In the early years of the 20th century, zeppelins filled with flammable and explosive hydrogen were all the rage in Germany, a reckless infatuation that ended with the eruption and crash of the Hindenburg in 1937. Sometimes, technology is a triumph of wild-eyed enthusiasm over the unpleasant facts of the real world.
Today we are witnessing a similar outburst of enthusiasm over the literally outlandish notion that in the relatively near future, some of us are going to be living, working, thriving and dying on Mars. A Dutch nonprofit venture called Mars One aspires to send four people to Mars by 2026 as the beginning of a permanent human settlement. In the United States, the nonprofit Inspiration One has plans for a two-person team to fly within 100 miles of the planet, launching from Earth in January 2018. And the entrepreneur Elon Musk, who runs a rocket company called SpaceX, has said he hopes to send the first people to Mars in 11 to 12 years.
Unfortunately, this Mars mania reflects an excessively optimistic view of what it actually takes to travel to and live on Mars, papering over many of the harsh realities and bitter truths that underlie the dream.
First, there is the tedious business of getting there. Using current technology and conventional chemical rockets, a trip to Mars would be a grueling, eight- to nine-month-long nightmare for the crew. Nine months is a long time for any group of people to be traveling in a small, closed, packed spacecraft. (We’re not talking about the relatively comfy confines of a habitable satellite like the International Space Station.) Tears, sweat, urine and perhaps even solid waste will be recycled, your personal space is reduced to the size of an S.U.V., and you and your crewmates are floating around sideways, upside down and at other nauseating angles.
Crew members are in microgravity for the entire trip, with consequent health problems: Your bone mass wastes away, your teeth become more susceptible to cavities, your body’s muscles, including your heart, and even the small muscles that control your eye movements, atrophy and lose mass, and your immune, digestive, vascular and pulmonary systems function at impaired levels.
In addition, there will be persistent mechanical noise and vibration, sleep disturbances, unbearable tedium, trance states, depression, monotonous repetition of meals, clothing, routines, conversations and so on. Every source of interpersonal conflict, and emotional and psychological stress that we experience in ordinary, day-to-day life on Earth will be magnified exponentially by restriction to a tiny, hermetically sealed, pressure-cooker capsule hurtling through deep space.
To top it all off, despite these constraints, the crew must operate within an exceptionally slim margin of error. As with any cutting-edge technology, there will be continuous threats of equipment failures, computer malfunctions, power interruptions and software glitches.
And getting there is the easy part. Mars is a dead, cold, barren planet on which no living thing is known to have evolved, and which harbors no breathable air or oxygen, no liquid water and no sources of food, nor conditions favorable for producing any. For these and other reasons it would be accurate to call Mars a veritable hell for living things, were it not for the fact that the planet’s average surface temperature is minus 81 degrees Fahrenheit.
Oxygen on Mars exists as a constituent of water — the O in H2O. Thus, one way to get this essential component of air is to first obtain an adequate store of water. However, there being no proven liquid water reserves on Mars, water, too, must be produced from raw material sources, specifically from the soil. One plan calls for digging up the soil and placing it into a heater that will evaporate off any water within it. The water vapor is then condensed into a liquid.
Oxygen, in turn, can be separated from the hydrogen in the water by means of electrolysis, and then stockpiled. The nitrogen component of air could be “mined” from the thin Martian atmosphere. With these two constituents in hand, and then combined, we finally have a breath of air (although not “fresh” air).
These are only a few of the many serious challenges that must be overcome before anyone can put human beings on Mars and expect them to live for more than five minutes. The notion that we can start colonizing Mars within the next 10 years or so is an overoptimistic, delusory idea that falls just short of being a joke.
Ed Regis is the author of Monsters: The Hindenburg Disaster and the Birth of Pathological Technology.