A One-Way Ticket to Mars?

A couple of months ago, I published a post outlining a few historical viewpoints of the planet Mars. Philosophers and scientists have considered it to be a cold and lifeless world, a planet teeming with life, as well as a formerly flourishing planet that now holds only the vestiges of an intelligent and resourceful society. No matter the time period, the red planet has maintained a constant hold over the imaginations of men and scientists alike – it has always been a point of fascination and more recently an achievable goal.  The lure and romance of Mars had led many to propose the exploration the red planet in a variety of fashions. Some focus on robotic exploration while others proposed staged manned missions. The most radical proposal merges the two on a strict time frame: a one-way manned mission to Mars within the first quarter of the 21st century. (Pictured is the Mars Pathfinder lander. The landing bag, petal or ramp that facilitated the rover Sojourner’s descent to the surface, and a meteorology mast are visible against the Martian landscape. 1997.)

The general concept of a one-way mission isn’t entirely novel. A similar proposal for a lunar landing was briefly entertained in the early planning stages for Apollo. The crew would land on the surface of the moon and wait, receiving periodic deliveries of supplies, until NASA figured out how to bring them home (coming home was, after all, a part of Kennedy’s directive). The proposal was never seriously considered.

Proposals for a one-way mission to Mars generally follow a basic mission profile broken into three stages: site selection, establishing an unmanned base, and the arrival of the astronauts. An elaboration on these stages will clarify how the mission is expected to unfold.

Before any men can be sent, Mars-orbital satellites and surface rovers must roam the planet to select a suitable area for settlement. The ideal spot is inside a lava tube, a natural, large, cavernous structure formed by rivulets of molten lava. These will provide the settlers with refuge from the harsh Martian climate and dust storms. As an additional benefit, many lava tubes are at lower elevation and in close proximity to the area thought to be a former ocean. Proximity to underground ice will give the astronauts a source of oxygen and water, vital constituents to sustaining human life on Mars. (Pictured is a mosaic image taken by Spirit’s navigation camera. The Mars Exploration Rover is sitting on its landing platform only hours after touching down the Martian surface. 2004.)

Once the site is selected, robotic rovers and probes will set out to prepare for the arrival of the astronauts. These unmanned pioneers will establish the basis of a permanent manned Mars station. Instruments remotely established will include a communications relay, a power generator, and perhaps a telescope. These robots will serve an additional secondary function. Once their payload is delivered, they will be reconfigured into additional crew quarters. At this point in man’s exploration of the solar system, nothing can go to waste. (Pictured is the Sojourner rover as seen by the Mars Pathfinder Lander. 1997.)

Finally, the astronauts will arrive. Ideally, the crew will consist of four men (or women) at least one of whom is a trained physician. The crew will be sent to the red planet in pairs in two identical spacecraft. The landing vehicles will double as crew quarters and workstation; when added to the previously established base camp, the astronauts will have a sizable and well-stocked home and lab.

Having two crews with two landing vehicles also adds redundancy to the mission. Two landers will provide the crew with spare parts if anything breaks or needs immediate repair in one of their main quarters. Additionally, separating the crew into two pairs increases the odds that at least one pair of astronauts will arrive at their destination. A macabre but important redundancy.

Once settled, the astronauts will largely be responsible for their own survival. Plants brought from Earth will be able to grow in Martian soil under specialized domes, providing an additional source of food and oxygen. Their campsite’s proximity to frozen water will enable the astronauts to extract and purify drinking water. Microbes will be used to break down and decompose human wastes. In addition to these self-sustaining means, supplies that cannot be drawn from the Martian environment (such as fuel and specific pieces of machinery) will be periodically supplied form Earth. (Pictured is an artist’s concept of a manned Mars workstation and greenhouse.)

The astronauts will live on Mars, running experiments and returning valuable data via radio telemetry to Earth. More astronauts will join this first group as their base becomes more established, but there will be no way home. The proposal doesn’t include a return plan for any circumstances. Once they leave Earth, these Martian pioneers will never return.

Most one-way proposals anticipate men will be on Mars by the 2020s. If not, then at the very least they expect that the preliminary steps towards a manned Martian mission will be well underway by then.

Champions of this and similar ‘one-way’ proposals are quick to emphasize that this is in no way a suicide mission. The astronauts will be volunteers; that they will never return home will not come as a surprise. They will be the most physically and mentally fit of all applicants. Measures will be in place to ensure their mental and emotional stability. They will also be in constant contact with Earth, speaking as frequently and naturally as the delay in radio communications will allow. Depending on the relative positions of the two planets, the delay can be anywhere between three and thirty minutes.

The proposal is intriguing and it certainly brings a very Romantic-era element into the modern exploration. Indeed, parallels are constantly drawn to the early explorers who sought new lands. A manned mission to Mars is treated as the modern incarnation of Magellan setting out in search of a possible passage between modern-day South America and Antarctica or Columbus’ accidental discovery of modern North America while searching for a quicker route to India.

But Magellan, Columbus, and Huxley, as well as their contemporaries, had the distinct advantage of being able to live off the land they reached. They didn’t need to live in specialized domes. They didn’t need to find start growing food form scratch; they could replenish their supplies from the land in most places they stopped.

Perhaps closer to a proposed journey to Mars is the Arctic and Antarctic expeditions such as those of Roald Amundsen. Amundsen couldn’t live off the land once he reached his destinations of the North and later South Pole. Like the Martian pioneers, he had to bring his food with him, as well as adequate shelter from the harsh polar environment. Amundsen could, however, breathe the air and melt readily available snow for water. (Pictured above is the Sojourner rover crossing the harsh Martian terrain as seen by the Mars Pathfinder Lander. 1997.)

Considering the basic needs challenged by a manned mission to Mars raises the question of whether a manned mission is necessary. A human crew has certain notable benefits over a robotic one. Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt has specified three distinctadvantages: a human’s eyes can take in more detail and depth in one glace around his surroundings than a robot’s cameras, human dexterity is far precise than a robots’, and the human mind can make decisions with significantly more reliability, speed, and efficiency than a robot. Even in light of rapidly advancing robotics, the reality of Schmitt’s assertion is easy to see. (Pictured: Apollo 17 Astronauts Jack Schmitt. 1971.)

While human faculties may be superior, a robot can achieve the same ends. It just takes longer. But what’s the rush? The Martian pioneers will be there to study the planet, return information about the environment, landscape, possible life forms, and means for human survival. The 2020 goal brings urgency where there’s no need. Mars isn’t going anywhere, and humanity is unlikely to make a mass pilgrimage in with next decade.

That being said, is there really a need for a man on Mars? What justification is there for a one-way mission, let alone any manned mission to Mars.

The strongest motivating factor is simply our humanity. We are a fragile and proud species, obsessed with securing a kind of immortality by spreading ourselves across the cosmos. Carl Sagan used our natural curiosity and the self-preservation instincts we inherited from our Homo sapien ancestors as the springboard for his support of manned spaceflight. With hunting a gathering no longer a necessity, we’ve become restless in our sedentary lives. And when we’re restless, we move. A grand adventure and the challenge of finding new worlds are almost inevitable.

Some take this argument a step further, citing the lack of new places to explore on Earth as the primary reason behind our inevitable journey new worlds. The logical expansion is, of course, the oceans. The deep oceans are an equally unknown and alien place that can be reached much faster and cheaper.

A more extreme rationale for manned exploration of the solar system exists. Some are convinced that a grand gesture like sending men to live on Mars will unite men on Earth in a way nothing else can. Race, religion, nationality, and even class will become irrelevant as the world stands behind its Martian pioneers. The Mars men won’t represent any one ‘people’; they will represent capital ‘u’ Us as a species.

This last, idealistic notion seems almost absurd. Is a young religious fanatic prepared to die in an attempt to take his ‘enemies’ with him likely to change his plans because he suddenly remembers the four men living on Mars? Probably not.   Unfortunately, a grand human adventure doesn’t have the same ability to unite people the way a common enemy does. If Venusians were to attack Earth and humans needed to migrate to Mars immediately to survive, maybe then capital ‘w’ We humans would unite in support of a manned mission to Mars. (Pictured: The Spirit rover casts its shadow on the Martian surface. Its robotic arm is clearly visible in the centre. 2004.)

A manned mission to Mars is difficult to justify. But if the decision to go is made, then a one-way mission greatly simplifies matters. One aspect motivating a one-way mission is cost. Fuel is heavy, which means a spacecraft carrying the extra fuel needed to get astronauts back from Mars would costs more to launch into orbit. Removing the extra weight makes for a cheaper launch. It is expected to be cheaper to send both halves of the four-man crew as well as the continual resupply missions than to send the crew with everything they need to make the return journey. But on the other hand, the cost of continually delivering supplies to the Martian pioneers might be on par with the cost of sending them the tools they need to construct a launch pad and the extra fuel to bring them home. (Pictured is an artist’s concept of a manned exploration base on Mars.)

Artist's concept of Mars' magnetic field. A comparison with Earth's shows how little protection the Martian surface has.
Artist's concept of Earth's magnetic field. A comparison with Mars' shows how much protection the Earth's surface has, not to mention all the people who live here.

Another motivating factor is safety. It is considered less of a risk to send a one-way mission than a return mission. The launch and landing stages are the two most dangerous parts of any mission. Halving the dangerous stages, one launch and one landing instead of two of each poses less of a risk to the crew. The inherent dangers of spaceflight remain, but the astronauts have better odds of surviving on the Martian surface than a return mission.

The argument of safety is somewhat nullified in light of the harsh Martian atmosphere. Mars doesn’t have the same natural protection as Earth. Mars has no magnetic field, leaving the astronauts exposed to higher amounts of radiation, meaning that their life spans will be significantly decreased. Not to mention the harsh environment. Any severe damage to the environmental systems and the astronauts will perish, if not instantly then quickly.

Perhaps the risks associated with a manned round-trip mission to Mars are too high. If a manned mission were to go, and if the associated risks indicated that the crew might not make it back or survive long enough to come home, why spend the extra time and money to try to bring them home when keeping them comfortable and happy is simpler. Going through a second launch and a second landing is incredibly hazardous. A simpler mission has a greater chance for success.

Even if the mission could be justified and brought to fruition, it seems impossible that it will be without controversy.

The view of Earth from the Martian surface.

The topic yields some further questions on topics I’ve previously posted: Would choosing the Martian astronauts be as in depth (and ultimately inefficient) as the Mercury astronaut selection? Might establishing a base on Mars be best left, if not to robots alone, then to a sort of man-machine hybrid? If the mission were to be based in NASA, would the American taxpayers, as the source of funding, stand behind such a mission or feel indifferent without a common enemy uniting the nation in space (as with the Space Race). Where will the bucks come for these modern day Buck Rogers?

Selected Sources/Suggested Reading

Excerpt from “To Boldly Go: A One-Way Human Mission to Mars” by Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies. http://journalofcosmology.com/Mars108.html. [Accessed January 21, 2011]

Scientists propose one-way trip to Mars – Yahoo News. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/us_one_way_to_mars. [Accessed January 21, 2011]

Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot.


10 thoughts on “A One-Way Ticket to Mars?

  1. I (mostly) hold Sagan in high regard. Undoubtedly, the skill he is most respected for is his ability to inject a sense of romanticism into science that most consider bland. He had tremendous rhetorical skill in debunking the notion that describing a rainbow eliminates its beauty.

    That sense of romanticism, though, can draw our minds away from what we would think is an intellectual “open-and-shut case”. Manned space missions is, by my view, the penultimate example of this. The arguments in favour of it do, for the most part, rely on a naive notion of unity that, even if present, wouldn’t be enough to justify the risks and costs of manned space flight.

    The idea of terraforming is likewise extraordinarily appealing if you focus only on the potential successes and ignore the evidence that suggests it will be an abysmal failure. It does, however, raise an interesting question for me: if it could be demonstrated with a high degree of certainty that there is no life on Mars which would be put at risk by our experiments, perhaps Mars is the perfect breeding ground for technology that could be farmed back to Earth to help solve more local problems. Perhaps that is precisely the context in which manned missions to Mars would make sense: to develop technology in an environment that doesn’t expose the species to a great deal of risk, for the express purpose of bringing that technology back to Earth (instead of the other way around).

    Food for thought. I enjoyed the blog post today.

    1. Neil, thanks for reading!

      You’re right to point out that the romantic appeal can at times override the more intellectual (and rational) reasons to pursue one mission or goal over another. Realistically, that just isn’t enough. Many interesting programs have been left on the drawing board because they aren’t strictly speaking necessary. I think it’s hard, and understandably so, to excite the everyman to the greater question of the cosmos – I expect only a fairly small percentage of any population is truly curious to know more the bigger picture. And I certainly agree that Sagan’s ability to inspire rather than bore with his romanticization of space and science is a fantastic and lasting legacy, not to mention hugely important.

      I am actually just finishing a followup post that looks at some examples of terraforming proposals. But I find it brings up another question, namely: when will we be certain that there’s no life on Mars? Maybe it’s the somewhat common idea that by terraforming Mars we’re free to destroy our own planet that bothers me. I don’t think any of the proposals I’ve look at actually discuss the benefits Martian environmental experiments may have for Earth. With that slight inconsistency, I find I am often unable to keep the cynicism out of my voice.

  2. Even if terraforming turned out to be a “good idea” (and I think that’s a big question,) by the time we can deal with the logistics required, terraforming might be unnecessary. Let’s say we could set up a Mars transportation system of the kind envisioned by Buzz Aldrin, using “cycle ships” that continuously travel round trip to Mars in hyperbolic orbits, then the supply situation for an ongoing Mars base would be much improved.

    Life support systems will need to be pretty advanced for all other space travel and destinations anyway, so the idea of living in domes or underground would just be routine. And by the time you have a critical mass of colonists that demand an earth-like environment it might be more economical (and easier) to go to another star system that already has a planet that fits the bill with no terraforming needed.

    Terraforming might end up like the vacuum tube – pushed aside by a better technology when the transistor was developed.

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