BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Elton John might have said it best in his iconic song “Rocket Man” – “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids.”
More than 50 years after we sent humans to the moon – the closest celestial body to Earth – the plan is still to head to Mars, something many astronauts who have flown in space thought we would have already accomplished.
“I just assumed by the time I got to be old enough to go into the space program, you know we’d be living on Mars or I’d be working on Mars just as a scientist,” Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, told university students at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in December 2019.
But despite the fact humankind has been unable to send anyone to another place in the universe besides the moon, there are still many with the hopes and expectation that we will become a multi-planetary species in the near future, starting with our red next-door neighbor.
Billionaire entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and aspiring young astronauts like Alyssa Carson, a sophomore studying astrobiology at Florida Tech, hope to one day live on Mars.
“Eventually the sun will run out of fuel to burn … and conditions on Earth are going to be very different from our normal regular life now,” Carson told Florida Today, part of the USA TODAY Network. “It’s not necessarily saying Mars is the savior here … but Mars is that first step in getting people a bit more accustomed to even thinking about living on other planets and being able to colonize someplace else.”
Even Musk’s aerospace company, SpaceX, was founded with the “ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets,” according to its website.
But how feasible is that? Do we want to settle on a planet where we can’t even breathe?
The bottom line: Money
According to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, we have the technological capability to go to Mars. The problem is money, or lack thereof.
Under Space Policy Directive 1, President Donald Trump tasked NASA with sending the next man and first woman to the moon by 2024 and then eventually heading on to Mars. But this isn’t the first time a president has said we’re going back to the moon or we’re finally sending humans to the Red Planet.
After John F. Kennedy made his declaration that we would “put a man on the moon,” several other presidents have tried to walk in his footsteps. But unlike Kennedy, none have come close to succeeding.
On the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 1989, President George H.W. Bush said we would return to the moon and go on to Mars, but in the end, the price proved too high.
His son President George W. Bush echoed the same goal.
Under the Constellation program, the plan was to return to the moon by 2020 and then head to Mars, but the project was ultimately scrapped after a series of delays and increasingly high costs.
President Barack Obama also hoped to go to Mars. Instead of proposing returning to the moon, however, Obama said we should send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 before moving on to Mars. Congressional Republicans rejected the idea, and nothing came to fruition.
NASA Administrator discusses crewed missions to Mars
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine discusses NASA’s ability to send humans to Mars
Rachael Joy, Florida Today
Then came Trump’s turn.
After heading back to the moon in the next four years under the Artemis program, the next big milestone would be a trip to Mars.
But again, the problem boils down to spending what’s necessary to send astronauts there, Bridenstine said.
“The question isn’t whether or not we’re technologically capable of doing it, because we are. The question is whether or not we have the political will to do it,” he told reporters at Kennedy Space Center in July for NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover launch.
The Apollo program, Bridenstine pointed out, was driven by the need to beat the Soviet Union to the moon, which is why Congress appropriated vast sums of money to NASA. Today, that’s no longer the case.
With no Cold War to encourage federal spending on the program, NASA instead is looking to international partners to help pay for any trip to Mars.
“Today we don’t have that large power competition that we had back then, but what we do have is we have international partners, we have commercial partners, we have technological advances that are so far beyond what we had in the 1960s,” Bridenstine said. “So the answer is yes, we can do it. The question is: Will we receive the budget to do it right now?”
It is unclear how much support the incoming Biden administration is going to give the Artemis program.
Money is also an issue for SpaceX’s Mars plans.
As a private company, SpaceX can’t rely solely on taxpayer dollars to send humans there. Instead, the aerospace company is looking for other revenue streams to help pay for a Mars mission, such as its Starlink internet constellation.
Aside from providing internet connection to people living in remote areas around the world, Starlink will also help fund SpaceX’s goal of having people live on Mars – or at least, that’s the plan.
But first, Starlink has to be successful.
‘On Mars, there’s nothing to breathe’
Not everyone believes sending people to live on Mars is the right move, however.
Bill Nye, CEO for the Planetary Society and famously known as “Bill Nye the Science Guy” for his TV show that aired in the ’90s, is one of those who doesn’t believe in setting up camp on Mars.
“I would love to go to space, you guys. But this idea of living on another world where we can’t be outside just doesn’t sound that appealing,” Nye told reporters in 2019 before the launch of the Light Sail 2 project he and other Planetary Society members had worked on.
“You think you want to go to Venus? We’d be vaporized in a second, way less than a second,” Nye said. “And then on Mars, there’s nothing to breathe. There’s nothing to breathe, people. It’s not just there’s nothing to eat, there’s nothing to breathe. So, you know if you live in a dome and you go outside, you’re going to put on a spacesuit and you’re in another dome, like my good friend Sandy the squirrel,” referencing the character from the children’s TV show “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
And as of now, that’s really the only option for humans to live on Mars – a dome. It would essentially be like how actor Matt Damon’ character lived in the sci-fi film “The Martian.”
Even the author of “The Martian,” on which the sci-fi film is based, doesn’t believe we’re close to having a human settlement on Mars.
“Mars is horribly inhospitable,” Andy Weir told Florida Today via email. “Though it’s an awesome idea – living on Mars – it would be far easier to colonize Earth’s ocean floor. There won’t be a significant settlement on Mars until there’s an economic reason for a city to exist there. Like Antarctica, the only people there are researchers because there’s no reason to be there otherwise.”
So like Nye, Weir isn’t inclined live on Mars.
Bill Nye doesn’t think humans should live on Mars
Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society, talks to FLORIDA TODAY reporters Antonia Jaramillo and Rachael Joy about the idea of humans living on Mars.
Staff, FLORIDA TODAY
“Nope! I write about brave people, but I’m not one of them,” Weir said.” I like Earth and plan to stay.”
Others argue there’s another way to live on Mars that doesn’t include living in a dome. The only problem is the logistics of changing the Martian landscape into one that can support human life.
Terraforming vs. in-situ resources
Called “terraforming,” this essentially involves transforming Mars into a more Earth-like habitat. It’s what Musk has proposed doing and what astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson believes would be best if humans were to live on Mars.
“Elon Musk has a plan. He’s thinking of putting satellites in orbit that have big reflectors that focus sunlight that would otherwise miss the planet. Focus it down on the planet and just add more energy to the planet, heating it up, and if you do it right, you might be able to set sort of a chain reaction in place,” deGrasse Tyson said in his podcast, “StarTalk.”
“If everything is frozen and it gets warmer, you’ll evaporate more carbon dioxide, and that’ll help trap more heat, and then that’ll make it hotter to evaporate even more carbon dioxide,” he said. “You get all of that out of the system and into the atmosphere. Then now it’s warm enough, now you’re still mostly greenhouse gases, you still need oxygen to breathe. So now you put microorganisms that eat the CO2 and they release oxygen.”
But terraforming Mars isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Not only is the technology not available to do so, but the question also becomes, “How long would that take?”
“That’s the big problem. Is it a thousand years, is it a million years? Or can you speed it up with some fast-acting microbes? This remains to be established,” deGrasse Tyson said. “But I’m telling you that if we’re going to be a two-planet species, I’m thinking you have to terraform Mars for that to happen.”
Yet not everybody agrees with that tactic, especially because that would change the whole geology of Mars.
“I’ve never been someone that has been a fan of terra-transforming a planet to make it more Earth-like. I think that the excitement of going to a different planet would be utilizing the in-situ resources that are there,” NASA astronaut Christina Koch told deGrasse Tyson on his podcast.
“So, I would see something like a sustainable Mars establishment, to me, would always require some type of resupply, and even if that’s just to make it livable and habitable in terms of what humans think of as habitable and livable, I think is the important thing. But using the in-situ resources as well,” she said.
In other words, living in that dome-like structure.
Florida Tech professor and plant biochemist Andrew Palmer also believes using in-situ resources to live on Mars is the best plan.
He, along with other researchers at the university are collaborating on how future Mars settlers can use the resources, namely the soil on Mars to grow their own food.
“So the whole premise of this project, it all falls under something that’s called in-situ resource utilization, which is a simple way of just saying using what’s already there. So what we want to do is establish how little do you need to bring from Earth in order to be self-sufficient,” Palmer told Florida Today. “Mars is about six months away. If something goes wrong on Mars and you’re unable to get a rocket to Mars to rescue people, they need to have their own food.”
By studying various simulated Martian soils, Palmer and his colleagues hope to determine what else is needed to help grow crops on Mars, especially since the Martian soil may not be able to host plant life.
Florida Tech to find right Mars soil to grow plants on the red planet
Dr. Andrew Palmer , fellow professors and his grad students are working on growing plants in simulated Mars soil for sustainability on Mars.
Malcolm Denemark, FLORIDA TODAY
“If I go take a sample of soil on Florida Tech campus and then I went out beachside and I took a soil sample there, those are not going to be the same, and the same is true on Mars,” Palmer said.
That’s problematic for future Mars settlers. What if they get to Mars and all of a sudden they can’t grow anything there?
To avoid that, Palmer suggests sending a robotic greenhouse in advance.
“In our mind, one way to do this would be you land robots there six months in advance, and you inflate a tent and you start working on the soil, all remotely, and colonists get there and the soil is ready to grow,” Palmer said.
When discussing what crops would be best to grow on Mars and what other nutrients settlers would need, Palmer recommends crops like potatoes, corn, radishes and kale. As for protein, Palmer says, insects are the way to go.
“Trying to grow a cow on Mars, that’s a huge amount of resource investment, but growing insects, it’s a very cheap investment, relatively speaking,” Palmer said.
The other option could be to grow synthetic meats.
Besides just the different eating habits and living arrangements humans would have to get accustomed to if they lived on Mars, life would be very different from Earth, perhaps more environmentally friendly, because nearly everything would have to be recycled.
But that might not be all that enticing to future colonists.
“In a Martian colony, (the settlers) will have never not had water that was made from previous urine, and their entire world will be completely recycled and reused,” Palmer said.
‘Let’s save our future’
But even with a Mars establishment, others don’t believe Mars should be the final destination or a “colony” at all.
“I think going to Mars is fine – it’s not a final place to go. I mean, you know, it’s like just going to the moon but it’s a little further out,” the late Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden told Florida Today in November 2019.
“When the sun burns out, Mars is going to go too, along with the Earth,” Worden said. “We’d be better off solving all the problems we’ve got here (on Earth) than colonizing Mars. What we need is an Earth-like planet in another solar system somewhere.”
But if humans haven’t even been able to head back to the moon since 1972, the odds of trying to head to a planet in another solar system is nothing more than science fiction at this point.
Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden doesn’t believe in colonizing Mars
At Florida Tech, Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden explained why he doesn’t believe in colonizing Mars & where we could eventually live (Alpha Centauri)
Rachael Joy, Florida Today
Technological challenges aside, will humans even live long enough to travel and settle on another planet?
“That’s my greatest concern,” Worden said. “We’re not very good to each other here, and we don’t seem to care about the things that will sustain this place to live in for a long time. … I think we’re doing more damage to ourselves and the planet that it may be of such an extent that we don’t have to wait till the sun burns out – we’re going to do it ourselves.”
He’s not the only one who thinks so.
In a July 2019 Pew Research Center study, 63% of Americans said NASA’s top priorities should be using space to monitor key parts of Earth’s climate system. Meanwhile, only 13% believe sending astronauts to the moon should be a top priority. That figure jumps to a mere 18% for a crewed mission to Mars.
Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post in 2019 stating NASA should focus its resources on saving our planet instead of heading to other celestial bodies.
“The public is right about this. Climate change – not Russia, much less China – is today’s existential threat. Data from NASA satellites show that future generations here on Earth will suffer from food and water shortages, increased disease and conflict over diminished resources,” Garver said.
Instead of focusing on sending humans to the moon or Mars, Garver said, NASA should create a Climate Corps “in which scientists and engineers spend two years in local communities understanding the unique challenges they face, training local populations and connecting them with the data and science needed to support smart, local decision-making.”
“Apollo’s legacy should not be more meaningless new goals and arbitrary deadlines,” Garver said. “Let’s not repeat the past. Let’s try to save our future. Besides, humanity’s intrinsic need to explore is driven by our need to survive.”
Can humans even survive on Mars?
The coronavirus pandemic leads to another important question about interplanetary travel: What if we got stuck with another pandemic, only this time while humans were in space?
It’s hard enough to live on a planet where you can’t breathe, let alone have a highly contagious virus spreading like wildfire.
A key thing we have come to understand from COVID-19 is those with weaker immune systems have a harder time recovering. For the future explorers venturing to live on Mars, they might all end up having weak immune systems.
A study published last year by NASA scientists revealed astronauts who have endured long space voyages such as the shuttle missions and International Space Station flights were more vulnerable to diseases such as herpes, chickenpox and shingles.
The cause? Pretty much what you’d expect from any potentially treacherous space voyage: stress.
“So far, 47 out of 89 (53%) astronauts from short-duration space shuttle flights, and 14 out of 23 (61%) from long-duration ISS spaceflight missions shed at least one or more herpes viruses in their saliva or urine samples,” the study states.
When astronauts venture out into space, they are faced with several extraterrestrial hazards, including cosmic radiation, microgravity and gravitational forces like acceleration and deceleration.
But those aren’t the only stress factors they’re exposed to. Throughout an astronaut’s space mission, they are forced to endure social separation, confinement, sleep deprivation, circadian rhythm disruption and increased anxiety.
All this exposure contributes to dysregulation in the astronaut’s immune and endocrine systems.
So what does this mean for potentially longer space exploration missions and the humans embarking on those quests?
“Although NASA believes there is no clinical risk to astronauts during orbital spaceflight, there is concern that during deep-space exploration missions there may be clinical risks related to ‘viral shedding,’” lead study author Satish Mehta at Johnson Space Center told Florida Today via email.
The girl who wants to go to Mars
Alyssa Carson, 18 year old FIT student, has known she wanted to be an astronaut from a very young age and has been working towards that goal since childhood.
Malcolm Denemark, FLORIDA TODAY
“Ultimately, the information gleaned from these space studies will shape the way we prepare for and design exploration-class missions, beyond the moon and Mars, where reactivation of latent viruses could result in increased risk for wide-ranging adverse medical events,” according to the study.
Aside from the physical ramifications that living in space or other planets like Mars would cause on the human body, there’s also a psychological toll that will affect those living far from Earth and their loved ones.
“Being apart from your family, your friends, your loved ones is a challenge,” NASA astronaut Nick Hague told actor Brad Pitt last year before the premiere of his sci-fi film “Ad Astra.”
“It’s easier here in low-Earth orbit because communications is almost without delay. As we push further and deeper into space, those challenges will become more difficult with communications delays and just being able to stay in contact with those friends and loved ones.”
You can share your thoughts about FLORIDA TODAY’s space coverage with Space Editor John McCarthy. You can reach him at [email protected]
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