In Part 1, we considered the reasons a manned mission to Mars is a worthy endeavour. In our next installment, we look at the challenges and risks that confront the Mars Mission, as well as the people involved in tackling Mission challenges in order to make it a reality.
Challenges & Risks
Before a manned mission to Mars gets off the ground, a few critical issues that could adversely affect the physiological and psychological health of astronauts during their journey to Mars will need to be resolved.
From isolation to radiation, here are the five key astronaut health concerns that still need to be solved before a journey to Mars can hope to get underway:
Depending on orbital alignments, the distance between the Earth and Mars ranges from between 55 million kilometers and 400 million kilometers—between 140 to 1,025 times further than the distance from the Earth to the Moon. This means that it could take as long as 20 minutes to send a message (at the speed of light) one-way between the two planets.
This distance is so great that, at their greatest separation, astronauts on Mars would need to wait over 40 minutes after sending a message or request to NASA before they could receive any kind of response. Because of this delay, astronauts visiting the red planet will need to be prepared to make decisions autonomously and independently—especially when those decisions require decisive and immediate solutions.
This communications delay between astronauts in space and mission controllers back on Earth has never arisen in a previous manned mission, and its negative effects haven’t been fully explored.
In addition to this communications delay is the logistical nightmare of traveling millions of kilometers away from Earth and the impossibility of receiving a re-supply in any reasonable amount of time. Whereas astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) can receive a fresh shipment of supplies within a few hours of its being lifted from the launchpad, humans on Mars would need to wait at least 6 months for any such shipment to arrive.
This means that any medicine or replacement equipment required by the crew must be brought along or sent ahead of time—and in the case of any unforeseen illnesses or medical conditions, a rapid evacuation from Mars isn’t possible like it is from the ISS.
With communications-delays and lengthy travel times, astronauts venturing to Mars will need to be capable of resolving a wide range of potential problems autonomously and with limited resources. Any failure to do so could be a death-sentence.
2. ISOLATION AND CRAMPED LIVING ENVIRONMENTS
Although the journey to Mars will take humans to another planet, the vast majority of their time will be spent isolated inside of an enclosed spacecraft or Martian habitat. The concept of ‘fresh air’ will need to be cast aside, with astronauts learning to cope with living and working inside of a laboratory environment for the duration of their mission.
In addition to this isolation, astronauts will be wearing the same pair of underwear for months at a time and putting on a diaper every time they go for a walk in their space suits. Suddenly, the romantic notion of a journey to Mars begins to sound more like living in a nursing home for the elderly than exploring another world.
Even when astronauts do step outside, they’ll remain isolated from the Martian environment, breathing recycled air and operating with a limited range of motion. The psychological impacts of isolation are still being studied in various experiments funded by space agencies and private organizations around the world, and the success of a manned mission to and from the red planet will depend upon the human crew’s ability to continue working as a team in stressful living environments.
3. A CLOSED ECOSYSTEM
Humans on Mars will be locked inside of a closed environment for years on end. In this situation, air quality becomes a central issue: there’s always the possibility that contaminants could leak into the environment and cause adverse physiological effects if left undetected.
In addition to this, the immune system can become severely compromised while living in enclosed environments for extended periods of time—astronauts will need to take regular blood, saliva, and urine sample tests in order to track the status of their health. Any microbes carried into space with the astronauts will also remain with them for the duration of their mission, which carries the risk that these microbes could mutate, spread, and infect astronauts with weakened immune systems.
The potential dangers of living inside of an enclosed ecosystem are multiplied by the mission’s distance from Earth—help is a long way away, and any health problems that develop during the mission to Mars will need to be solved with the resources at hand.
Another factor in deep-space habitation is interior design—astronauts will essentially be living inside of a laboratory for the duration of their mission, so designing a living space that’s both functional and comfortable is of high priority to their psychological well-being.
An environment that’s both safe and comfortable is key to maintaining the psychological and physiological health of astronauts, and the ISS is an invaluable resource for testing the principles of a long-duration mission to Mars.
4. THE EFFECTS OF GRAVITY
Because the human body is adapted to the effect of gravity constantly pulling fluids downwards, it counteracts this effect by pushing fluids upwards. This evolved trait becomes unbalanced in a weightless environment, causing fluids to continually move upwards into an astronaut’s head.
As this fluid buildup and loss of muscle mass continues, astronauts can experience vision problems as well as a loss of spatial awareness, eye coordination, balance, and they become more susceptible to developing motion sickness.
These effects could prove deadly when attempting to land on the surface of Mars. Even though Martian gravity is only 37% as strong as Earth’s, the large g-forces experienced during descent to the Martian surface could severely compromise a human pilot’s ability to control the spacecraft after having spent months in weightlessness.
The only real fix to the issue of physical degradation in micro-gravity is having a spacecraft designed to create its own artificial gravity using centrifugal force—having a module that spins around a central point as a means of producing some form of artificial gravity.
The good news is that astronauts wouldn’t need 100% Earth’s gravity, just a fraction. Adding heavy weights to a 10% Earth-gravity environment would provide adequate muscle stimulation and bodily stress so as to simulate exercise in higher gravity, whereas weights don’t help at all in a weightless environment.
With even a small amount of gravity to provide continuous stress on the skeletal structure, the adverse effects of living in micro-gravity for extended periods of time can be avoided.
5. DEADLY SPACE RADIATION
One of the biggest X-factors in deep-space travel is the presence of cosmic and solar radiation. On the ISS, astronauts experience radiation levels that are ten times higher than would be experienced on the surface of Earth. But further out, beyond Earth’s magnetic field, in the unprotected vastness of deep-space, that level could be quite a bit higher.
High doses of cosmic and solar rays can have adverse affects on the central nervous system, such as: impaired cognitive function and motor skills, behavioral changes, and a slightly increased risk of developing fatal cancer at some point in any given astronaut’s lifetime. Extreme exposure could potentially lead to radiation sickness, and symptoms which include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and loss of appetite.
NASA currently holds the position that any spacecraft heading for Mars with a human crew on board will need to incorporate an increased amount of radiation shielding—the more the better. But with added shielding comes added weight to the spacecraft, and every added kilogram could prolong the journey to Mars, leaving astronauts exposed to cosmic and solar rays for even longer periods of time.
Now that we’ve considered some of the key challenges, next we look at the people and initiatives working on the solutions.
Mission Saviours: Government & Private Sector Collaboration
Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators.
NASA is working with Elon Musk’s Space-X and aerospace giant Boeing Co. to develop crew capsules to take astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA relies on SpaceX and aerospace firm Orbital ATK to deliver supplies and cargo to the space station.Other Space Commerce companies include Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and moon mining firm Moon Express.
A Public/Private partnership recognizes the reality of the space business today, as well as financial limitations. Space-X has said its first test flight of an interplanetary vehicle could come in four years. A crewed mission could launch in late 2024 and arrive on Mars in 2025.
One question still to be answered is who will build the massive rockets needed to get to Mars?
NASA plans to send its Space Launch System rocket to an asteroid in the mid-2020s and to Mars in the 2030s. Boeing’s Aerospace division is on record as saying the first person to land on Mars will “arrive there riding a Boeing rocket,”.
A manned mission to Mars remains a formidable challenge.
Nevertheless, the risks and issues are being identified and steadily resolved…We salute the Governments and Private Companies that have committed themselves to achieving the goal of a successful manned mission to Mars which in Elon Musk’s words will ensure that mankind becomes an ‘Inter-Planetary Species’.
Check out the links below including the Space-X Website’s Mars Mission Page for more info on the technical plans and progress being made so we can send mankind to the Red Planet.
Links & Credits
Space-X Website: http://www.spacex.com/mars