and associated costs are unimaginable.
Mars is comparable to earth in some ways but that does not mean it is inhabitable like earth. Even if it supported preliminary life forms, there is still no plausible reason for building human colonies at Mars; the climate is hostile and the fiscal load of such an outlandish expedition is unbearable for any economy.
We are looking for colonization over moon or Mars. Why not earth? Have we already colonized the whole space available on earth? Residence in unpopulated parts of earth is much simpler and cheaper than other celestial bodies. There are huge areas on earth ripe for colonization: enormous deserts, frigid Antarctic wilderness, and vast ocean surfaces. These places can be far easier abodes than off-planet colonies where survival is much more intimidating.