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Mars: The Red Planet

Mars: The Red Planet

by William H. Benson

April 25, 2013

     Mars One announced startling news last week that they would receive applications from those willing to travel to Mars and establish a permanent colony on the Red Planet. A Dutch entrepreneur named Bas Landsdorp heads Mars One, and he hopes to send four astronauts to Mars by 2023, and then another four every two years thereafter. Landsdorp and his associates say, “this is not a hoax.”

     The catch is that no Martian colonist can expect to return to Earth. Those chosen for the Mars flight would live, die, and be buried there in that planet’s reddish soil, at least 34 million miles from Earth. Absent the expense required for a return flight, the foundation will reduce their costs enough to make the colony feasible. Landsdorp says that the technology is in place now to establish a Martian colony.

     Space travel lures men and women, just as land and ocean travel has called our ancestors to pick up and move across Earth for millennium. Human beings wander.

     Looking back, NASA’s Space Shuttle program ended almost two years ago, on July 21, 2011, when Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center after carrying four astronauts into outer space. The Space Transportation System program began on April 12, 1981 with the Columbia, and over the next three decades, NASA launched 135 missions, and only two failed: Challenger on January 27, 1986, 73 seconds after liftoff; and Columbia on February 1, 2003, upon re-entry.

     But there is a vast difference between a shuttle flight and a one-way mission to Mars. Instead of counting days inside a space shuttle orbiting Earth, an astronaut to Mars would count between 150 and 300 days of space travel just to get to Mars, and once there, they would live in an environment utterly inhospitable to men and women. People’s willpower would break down under such harsh conditions.

     Except for ice crystals on Mars’s polar caps or below the rocky surface, water is absent. Because Mars has such a thin atmosphere, water cannot exist in liquid form. The Red Planet offers no plants, trees, animals, or insects, and the astronauts would walk on land  with only 40% of the Earth’s gravity.

     To survive, men would have to transport their own food, water, housing, and protection from cold and radiation, and those supplies must last for years. Incredible it is to think that they can do it.

     The debate between manned and unmanned space exploration to Mars continues, but NASA has pursued unmanned flights there for decades. In 1996, rocket scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory responded to a challenge to complete a Martian expedition that was “faster, better, and cheaper,” meaning complete it in less than three years, obtain a great result, and keep the cost under $150 million.

     The result was Pathfinder, a rocket that bounced onto Mars’s surface on inflated air bags, and Sojourner, a small rover the size of a microwave that took 550 photographs and collected soil samples.

     Right now two additional rovers named Opportunity and Curiosity roam across Mars’s surface, and two satellites named Odyssey and Reconnaissance orbit above the planet. Another project, MAVEN, will launch in November this year to study Mars’s scant atmosphere.

     Carl Sagan, the planetary astronomer at Cornell University, died in 1996, but prior to his passing he recorded a message to future explorers that he called his “Vision of Mars.”

     “Science and science fiction,” he said, “have done a kind of dance over the last century with respect to Mars. The scientists make a finding. It inspires science fiction writers to write about it, and a host of young people read the science fiction and are inspired to become scientists to learn about Mars.”

     At an early age, I read Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” and also Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian stories that feature John Carter, an American who finds himself transported to Mars where he discovers a civilization slowly dying, but my dance with science fiction was tentative and did not result in a life-long commitment to astronomy.               

     Unmanned missions make better sense for now, because they are faster, better, and cheaper than manned missions, but with the technology for space travel expanding, that may change before 2023.

     Marc Shepanek a NASA official, said, “If the kings of Spain and England could send people around a world that was potentially flat, I could not imagine that we would not be capable of going to Mars and coming back. People are flexible; they adapt. There are all kinds of people in history who have survived heroically. It’s amazing what people can do when they have to.”

     Not anytime soon will I sign up for a one-way trip to Mars. I prefer seeing Earth’s sunrises and sunsets. I like watching the seasons change, and I am partial to water, food, grocery stores, books, my cell phone, my house, and above all else I enjoy meeting people. Call me an Earthling.