On average Mars is some 225 million kilometres from Earth. Currently it would take six to nine months to get there.
Lewis Carroll wrote the poem “The Walrus and The Carpenter” for Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872). It includes the famous lines:
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax –
Of cabbages – and kings –
And why the sea is boiling hot –
And whether pigs have wings.”
In 2011, Andy Weir’s highly praised science fiction novel The Martian won a best new writer award for its imaginative blend of fact, fiction, and self-deprecating humour. The film version directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon was listed in many critics’ Top Ten Films of 2015. The theme of isolation in space clearly touches a nerve in the human psyche.
But it all looks easier than it is. NASA has identified physical challenges for human missions to the red planet, some of which might be overcome by spacecraft design:
- A mission to Mars may involve a great radiation risk -66 sieverts per round-trip – whereas the career radiation limit for astronauts is 1 sievert.
- Negative effects of prolonged weightlessness on human health, including impairment to eyesight.
- Psychological effects of isolation from Earth and the impossibility of real-time connections with communities back home.
- Social effects of people living in crowded conditions for more than one Earth year, possibly two or three years, on a mission to Mars, and a comparable length of time returning to Earth.
- Inaccessibility of terrestrial medical facilities.
- Potential failure of propulsion or life-support equipment.
- Outgoing contamination of potentially habitable zones.
- Return contamination of Earth with possible Martian microbes.
- Development of proper facilities for surviving on Mars.
- Development of proper equipment for moving safely around in a low gravity environment.
Undaunted, space entrepreneur Elon Musk has unveiled an ambitious plan to place a human colony on Mars as early as 2024. According to Musk, his company SpaceX is working on a new rocket and capsule capable of taking 100 people at a time to Mars. The spacecraft will be reusable so that colonists will not have to sign up for a one-way ticket.
Musk does not diminish the risks involved. Unveiling his plans at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, he said, “The risk of fatality will be high. There’s no way around it. Basically, are you prepared to die, and if that’s OK then you’re a candidate for going.” As advertising slogans go, this is a trifle off-putting: Not “Come fly with me!” but “Come die with me!”
Musk estimates the current cost of sending a person to Mars at “around $10bn”, although it is not clear if he means using existing rocket systems or the cost of the initial flight of the new system. He claims there will be price reductions over time because of the reusability factor, in-orbit refuelling and on-Mars propellant production.
In Musk’s words, humanity has to choose between two fundamental paths. “One is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event. The other is to become a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planetary species.”
A more optimistic alternative would be for Earth’s inhabitants to use their collective imaginations and skills to tackle and solve the world’s economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal, and technological problems before it’s too late.
Realistically, the likelihood of fixing the Earth’s woes or of establishing a colony on Mars is probably best greeted with the old adage, “And pigs might fly.”