Earth Science - Other

Is Space Travel to the Planet Mars too Dangerous – Yes

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"Is Space Travel to the Planet Mars too Dangerous - Yes"
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As always when one asks a question, one must be sure one is asking the right question. Yes, space travel is dangerous in general, but that is not the whole picture. Unmanned missions to Mars are certainly not too dangerous, as a number of them have already been successfully completed. However, assuming manned space travel raises some other issues.

For one, how dangerous is "too dangerous"? There have already been at least three fatally catastrophic missions in the manned US space program (an Apollo mission, plus Challenger and Columbia), and some people say that is already far too many. However, for comparison, the early aviation industry had its own share of accidents and lost lives (George Kelly, Amelia Earhart, etc), and plane crashes still happen today. In past years though, society had a spirit of adventure and a sense of stretching the bounds of possibility in order to advance, and if a few people died doing what they loved, then that was the price of the endeavor.

Politics and society seem to be much more conservative these days. If anyone dies or is injured doing anything, immediately rules and safety regulations have to be established to help prevent it from happening again. What people do not seem to understand is that something worth doing is never easy. It is much easier to make regulations about something than it is to do that something, and spending too much time on regulations de-emphasizes the priority of the actual task.

It is one thing to plan a mission with safety in mind with as much redundancy as possible, always having the pilots understand that despite those precautions, something could still claim their lives. It is quite another to waste so much time trying to make a mission 99.99% safe that it never happens at all.

A related issue is the question of physical cost. Because space travel is so dangerous, and to have a good chance of success requires so many supplies and redundancy options, missions incur a huge cost in money and materials. The budget for space travel has been steadily shrinking in recent years, and people wonder if NASA even has the financial resources necessary to create a mission of this caliber. Depending on the setup of the mission and over how many years the preparations are stretched, NASA most likely does have the resources as long as its budget is not cut much further.

This budget cutting is another indication that society does not put a high priority on space travel. NASA knows that planning dangerous missions that are not supported by society is a good way to get its budget cut faster. It is far easier to continue doing safer local missions or unmanned missions to farther away targets than it is to stretch the bounds of manned space flight like the Apollo and space shuttle programs once did.

Whether NASA would perform the mission or not, the fact is that it would be extremely dangerous to the crew. The shortest possible mission with current technology would last at least a year and a half, and to have any useful time on the surface as well as being able to catch an orbit that does not take an inordinate amount of fuel (relatively speaking: the whole mission takes an inordinate amount of fuel as it is) would require closer to two and a half to three years.

Of this time, at least ten to twelve months would be spent in space with all of its associated dangers, including radiation, lack of gravity (unless the spacecraft spins to produce artificial gravity), psychological isolation, and so on. Once on the planet, they would face a whole new set of dangers, including dust storms. Without being able to receive help from Earth, or even real-time communication, each danger compounds the overall chance of failure (where success means the whole crew returns alive to Earth).

The technological difficulties can be overcome, and redundancy and backup supplies can be built in to the plan, at increased expense. But space travel to Mars would certainly be dangerous, probably too dangerous for NASA to handle at the moment. That does not necessarily mean it cannot or should not be done. The real question becomes, is it worth the cost?

More about this author: Reiko Yukawa

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