The difficulty of going to Mars

There’s been a lot of celebration this holiday season of the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission, the first time humans went into (relatively) deep space and orbited another body, the moon.  I’m glad to see Apollo 8 getting some recognition.  It’s usually overshadowed by Apollo 11, the first mission to actually land on the moon, but Apollo 8’s accomplishment should be remembered.  When the S-IVB Saturn stage fired, initiating the translunar injection, it was an incredible leap into the void for those astronauts.

But for some, the celebration has been marred a bit due to comments made by one of the astronauts from that mission, Bill Anders:

According to one of the astronauts aboard NASA’s 1968 Apollo 8 mission, it would be “stupid” and “almost ridiculous” to pursue a crewed mission to Mars.

“What’s the imperative? What’s pushing us to go to Mars? I don’t think the public is that interested,” said Bill Anders, who orbited the Moon before returning to Earth 50 years ago, in a new documentary by BBC Radio 5 Live.

Anders argued that there are plenty of things NASA could be doing that would be a better use of time and money, like the uncrewed InSight rover that recently touched down to study Mars’ interior.

A lot of the reasons behind Anders remark seem to focus on criticism of NASA and its focusing on crewed missions at the expense of the more scientifically oriented robotic ones.  Those robotic missions have done far more for science than anything from the crewed missions.

I think Anders has a point.  Sending a crewed mission to Mars is problematic.  The difficulties in getting there are enormous.  With present technology, it would require a crew to spend nine months in transit, a year or so exploring, and then nine months coming back: a three year mission.

The problem is keeping astronauts healthy for that long.  No human has spent that much time in space.  We know about some of the health effects from astronauts living in the ISS (International Space Station).  They involve bone loss, vision impairments, and other changes.  Astronauts returning from the ISS typically have to go through a recovery period before they can function again on Earth.  We should expect a three year span to exacerbate these effects.

And the ISS can lead to overconfidence.  The ISS orbits only a few hundred kilometers above the Earth.  It receives regular resupply runs from Earth, so we haven’t really been testing our ability to provision people to live independently for years in isolation.  And with the crews safely ensconced in Earth’s magnetic field, we haven’t had to deal with the effects of long term radiation exposure.

Impatient space enthusiasts who get most of their information from science fiction will often counter that all of these things can be handled.  We just need to spin the spaceship for artificial gravity, have sufficient storage space for supplies, and provide solid shielding for radiation.  The problem is that all of these things add mass, and given the tyranny of the rocket equation, every additional kilogram is extraordinarily expensive.

Myself, I think Mars crewed missions should wait until we’ve had a chance to improve drive technologies, notably the various types of ion thrusters, which may be able to bring the transit times down substantially, say a month or two instead of the nine month time frame.  Such a technology might reduce a round trip mission down to a few months, or a year if we decide it’s best to wait until Earth and Mars are near each other for the return trip.  That still leaves major challenges, but it starts to look more achievable.

This might enable us to get to the point of eventually establishing scientific research stations on Mars.  Personally, that’s as far as I think things are liable to go for a long time.  I doubt humans will ever colonize Mars, at least not in any significant numbers.  The reason is economics.

Living on Mars would be outrageously expensive.  Mars habitats would be dependent on long tenuous supply lines from Earth.  The idea that they could be self sufficient in any meaningful way is mostly fantasy.  We’re vitally dependent on Earth’s biosphere.  Self sufficiency would require generating a replacement biosphere, something we currently don’t know how to do.  And even if we did, maintaining such a biosphere farther out from the sun, where there is far less free energy available, would always be more expensive than doing it on Earth.

We won’t colonize Mars, or space in general, until there’s a major economic interest that drives us to do it.  People often talk about mining being the economic interest, but with the cost of doing anything in space being so high, that interest may not be enough.

Overpopulation sometimes gets mentioned as a motivator, but setting aside the biosphere dependency, before colonizing Mars, we should first look at colonizing Antarctica, the ocean floors, or underground.  Yes, life in these locations would be difficult, dangerous, and expensive, but not nearly as difficult, dangerous, or expensive as living on Mars or anywhere else in the solar system.  And all in all, it’s a lot cheaper to solve the overpopulation issues in other ways.

So I think Anders has a point.  The public may be enthusiastic for crewed space missions, but they’re a lot less enthusiastic for the associated costs.  This is shown in the fact that crewed Mars exploration is always a couple of decades in the future.  When I was a boy in the early 1970s, the Mars mission was supposed to happen in the 1980s or 90s.  By the 1980s, it was supposed to happen in the first years of the 21st century.  For the last decade or so, it’s been supposed to happen by the 2030s.  I won’t be shocked if by 2022 it hasn’t slid to the 2040s.

To me, the question is whether crewed scientific missions into deep space will become viable before they get obviated by advances in artificial intelligence.  From the beginning, the pioneers in space have been the robots.  It may be that we’ll have a solar system populated far more by robots than by humans, at least of the biological sort.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

23 thoughts on “The difficulty of going to Mars

  1. Ha! I got a huge kick out of what Anders said, because I’ve been saying the same thing for years. This idea of colonizing Mars is silly (and, yeah, very probably a byproduct of how SF went mainstream).

    “This might enable us to get to the point of eventually establishing scientific research stations on Mars. Personally, that’s as far as I think things are liable to go for a long time. I doubt humans will ever colonize Mars, at least not in any significant numbers.”

    Completely agree (and with all your other points). I’d go so far as to question of the value of any crewed mission on the grounds that by the time we can pull one off, our robots will be even better than they are now.

    And how does NASA sell a taxpayer-funded mission that will almost certainly result in some deaths?

    Mars is a long-dead dry old bone with some scientific interest. (To the extent space exploration is zero-sum, I’d rather go to Europa, Enceladus, or Titan, before Mars. And with robots, of course.

    For that matter, Saturn, Jupiter, outer planets, Venus, Mercury, Mars, is my ranking of interest level. Mars is last!

    Mining isn’t an answer: you have to lift what you mine against the gravity well. Far more sensible to mind the asteroids.

    Overpopulation, I agree, also not an answer. The Earth, the Moon, orbital stations,… far better, far safer, far easier, far less expensive.

    Nah, you’re not missing a thing. Mars is a bauble for pop SF fans. If you know the solar system, you know it’s nothing but a tourist attraction. 😀

    As a related note: How excited are you about New Horizons reaching Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day! It seemed so long off back when they announced it, but it’s finally here!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree on Europa, Enceladus, etc. For missions to the outer solar system, one challenge NASA is facing that might be a factor is a shortage of plutonium. Apparently we stopped manufacturing it in any quantity after the Cold War and now their supply is almost used up:

      I’m looking forward to actually seeing Ultima Thule. It’ll be interesting to see what a small Kuiper belt object looks like. Hopefully there’s more to it than we’ve seen with the asteroids. I also hope they can find other targets for New Horizons before it reaches the end of its useful life.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read about the plutonium problem. Ironic. 🙂

        I suppose this is name-dropping, but I’ve been to the Savannah River Site that has the (now inactive) reactors that made all that plutonium.

        It was for work. Back then my work took me into a few high-security places, but never one as secure as Savannah River. One of their people told me they had an on-site helicopter gunship in case they needed to repel terrorists. (This was back in the late 1980s.)

        (I was very lucky. For most of my career, I loved my work and had awesome times. It was only the last five years or so that drove me out early.)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sounds like you did interesting work, more technical than anything I’ve worked on. Central IT at a university has been interesting, but as we discussed on another thread, IT is changing, and it’s making me happy that I’m at the tail end of my career.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’m a hardware geek going back to grade school; didn’t get into software until college. Similar pattern with The Company. They hired me as a field tech; I ended up designing and building software. I had nine distinct jobs over those years (two of which were eliminated forcing me to scramble for another).

            So, yeah, it was definitely interesting! 😀

            University work is a lot friendlier (well, usually) than corporate work. I have friends who work in academia, and I’ve long thought I made a huge mistake being in the corporate one where I never fit in. Far more at home with academics and scientists!

            Liked by 1 person

          2. I’ve kind of always been in a hybrid mode. I work at a university, but as staff. Our attitudes are more business oriented than the academics, although that has varied over time depending on which vice president we reported to.

            I know what you mean about having different jobs. I’ve worked every job in IT except for network engineering. These days, I mostly just attend meetings and live vicariously through the technical work my people do.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that the difficulty of sending humans to Mars can hardly be exaggerated. However, when private money is being spent toward such interesting technology and has renewed public interest in the space industry similar to what NASA had done during the lunar landings, I would be reluctant to say anything that might disparage the private space industry. It is now this private space industry that has the focus, resources and the will to develop new space technology. Would anyone be else routinely landing booster stages today if not for SpaceX and Blue Origin? Certainly not the EU, Russia, China, India or NASA.

    Thanks for your article. I always enjoy reading your posts.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Ry!

      I totally agree that the private companies have brought much needed innovation. They’re exploring things that NASA, Boeing, and the rest of the old guard should have been doing 40 years ago. If we do send humans to Mars anytime soon, it will likely be because of them.

      But they still seem vitally dependent on government contracts. The question is whether they’ll be able to convince the public to pony up the money, or find some business model robust enough fund projecting into deep space.


  3. Here’s also to Yuri Gagarin and the great achievement of the Soviet Union putting him into orbit for the 1st manned space flight. There is an excellent and artistic movie (‘Gagarin’) which documents this. That Gagarin had to hang onto 2 metal rings between his legs in his ascent and descent sticks in my memory! Never forget that there are those who went before the Americans and there will be others to come after – space exploration is a continuum of humanity. Also re- going to Mars etc.: this morning I heard some deeply thinking and deeply responsible Ozzie boffin discussing the possibility of Australia putting someone into space (not to mention sending an Australian to Mars). The problem, he intoned, was money. If one has a vision, as the Americans showed, you NEVER start with the problems, you start with what has to be done. This is still (with all that can and should be criticised about the US) a core American belief (‘We shall be as a City upon a hill…’) and something which Australians, dripping cynicism and ‘practicality’ cannot understand. Don’t be like the Ozzies.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Definitely Gagarin’s accomplishment was a major milestone for the human race. And you do have to wonder if we’d even be in space now if the Soviets hadn’t gone first.

      You may be right about the vision. But the vision has to articulate why it’s in our interest to devote the resources. In the 60s, beating the Soviets was enough to convince people. But the early manned programs gave a misleading impression of progress. In truth, they left only limited infrastructure in their wake. The vision back then was to generate Cold War publicity, and in that, they succeeded. But what is the vision today?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. To dream, to have the biggest dreams is central to who we are and what our species has achieved and will achieve. It accounts for human progress. But those who dream, particularly those who have the biggest dreams will always be opposed by those who fear the dream (because it entails difference and means change) and those who may hate it (because of personal interests). The one absolute is change. How do we address it – by starting with the problems, or with the dreams?

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Hey Mike. I think, perhaps obviously, that the reason Mars is the romantic target for getting off earth is that it would be the most earthlike. I think something about having a sky.

    But I agree with Anders, you, and the others that sending manned missions now is probably not worth it. Personally, I have long thought that it would be nice to go to Mars myself one day, but not until the robots have built some nice hotels.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can definitely second a tourist trip to Mars, provided it’s not a three year commitment. (If it is a three year commitment, the spacecraft better be a luxury liner with excellent cached internet access.)


  5. Mars has its own Mars Society, more vocal and active than any other destination. They get the best publicity, and attention in terms of sponsored competitions and such. It is a challenging target, and the human engineering spirit loves challenges. Of course much of the technology that gets innovated will apply to easier targets also, like the Moon.

    Self-contained settlements are of course utter fantasy at this point. And even if we had the free energy for “terraforming” a whole planet, we should wait a few hundred years to understand how planets actually work (it’s called “planetary science”). Since terraforming anyway would take about a million years at least, a few centuries is a relatively short time to wait before starting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mars definitely has its enthusiasts. I used to be one of them. Truth be told, if a mission somehow did happen, I’d be cheering it. Although I certainly hope none of the nuttier versions, such as marooning people there, ever happens.

      I’ve heard varying estimates for how long terraforming would take, but one thing they all agree on, it wouldn’t be something the generation that started it would see any benefits from. It’s hard enough to get people to give up anything for benefits their children will enjoy; getting them to do it consistently for benefits centuries, millenia, or even further into the future seems beyond hopeless.


  6. A lot of people are interested in Mars. Of all the destinations in space, Mars surely has the greatest popular appeal. And if enough people want something, resources can be found. There doesn’t have to be a rational pay-off, or any cost-effective benefit. Look at Brexit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Too true. The Egyptians built the pyramids for arguably irrational reasons. And the Cold War era space program really had questionable rationality. It’s why I do think we will send exploratory missions to Mars, and eventually maybe scientific stations. Someone might conceivably even set up a token colony. But once the reality of living there becomes apparent, it’s hard to imagine that the economic realities won’t kick in.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I tend to be more optimistic about humans getting to Mars, but not by much. As I’ve come to understand it, the problem has as much to do with politics as with technology.

    There was a bit about this in Chasing New Horizons, about how the Bush Administration started cutting funding to NASA programs that began during the Clinton Administration, and then the Obama Administration started cutting programs that began under Bush. The same thing seems to have happened once Trump took office, and no doubt it will happen yet again whenever the next President takes office.

    So since NASA keeps having new goals and priorities set for it every four to eight years, and since getting to Mars is more than an eight year project, it’s been hard for NASA to make much headway. I’m not sure if there’s any way to fix this, given they way our democracy works. But if private companies like SpaceX really are as committed to this as they claim, and if they stay committed longterm, then maybe some progress will be made.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I tend to think that we will send humans to Mars, if just for the symbolism, even if by the time we do they might not be of much use for scientific exploration. It’s the idea of colonies I’m primarily skeptical of.

      Anders made the point that NASA has become a jobs program, and I think that’s why we see the constant shifting in priorities between administrations. What’s really going on is that they’re taking care of different constituencies.

      That said, during the Cold War, military initiatives did endure across multiple administrations, indicating that if there’s a strong enough motivating goal, it can happen.

      The space age just needs its equivalent to the Age of Exploration’s spice trade. Or space travel needs to become cheap enough for us to just do it on a lark.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Possibly, one of the impetus for landing humans on other planets could be geopolitical. Previously it was USSR, this time around it is China. I agree with the last comment you made. It’s symbolism and probably just like we stopped going to Moon we would forget Mars!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True. I often wonder if China’s progress in space won’t eventually bring us to another Sputnik moment and light the fire under a Mars effort. But as you note, once we had the public relations victory, we’d likely lose interest again, at least until the next Sputnik moment.


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