The Amend Corner

Life (or death) on Mars

Posted 8/15/19

Space travel seems to be a hot topic these days.

Among other things, there is a bunch of interest in sending astronauts back to the moon, and this time, they should stay awhile and even build a …

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The Amend Corner

Life (or death) on Mars


Space travel seems to be a hot topic these days.

Among other things, there is a bunch of interest in sending astronauts back to the moon, and this time, they should stay awhile and even build a moon base up there. Then, the thinking is that this base can provide, among other things, a place where astronauts can stop over on their way to Mars. Then they can build a base there.

At the very least, I suppose, a moon-base could include a couple of bed and breakfast places for people who can afford a half-million-dollar flight to vacation on the moon. I’m sure there are people out there would think the moon would be a great place for a destination wedding or a 50th anniversary celebration. The moon, after all, has always been associated with romance. However, I’m not so sure it would be so romantic if you were standing on that desolate landscape it in a spacesuit.

The truth is these plans of putting people on either the moon or Mars face a huge number of  hurdles, not least being a simple fact about us: We humans have evolved to live in the environment here on earth, and it isn’t certain that we would be able to survive for long in a world with a different environment. We are only able to live here because Earth’s atmosphere deflects the extreme radiation that streams in our direction in space. Since the moon doesn’t have much atmosphere and Mars has a pretty thin one, made up mostly of carbon dioxide that doesn’t block much radiation, anyone staying on the surface of either body long-term without protection will die from that radiation.

In addition, both Mars and the moon are much smaller than Earth, so they have much weaker gravity. Our bodies are designed to deal with Earth’s gravitational pull. Astronauts who spend longer periods of weightlessness while orbiting in the space lab lose bone and muscle mass. While those who might travel to Mars won’t be weightless while on the surface of the planet, in the lower gravity they are still likely to experience some degree of damage to muscle and bone.

There could be mental as well as physical issues for astronauts taking a seven- or eight-month Mars voyage packed into a relatively small space. It would be sort of like the time my family, all eight of us, drove home from Denver during a Wyoming snowstorm. We were all pretty grumpy by the time the trip ended, and I tried to avoid my siblings as much as possible for about a week after we arrived home. I can only imagine what would have happened if it had taken us seven months to get home.

It would get tougher once the crew landed on Mars. They would have to find water quickly — if there even is water on Mars — and begin constructing a permanent shelter that would protect them from the radiation and temperatures as low as minus 81 degrees Fahrenheit. There would be no end of problems to solve as the crew tried to survive and do whatever research was expected of them.

Now, I’m not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination, so there are probably hundreds, maybe even thousands of additional issues that I haven’t thought of that need to be addressed.  Or maybe some smart scientists have already come up with solutions. But I recently read an article that argues it will be decades, maybe even a century, before a successful trip to Mars is feasible.

But at least one person thinks it will happen much sooner. Elon Musk, the guy behind the Tesla automobile, believes it can be done much sooner. Last week, he said he will be taking passengers to Mars in five years.

Musk has made big bucks as an entrepreneur in technology, and he seems to have more money than some of the states. Along with Tesla, he owns SpaceX, the company he says will be taking passengers to Mars. I believe he also promises to get to Mars much more quickly than seven months.

Well, maybe Musk has the secret to space travel. His company, after all, has achieved a few firsts in space travel. But I’m a little skeptical. Tesla has had some troubles recently, and last weekend, I read stories about Tesla cars exploding and burning when involved in accidents. If SpaceX has similar troubles, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone buy a ticket to Mars in 2024. 

In fact, I can think of no reason on earth — or in space — for anyone to take off for Mars. I can find desolate landscapes to visit within a few miles of my home and can get to some of them in less than an hour, and I don’t need to be crammed into a space capsule to reach them. There are others, though, who think exploring those distant worlds is important, and if Elon Musk wants to spend his own money to get them there, it’s OK with me.

Musk is serious about his goal, and has even said he wants to die on Mars. He may well do that, because if he can just get to Mars, it should be easy to die.

The Amend Corner