Mars by 2021? Thoughts from the author of ‘The Martian’ and the former NASA Chief Scientist

mars event
Benjamin Fernando

President Donald Trump is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a little fuzzy on the specifics of the Mars mission. Two weeks ago, he instructed NASA to get astronauts to Mars within his first term, approximately before 2021. In a recent livestream with astronaut Peggy Wilson, Trump rallied: “We want to do it during my first term and at worst during my second term so we want to speed that up, OK?”. Politely, Wilson replied: “Well, I think as your bill directed it will be approximately in the 2030s”.

The ballpark date of 2030 has been a general consensus by scientists for a while. The winding queue outside Martin Schools shows that the red planet is a red hot topic, and a manned mission has turned from science fiction into the foreseeable future. Inside, an intensely qualified panel readies itself to grapple with big questions about the future of Mars as part of the ‘Great Challenges’ lecture series, organised by first year PhD students.

Our panellists are introduced: Andy Weir, author of the bestseller-turned-blockbuster The Martian (“First off, I always find myself on panels with real scientists, and I always feel obliged to give the disclaimer I’m a writer with a high school diploma, so bear that in mind – I’m more a dreamer than a doer”); Colin Wilson, a planetary scientist at Oxford University and Inter-Disciplinary Scientist for ESA’s ExoMars Mars mission; Libby Jackson, the Human Spaceflight and Microgravity Programme Manager at the UK Space Agency; and Dr Ellen Stofan, formerly the Chief Scientist at NASA.

“There are fighter planes that cost more than NASA’s budget.”

Andy Weir begins. He thinks humans will settle on Mars “when it’s economically viable”. Despite his disclaimer, he is scientifically savvy and pinpoints the fact there needs to be undeniable reason to go to the Mars, cheekily comparing it to the same way that “there was a reason why people settled Swindon, right?”. “Humans have an innate desire to spread out – that’s why our specific humans evolved in Africa, but now we’re all over the world this evolved trait has helped us, because our entire species wasn’t in one area, so one flood couldn’t kill us, or one draught couldn’t kill us. Once we’re on Mars, the extinction of the human race becomes virtually impossible. As it is, it is theoretically possible something bad could happen here”.

Wilson also mentions the driving force of our own curiosity: “To some people, it’s enough of an answer to say it’s there. It also serves as an uncontaminated time capsule: “From a science point of view, going to Mars is a look in the past of the Earth. Mars preserves what an Earth-like planet would have been like billions of years ago”. A manned mission will answer the key question: “did life take shape there?”

Explaining the challenges, Libby Jackson could maybe clear up the 2030 date to Trump. The logistics of this mission will be immense: even with robots, “Mars only has a 50/50 chance of landing things there”. This is made challenging by the fact that “the Martian atmosphere is so thick you can’t just use parachutes”. Not only is the atmosphere on Mars thick, but toxic: “if you’re going to send humans there, we don’t respond very well to radiation – we get cancer, we get sick. As soon as we leave magnetic field of earth behind, we get bombarded by radiation. The delay between our planets also won’t help; for the Apollo mission, the delay in communications was “a few seconds to moon”. For Mars, it will be “tens of minutes”.

The former Chief Scientist, Stofan, is honest with us: “I usually don’t like to say this in public”, but she quotes a friend who cites three reasons as why we want to go to Mars: “greed, fear and knowledge” Like Weir, she recognises “there’s got to be an economic reason – there’s a profit motive”. “Eventually we will have the economic case right now, we certainly don’t right now. The fear is why we went to the moon – that had nothing to do with knowledge, and nothing to do with greed. It was purely that we were trying to, at that time, beat the Soviet Union and show that we were technologically superior”. However, the Mars mission isn’t just cold and calculated, as our fascination with space exploration and the stars also shows “the better side of our nature”.

“Mars only has a 50/50 chance of landing.”

What do we do if we find life, “apart from not worrying about funding in the future” asks an audience member. Someone else comments “I wonder whether humans would feel the same about settling on Mars if we found life there. Would we still feel entitled?”. “Oh yeah, because humans have a long history of respecting the environment,” Andy Weir jokes. “And the rights of others,” Colin Wilson notes, while Stofan adds “and of indigenous peoples, we’re really good with that one”. Later, Weir returns to the topic and confesses “I have no problem with it. We fought our way to the top of the food chain on this planet, and we can do it on another one too – just don’t wipe out the life there”. Helen cynically notes the potential for public disinterest. “Finding single cell organisms will be mind-blowing for scientists all over the planet, but what will the general public think, and will it have that much of an impact?” It turns out we could have maybe found life if the UN wasn’t safeguarding the areas of Mars most likely to show signs of life with planetary protection laws. Is this interplanetary biosecurity helpful? Helen doesn’t entirely think so. “I think we can take it too far”. Apparently, Neanderthal DNA in caves buried for thousands and thousands of years still “sticks out like a sore thumb”, so she is “not that worried about being confused or contaminating the special regions of Mars, but it’s something we take seriously”.

The question returns later, and more is clarified about the tell-tale signs of recognising life. “Amino acids are like the letters of our DNA. You see amino acids in comets, asteroids, you see them in interstellar clouds”. What are the chances of that life looking very much like our life? “I would actually be surprised if it had DNA and RNA. Maybe it will have some other system that will works like that, but will it look exactly like it? Probably not”. Collins notes sit also boils down to when creates evolve. “Did it evolve when conditions were earth-like? Because if it evolved to thrive on Mars today, it’s not going to do very well when it’s let out of the container into rural Oxfordshire”. Weir gets in another easy low blow: “in Swindon, maybe”.

So who does Mars belong to? “Me,” Andy Weir quickly asserts. Sadly though, he has to set himself straight: “Legally, no one. Legally, it’s international waters – it’s like the middle of the Pacific ocean, and it can’t be claimed due to an international treaty”. Wilson ominously notes how “Possession is whoever can fight off many challengers”, whilst Helen further explains that the treaty that all of the spacefaring nations have signed means that “whether it’s the moon or whether it’s Mars, you’ll have a kind of Antarctica situation”.

What is the plan to deal with the cosmic rays? Weir fills in some facts for the less informed and explains why “rays” is a misnomer: “they are, in fact, atoms – protons moving at near light speed, different to other types of radiation”. If these atoms collide, they “turn your metal atoms into other atoms”. Stofan elaborates: “There’s two types of radiation you’re exposed to in space – there’s radiation that comes from the particles from the solar wind, and those we can shield fairly well against”. “Galactic cosmic rays come in at a such a high rate of speed, there’s really not a lot we can do about shielding – especially when metal doesn’t work”. The Institute of Medicine has estimated that astronaut working three years on Mars would receive a higher dose of radiation than working in a nuclear facility – “but it’s not enough that it would raise their lifetime cancer risk that you couldn’t ethically ask them to do it”. However, good genetics would help. “Some of us are better repairers of DNA damage than others. We are hugely learning an awful lot of that in medicine right now, and we will be able to characterise – not genetically select, that’s against the law”. However, “we can see how resilient you will be to radiation”.

“If you were on a football field, at one goal post, and the moon was 10cm away, Mars would be the other goal.”

The question of funding surfaces, and Stofan explains NASA’s contentious budget numbers released two days ago. 19.6 billion dollars has been granted for the next year, which sounds immense, but “there are fighter planes that cost more than NASA’s budget”. Stofan also compares the moon mission to the Mars: the overall budget was 4% during the Apollo mission, whereas it is now currently 0.4%.

Dr Jepsen calls for a show of hands to see if this is a fair figure. In a room full of scientists and space lovers, I expect hands to shoot up in favour of building the rocket today, and fists to shake for anything less. However, nearly whole room thinks this is fair: only four people object. The audience is asked, and the main reason is ethical: why make somewhere else habitable when people aren’t living habitably on earth right now?

What about that scary 50/50 success rate? Libby Jackson explains it is not as bad as it seems, because “we will take many more risks with robots”. This doesn’t mean a mission won’t have its hazards. “Human space flight comes with risks. We know that, the crew who go there know that”. “We test, we test, we and test” Stofan notes, but on some level you have to “cross your fingers”. Politics also play into space missions, and Wilson notes that “the level of risk your willing to accept depends a lot on the situation on earth.” As with the Apollo mission, “if you’re in a geo-political competition situation on earth, you might accept much higher risks”.

So what is the take home message? Weir emphasises that Mars is not a safety net, or a backup option. “Whatever Earth’s problems are, it is considerably easier to fix them than it is to colonise Mars”. “The difficulty of getting to Mars – if you were on a football field, at one goal post, and the moon was 10cm away, Mars would be the other goal. That’s the difference in scale compared to how far away these two bodies are away from each other in orders of magnitude”. Stofan echoes Weir, and recalls how she hears young students write off Earth with we don’t need to worry about climate change, we’ll live on Mars!’. This isn’t quite the case. “There is no planet B: this is going to be the planet we live on.” The killer question, the one which justifies the budget, the resources and the risk, is once again brought up by Stofan: “are we really alone?”

This Q&A was the perfect talk to flag up the kinds of questions the American president should be asking. The Great Challenges lecture series is drawing attention to the front running challenges in science right now which we collectively need to consider, and misinformed assumptions we need to reconsider. If only Trump could get a ticket.

To watch the recorded livestream of the full talk ‘The pale red dot: colonising Mars and beyond’, click here.

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