To a Desolate Shore
While flight to Mars and possible settlement present dangers for individual men and women, the prospect of all humankind simply remaining on Earth presents a danger as well, a danger of eventual physical and spiritual extinction. Mars might appear now as a dangerous and inhospitable shore, but would it not also be dangerous for humanity not to consider expansion into the solar system? Should human colonies succeed on Mars, then life would exist on two worlds instead of one illuminating all the facets that such an achievement implies.
Space exploration compares in broad terms with the era of world exploration initiated 500 years ago, true. Perhaps one thing in common was that earlier explorers encountered hostile shores and hidden dangers often with little immediate payoff. But thanks to them many of us now have our homes. While distances are enormously greater and environments can be much more harsh in space, technologies have improved immensely as well and will continue to do so. Even though voyages in 21st century or later spacecraft will be more hazardous than scheduled airline flights, they will not compare to the risks that confronted crews signed on with Columbus or Magellan headed into complete unknown with little knowledge other than currents, winds and sails.
If Mars were the Earth’s moon instead of what we have, we would probably have people living there already. Unlike the moon's entire lack in carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen, Mars has these elements in abundance supporting organic chemistry from which fuel and food can be derived. It has water, meteorology in a thin air and soils fertile enough for plant growth. It has a 24 and a half hour day, days with temperatures that can reach beyond freezing levels and a surface gravity 38% of Earth's. If life can be sustained within domes, caverns, huts and green houses initially, can human potential on Mars be easily foretold?
Of course, while life for humans on Mars has been imagined for a century or more, the technical and economic obstacles to achieving such are even more readily apparent. Commission studies to recent presidents have provided detailed plans for such voyages and surface expeditions. Vice President Agnew’s commission reported to Nixon on such a plan after the first lunar landing; of the infrastructure recommended for Mars trips, America bought off only on the Space Shuttle then. Twenty years later (circa 1990) NASA provided an update for the Bush administration on manned Mars missions with a financial forecast of hundreds of billions of dollars over more than a decade of effort. The cost was one clear obstacle all along; prolonged flight in micro-gravity conditions and increased radiation exposure were two others. Despite nearly fifty years of human spaceflight experience, it is clear that flight to Mars would not be like Shuttle flights, a stay on a space station or even a trip to the Moon. This would be tougher: two hundred or more days of coasting flight there; landing on a surface with Arctic temperatures and un-breathable air at only 7-millibars pressure; then waiting for several hundred days to start the return leg home on another two hundred day trip. Transit schedules could be speeded up with nuclear propulsion, but owing to investments and safety concerns, this seems not to make Mars much more accessible in cash-strapped 2010 either.
Still, even though daunting, the obstacles are largely of two kinds: adequate transportation infrastructure and identifying the individuals who really want to go to Mars. As for transport the Orion spacecraft, for example, has been touted as the Apollo spacecraft on steroids, yet it is clearly not a vehicle one would want to spend hundreds of days confined within; nor would it be a safe haven against radiation storms in space.
For a trip to Mars, something more like a space station would be required with habitation modules: large reservoirs of water and atmosphere; shielding from radiation and means to grow food – much like what would be required on the Martian surface. Perhaps rotation could be used to provide an artificial gravity during the long coasting phases of flight. It would also make sense that such a ship could be reusable like a traditional ocean-going vessel. One way this could be accomplished: if astronauts and cargo could be ferried to such an interplanetary craft that continually cycled between Mars and the Earth.
In fact, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and others have shown how such a craft could be devised; a craft that could transit back and forth between Mars and Earth for many trips and many years. Though such measures involve investment, such transport mechanisms can be built – and they would also reduce the hazard of eventual trips to Mars.
Now what about crews and pioneers? Would anyone really want to bell the cat?
Clearly some people wish to go to Mars to study it or to get there first; in fact, a large fraction of present day astronauts admit to as much. To such ends or simply as a result of assignments many have served tours of duty on space stations Alpha and Mir for one hundred days or more, many surviving well enough to do it again. Flight to Mars, however, could mean absence of two years or more from families. One might suspect that when the 12th or 14th expedition to Mars is landed, the participants will not be as sanguine in the face of absence from their loved ones as those who participated in expedition 1. By this point, like those assigned to distant bases overseas, personnel assigned to Mars will want to bring their families and personal effects. But does this become an argument that Mars is becoming too dangerous to visit or an argument to make Mars a worthwhile place to stay?
if one recalls the settlers in the New World and segments of the Old such as Australia who went to stay, there could be other groups headed for Mars as well. In the case of New England, much of the settlement was done by people who were fed up with the Old World or the Old World was fed up with them: dissenters, debtors, refugees, the indentured and the enslaved. Noting this is not advocacy of forcing settlers to Mars against their will, but recalling some different pioneer characteristics then vs. the public face of astronauts today.
To speculate what might attract a future dissenter to Mars, consider the fact that Mars is not a satellite of Earth a light second or two away and that it will not be possible to conduct its exploration with anything like an earth-bound mission control because light communications will often take 15-20 minutes. That constitutes a long time in our current day digital world; in the future it might even seem like the makings of a little needed solitude.
Still, it can be argued that all manner of accidental death awaits the poorly trained Mars pioneer and that today’s astronauts can encounter situations due to equipment failures or mistakes. This is true too about a number of lightly regulated activities here on Earth: mountain climbing, scuba diving, hang gliding, ski-jumping, cave exploring, piloting experimental aircraft...
Professional or lifetime sports can cause eventual bodily injury just as serious as possible spaceflight side-effects. Some things mentioned above are rewarding leisure activities (if all goes well); in others, risks are incurred for social gains. In both cases, however, society accepts the possibility that individuals risk their lives in some activities and often honors those that do so. We should not disallow those who aim at Mars the same considerations.
As for the collective human danger of staying home: Human life is a span of only seventy or so years amid a population of billions on a world nearly as old in years. Civilized history is short in terms of earthly climate records full of changes that include glaciations, thaws, crater impacts and extinctions of numerous forms of life. We have come to see our environment as frail, realized in part by observing Earth against the backdrop of space as photographed in 1968 by astronauts on the way to our desolate moon.
Had we been able to look at Earth, Mars and Venus half their lifetimes ago, it would be hard to tell which world would eventually be a suitable home for humankind, since over eons they have changed and the Earth then was nothing like we know now. Perhaps human activity can overwhelm over time the mechanisms that made the Earth a temporary safe place for us to live. But it is also possible that understanding of how to make a planet habitable can be applied to keep the Earth so or else give another planet life; and that we live on the verge of an era to undertake both.