Edinburgh, December 10, 2015 (Alochonaa): For many decades the prospect of going to Mars has been a reoccurring theme and object of attention in a broad spectrum of fields, from engineering to science fiction. In recent times Mars and space travel in general has gained the attention of the wider public thanks in no small part to the hugely successful science fiction titles such as The Martian and Interstellar. Additionally NASA, ESA, Space X and FKA (Russian Federal Space Agency) engage the public via social media, with constant Mars related content posted on Twitter and Facebook. This is further amplified by frequent announcements and discoveries from NASA such as the recent discovery of flowing water, methane in the atmosphere and the Curiosity rover landing.
With all this considered how close are we to a manned mission to mars?
The answer – not quite there yet, but we are building the required rockets and technology to start the journey.
Mars missions involving humans have been on the cards since the 1950’s, where typically the proposed launch date would be 10 to 30 years from the time of proposal. Budget projections for the missions have ranged from 9 to 500 billion dollars (for contrast, the London Olympics cost ~$15 billion) .
Generally speaking, the price has slowly declined over the years, approaching more realistic figures, so much so that companies such as Space X, Blue Origins and Mars One have joined the race to Mars, albeit some agencies are more promising than others.
Understanding the Challenges
Earth and Mars orbit the sun, they come closest to each other each 26 months, where the distance of closest encounter can vary from 55 million kilometres (34m miles) to 100 million kilometres (60m miles). Even with our fasted rocket technology the journey time would take from 150 to 300 days alone.
In the 80’s and 90’s NASA were focusing on low earth orbit with the shuttle program, constructing the international space station and delivering Hubble all for the price tag of about 1 billion dollars per launch (with figures still being disputed).
The price of delivering materials and people into low earth orbit (LEO) has dropped, but are still in the hundreds of millions for a basic launch. Yet, it’s important to understand how small the journey to LEO is when compared with the journey to mars – for that we will need an analogy.
If the earth were 100 pixels wide, LEO would be around 5 pixels, the moon would be around 3000 pixels away and mars at its closest point would be 428,000 pixels away. In relevant metrics, that is:
Width of Earth 12,756km
LEO 160 – 2000 km
Distance to moon 384,400km
Distance to Mars 225,000,000 km.
This is why NASA considers the journey to mars as part of the ‘deep space exploration’ category.
Why does it cost so much?
Building rockets is not an easy job; it requires bare minimum hundreds of skilled Engineers, physicists, technicians and support staff to get it successfully off the ground. The budget is further crippled by the fact that each rocket is expendable – they are not re-used; even the shuttle was not a fully re-usable launch package.
Then one has to consider the costs for the steel, machining, fuel the launch pad, the legal matters and the use of a control centre, which can spike when the rocket is nonstandard and requires more tailored considerations.
Before Space X came on the scene, rocket launches were almost exclusively done by governments – it was thought that only they had the resources and capital to make a launch happen.
Things all changed with the entrance of Space X – a private company that decided to take on the rocket industry, and right from the get go, they did things differently; all parts were built and assembled in the same place thus reducing transport and logistics costs. Since they were a private company, outsourcing was kept to a minimum, whereas government contracts for rocket launches can have as much as 10 layers of outsourcing and third parties, this means 10 opportunities for companies to make a profit margin.
Space X can now launch rockets cheaper than any competitors, including China, India and Russia. Yet this still costs around 60 million dollars; but with new market competition the prices are declining .
Why go at all?
Ever since the moon landings, space endeavours have received significant criticism in terms of budget and resources – and Mars is no exception. The argument against the colonisation of Mars varies in both merit and scope, but a common premise as articulated by Neil deGrasse Tyson an American popular science communicator is ‘Let’s fix this planet before venturing off to ruin new worlds’ . Whilst this statement is surprising, it is easily rebuked.
At present the amount of money we spend on space research from all countries in the word combined is still less than that of cosmetics . The budget for NASA has seen cutbacks each year and as a result has axed many projects, which is in part the reason why the USA can no longer put men into space.
There is no evidence to suggest that we would better off in ‘fixing our planet’ if we didn’t have space travel. In fact space exploration, generally yields heavy profits and advancements in technology that benefits humanity and impacts our daily lives (and will likely be part of the solution to our challenges on earth).
For example some detailed studies have yielded estimates of the return on investment in the space program range from $7 for every $1 spent on the Apollo Program to $40 for every $1 spent on space development today7.
With the state of our planet today; global warming, war, overpopulation, disease outbreaks and threats out with our control (i.e. meteor impacts) – the need to have a ‘back up planet’ seems obvious. That means laying the groundwork for a future living habitat on mars.
Unlike most bodies in our solar system, Mars has the potential to host humans given some work, as it does not have the intense pressures of Venus or temperature extremes of Mercury. Mars is a small rocky planet, around half the diameter of earth and a mild 37% of the gravitational pull of the Earth. Since Mars has no oceans anymore its surface land area is approximately the same as Earths – plenty of land to colonize.
As well as being close to earth (astronomically speaking), it is also the best shot we have of a ‘fixer upper’ planet in the solar system8. This is because, scientists believe that mars was once very similar to earth, in that it had an atmosphere and retained moderate temperatures with flowing water on the surface.
Whilst NASA has recently published picture of flowing water on Mars, it is important to remember that the flow is seasonal and due to high salt concentration in the water (stopping it from freezing). This is because Mars has temperatures that vary from of about −143 °C (−225 °F) at the winter polar cap to highs of up to 35 °C (95 °F) in equatorial summer9. That said most of the time Mars is below 10°C, with very little atmospheric pressure which would be dangerous to humans, among other things your blood would boil as a result of the pressure drop, this is all before the radiation concerns are addressed.
From mars, you could see the sun in the same fashion as on earth but smaller and duller. The Martian surface receives roughly 60% the sunlight that Earth receives on average; in fact there are places on earth like that and yes they can grow potatoes there. The main challenge would be filtering the iron oxide (Rust) from the soil possibly by introducing human soil as an interim to allow bacteria to process it, additionally there are the challenges of making up for the lower levels of nitrogen and carbon – fertilizing in the soil via human excrement would be a viable option9.
Are we really going?
As mentioned near the beginning, some believe Mars is just 20 years away… and always will be. That said, today is a great time to live in, because space Agencies are beginning construction on the landers and the rockets that will make landing on Mars a reality. NASA have begun design and construction on the SLS a rocket designed to do the heavy lifting for the people and parts we need to get into orbit to ferry to mars, also the Orion a multi-purpose capsule which will take humans through entry/re-entry is in development. NASA have even published a manifesto with timelines for the mission and what milestones they require9.
Space X are closing in on their Dragon 2 capsule which looks to beat the Orion in both development time and capability (it can do propulsive landing instead of parachutes). Space X are also due to test their heavy lift Falcon Heavy, in expendable mode can send a fully packed dragon to Mars10
That isn’t to mention the other numerous agencies with plans of their own, that will now be under pressure to deliver since the introduction of private companies into the space industry.
If the momentum continues, most of us alive today will be around to see humans land on the red planet in what will be the next great giant leap.
“Mission to Mars: Reality check”. MSNBC: news, video and progressive community. Lean Forward. 5 Horrifying Facts You Didn’t Know About the Space Shuttle – http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolpinchefsky/2012/04/18/5-horrifying-facts-you-didnt-know-about-the-space-shuttle/
 Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Maher agree: Let’s fix this planet before venturing off to ruin new worlds.Travis, Gettys. RawStory. http://www.rawstory.com/2015/10/neil-degrasse-tyson-and-bill-maher-agree-lets-fix-this-planet-before-venturing-off-to-ruin-new-worlds/
 Five things that cost more than space exploration, Quartz, http://qz.com/175618/five-things-that-cost-more-than-space-exploration/
 Sourcing-and Sustaining-Optimum Financing, newspace3 – National Space Society, http://www.nss.org/settlement/nasa/spaceresvol4/newspace3.html
 Elon Musk on Colbert’s ‘Late Show’: Mars Is a Real Fixer-Upper of a Planet, Motherboard, http://motherboard.vice.com/read/elon-musk-on-colberts-late-show-mars-is-a-real-fixer-upper-of-a-planet
Elon Musk Twitter posts (July 2015)
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*Adam McMurchie is a regular writer of Alochonaa. He is based in Edinburgh and currently works in the financial sector as a subject matter expert (SME). He holds a degree in physics and is a seasoned translator in multiple languages.
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