About five years ago, Stephen Hawking, a.k.a. the smartest man in the known Universe, warned in an interview, “[Humanity’s] only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth but to spread out into space.” Fortunately, it seems that people are finally beginning to heed Hawking’s dire predictions. As a private space industry gets on its feet and Hollywood stokes the fires of space-age wanderlust, people are once again looking to the stars to preserve humanity’s future. First, though, we’ll have to get past a big, red hurdle that’s standing between us and the rest of the galaxy. It’s time to get to Mars and we have to do it quickly. Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain covered a lot, but there are still plenty of questions surrounding our first manned trip to Mars. Thankfully, people with big brains are working to solve the problems and get us up there. Here are some things to know about a trip to Mars.
1. Our Grand History In Space
That’s way too big-sounding for what humanity has actually done in terms of our space program. To date, we’ve set foot on truly foreign soil a grand total of twelve times. Every one of those people were white, male Americans (just for the record). Beyond that, NASA’s biggest accomplishments include sending lots of video cameras and a go kart into space. Not for lack of know-how or enthusiasm, but for lack of funding. In other words, it’s one heck of a leap from what we’ve got right now in front of us to getting a permanent settlement on Mars. That doesn’t mean scientists won’t try, but it’s going to be a seriously difficult maneuver to execute.
2. Billionaires and Their Toys
In this case, competition is a good thing. In the last few years, several new companies have sprung up, funded by billionaires who want to go into space before they die. Companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are taking the space race out of the hands of under-funded government programs and pushing things forward by leaps and bounds. SpaceX recently completed the unprecedented feat of actually returning a reusable rocket to Earth, but they’re not the only ones paving the way. More than thirty launches from private companies are expected this year.
3. NASA Is Already On It
Okay, cards on the table, right now most private companies are just trying to catch up to NASA, the United States’ space-oriented genius factory. NASA, meanwhile, is already tinkering with the parts required to get some astronauts to Mars. Just last September, NASA announced the construction of the Space Launch System. The massive rocket, “will stand 322 feet tall, higher than the Statue of Liberty. It will produce 8.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, the equivalent of 13,400 locomotive engines, and be capable of carrying 154,000 pounds of payload, about the same as 12 fully grown elephants.” Even more tantalizing, NASA announced that the SLS would be used to deliver astronauts to “multiple, deep-space destinations.”
4. Orion Is Super Sweet
The SLS is being designed to propel NASA’s shiny new spacecraft, Orion, into deep space. Orion is the first new space craft being built by the space agency in 40 years (so we’re kind of due for a new model). According to NASA, “Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.” It’s not even close to the fancy spaceships you see in Hollywood affairs like The Martian, but it’ll get the astronauts where they need to go.
5. Okay, So How Long Will It Take?
Here’s the tough one. The best estimate for a one-way trip to Mars lands somewhere between six and seven months, which is a pretty lengthy trip when you consider that the entire trip would take astronauts at least a year there and back, assuming conditions were right. Considering that NASA is planning on keeping their astronauts on Mars for a while, the whole trip will likely take longer. That amount of time has been done before — Cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent more than 430 days on Russia’s Mir space station — but it’s still a pretty long haul. When you consider that the accommodations aren’t even equivalent to a cramped room in a Holiday Inn, that’s not a very enticing proposition. There’s no shortage of people lining up for the chance to take this momentous journey, however. Over 200,000 people applied for the Mars One opportunity.
6. Habitats By The Numbers
Wait, there are more problems in getting to and settling in space. Right now, NASA estimates that it’ll take roughly 800 metric tons of technology to properly assemble a solid habitat for a long term stay on Mars. Fortunately, NASA isn’t planning on trying to send everything at once. Their kickass remote control toys make that unnecessary. NASA researcher Bret Drake explains, “You can … do things like produce and store oxygen from resources at Mars beforehand for the crew and the ascent vehicle. You could generate water as well.” Cool.
7. Mars Is a Scenic Planet
The Mars Rover beamed back lots of great postcard-worthy shots of the Red Planet that may entice space tourists to want to visit someday, or at least provide the astronauts with some good selfie fodder while they’re there. The fact that Mar’s surface is solid, not gas, is a big plus, for starters. It boasts beautiful desertscapes, majestic mountains, highlands and lowland plains, sweeping canyons, craters, cave systems and ancient river beds. It might be a little dusty and windswept, but there are no shortage of jaw-dropping vistas to gawk at. You could say the views are out of this world.
8. Mars Is Great for Weight Loss
A hundred pounds on Earth weighs about 37.7 pounds on Mars, so you’ll drop weight just by landing there. The gravitational attraction between you and Mars is approximately 40 per cent of your earthbound weight. Take that, Weight Watchers! On the flip side, we don’t really know what the longterm effects of that difference would be – and your mass remains the same, so you’re really not going to look slimmer in your spacesuit (unless you get one of these spiffy new compression suits).
9. It’s a Pretty Hostile Environment
Better pack a sweater, because Mars is rather chilly. The average annual temperature is -81 degrees F (-62 degrees C), although it may reach a high of about 70 degrees F (20 degrees C) at midday around the equator in summer. Building pressurized and heated habitats would be the first priority up there. That pesky lack of oxygen is another big strike against it – it’s atmosphere is mostly carbon-dioxide. Plus the soil is kind of toxic to earthy seeds, so it would have to undergo some kind of decontamination process to become fertile. See The Martian to find out what he used to enrich the red soil on his unanticipated lengthy stay there.
10. Longterm Space Travel Does a Number on the Body
Being subjected to extended weightlessness can cause muscle atrophy and bone density loss. Decreased red blood cell production and cardiovascular deterioration are other effects. Balance and eyesight become compromised, as does the immune system. Sleep cycles are disturbed and nausea is a common complaint. Space medicine is studying these ill-effects and working on solutions to counteract them, but we’re not there yet. Among the list of physiological challenges is “extreme flatulence.” If that doesn’t turn you off joining a manned mission to Mars, you may just have the right stuff for the job.
11. There’s Still More To Know
It’s actually a good thing that the Mars mission is a few years off, because there’s still plenty of problems to work out. Take, for instance, the crazy lethal amount of radiation on Mars’ surface is currently not something we can really do anything about. Right now, there’s enough radiation on the planet’s surface to increase an astronaut’s lifetime risk of a cancer diagnosis by three percent. Even more troubling, NASA has no real ability to counter that; the best they can do is inform astronauts of the risk.
12. The Long Term Goals
Mars One is an international project with the sole goal of establishing a permanent settlement on Mars by 2028, with more crews to land and continue working on and expanding the settlement every two years thereafter. Right now, their plan is largely theoretical, but it’s gaining real steam among a group of people who can actually get the job done. As the team behind Mars One explains, “Human settlement on Mars is the next giant leap for humankind. This exploration of the solar system will bring the human race closer together. Mars is the next step of the voyage into the universe.”
13. Tourists on Mars
Once they work out all the kinks with the real astronaut expeditions, Mars tourism is the logical next step. Start dreaming of your trip to the Red Planet!