So, you want to go to Mars? That’s the latest trend in perking the attention of the public by a handful of aerospace rivals in the new Space Age of private business.
Sure, it looks easy in Hollywood blockbusters like “The Martian” (2015) and “Red Planet” (2000). In a true space reality drama, the super spacey billionaires Elon Musk of SpaceX and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin (as well as Boeing, Orbital ATK, Virgin Galactic and NASA), are building new spaceships to take humans back to the Moon and onward to Mars. Even China and Russia want to go to Mars. They are all making plans for humans to begin interplanetary settlements before 2030.
Sounds good. And every space lover from working aerospace engineers to Space Geeks would welcome permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars. And when was the last time mankind sent people to deep space beyond just orbiting Earth?
That would be 1972. This week marks the Apollo 17 Moon landing on a mountain highland called Taurus-Littrow on Dec. 11th that year. The sixth and final successful lunar triumph by NASA ended a decade obsession to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. The effort was an amazing technical achievement for America, and the engineering challenges were shared to help change the world.
Now in 2017 it is popular to talk about sending a crew to Mars in the next 10-15 years. There is even discussion of a one-way mission with a sacrifice crew willing to die on the Red Planet. It all sounds ambitious and honorable, with proponents outlining how it will work, at least on their Smart Pads.
But not so fast… Let’s look at where NASA has been and where the New Age space entrepreneurs want to go—target Mars.
Mars is half the size of Earth, 7,918 miles to 4,212 in diameter. And the Moon is half the size of Mars, one-fourth the Earth at 2,158 miles. Compared to Earth, gravity is less than half on Mars and one-sixth on the Moon.
The Moon is on the average 240,000 miles away from Earth, varying by just 5,000 miles either way. Mars can be as close to Earth as 40 million miles and as far away as 200 million. Every 20 months the optimum “launch window” occurs to send a spacecraft on a 9-month journey. And then stay on Mars for at least 3 months for another launch window and the 9-month journey back to Earth. That’s 22 months of space travel and Martian living.
The plan sounds pretty good. But let’s look at the only celestial world we’ve traveled: The Moon.
From November 1968 to December 1972 there were nine manned Apollo voyages to the Moon. They included two intended orbital missions and six landings. And one near-death, four-day drama of the crippled Apollo 13 that simply looped around the Moon.
Apollo 17’s expedition was near perfect, moonwalkers Gene Cernan, deceased, and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, 82, camping for three days, taking three, 7-hour excursions outside and driving their Lunar Rover 21 miles. It was a fine ending to the Apollo program.
But cancelled were more ambitious missions ready to begin Antarctica-like base–Apollos 18, 19 and 20. Why? The official reason is to build the Space Shuttle and a space station. Another reason is cold feet. Apollo 13 was a close call. See the Hollywood movie, which is a NASA-endorsed depiction of the incredible drama. Leaving two dead astronauts on the Moon was the ultimate nightmare. Every monthly Moon cycle people would look up and forever think “poor Gene and Jack!”
Traveling at a speed that averaged, 3,300 mph, it took three days there and three days back in the cramped spacecraft. Add in the time spent on the Moon, and the maximum round-trip was 12.5 days by Apollo 17.
The nine Moon voyages across interplanetary space add up to 77 days or 11 weeks. The total time spent on the surface of another world is 12 days. THAT’S our entire human deep space experience. And it was 45 years ago!
Another important factor—money. A trip to the Mars is going to need a lot of money. Money for new technologies, money for rockets and spacecraft, money for infrastructure, money for people. That’s not such a bad thing, because no one has stuffed a rocket full of $100 bills and blasted it into space. All the money is spent on Earth for good jobs.
To put the cost of a Mars mission into perspective, look at America’s 1960s Moon Race with the Soviet Union.
NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo manned programs from 1960 to 1972 cost $30 billion in 1968 dollars. The inflation rate during five decades is more than $6 to $1. That puts the cost of the entire Moon program at $200 billion in 2017 dollars! Spread over 12 years, that’s more than $16 billion a year, nearly all of NASA’s $20 billion 2017 budget.
Private space businesses can rely on existing technologies that were developed by the Apollo program, and that saves research money. But the engineering challenges and elaborate hardware of an interplanetary spacecraft will cost plenty.
While the spacecraft and travel logistics are feasible with today’s technology, there is one big foreseen problem—food. A Mars journey with a three-month stay will take a minimum of 630 days. At three meals a day, that is 1,890 meals, which translates to at least one-ton of food per person. Water can be recycled and extracted from Martian resources. But food takes time to grow and will have to be sent well ahead of any landing crew.
And what about energy to power habitats? Maintenance parts? Long distance communications infrastructure? Heat? (It’s cold on Mars!) Than there is the psychology of being human.
Will we make it to Mars? Certainly, within the next 50 years. But who? And what flag will they wave? Let the Great Mars Race begin!