Ever since humans looked at the sky through a telescope and identified Mars there has been a desire to explore it. Numerous groups have formed with the goal of promoting a human mission to Mars along with various different transit and exploration/colonization strategies. Unfortunately despite decades of space travel humanity seems no closer to exploring Mars in a manned mission than in the 1970s. Perhaps, at this particular moment, this lack of advancement is a good thing.
One of the chief concerns about a human mission to Mars should be the simplicity in which proponents sell such an undertaking. This dismissive attitude is exemplified by the comparisons of explorers in the 1500s going to the ‘New World’ and traveling to and colonizing Mars. These comparisons are foolish in that even though the ‘New World’ was unexplored there was reason to believe that food would be available, gravity would not change, partial pressures of various gases would not change beyond human survival capacities, the Earth’s magnetic field would not suddenly collapse or the temperature would not change so dramatically that it would require specialized equipment just to walk around. Realistically ‘New World’ explorers only had one major threat, which was making landfall before running out of provisions. Overall there is very little genuine comparison between these two different endeavors and to continue to make such a comparison leads one to question the seriousness of those who make it.
This attitude has handicapped Mars exploration and colonization for analysis seems to now rely on broad platitudes and overly optimistic assumptions. Of all of the thousands of pages written by Mars colonization proponents available there is little critical analysis focusing on nauseating specifics of what will be required for both preparation for a Mars mission and when colonists actually arriving on Mars (the most detailed analysis involves transit from Earth to Mars). The lack of detailed economic estimations is also puzzling relying instead on unspecific estimations with no success probability inclusions. In some respects proponent analysis can be compared to a recipe with a list of ingredients yet no information on how they are combined to make the desired food or what quantities are required. Without more deeper and critical analysis there is a very high probability that any astronauts/colonists sent to Mars will die quickly. Nine different concerns with colonizing Mars are discussed below including the popular solution to those concerns and how that solution may currently be lacking.
Concern: Mars has an extremely cold average surface temperature (relative to Earth), thin atmosphere, 38% Earth gravity and low oxygen partial pressure and total pressure (below Armstrong minimum) with high carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide partial pressures. These specific planet characteristics demand a specialized response to ensure survival.
Popular Solution: Mars colonies should be located in underground caves (lava tubes).
Problems with Solution: Colonizing in lava tubes eliminates the danger from radiation exposure due to the thin atmosphere, but does not eliminate the pressure or temperature issues. A side note: some proponents were celebratory when Mars Rover Curiosity identified surface radiation levels similar to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This attitude makes little sense because few people actually thought that Mars radiation levels significantly differed from LEO radiation levels due to its very thin atmosphere. Astronauts are somewhat protected in the International Space Station from radiation, but even then only routinely stay for months where as Mars colonists will need protection for the rest of their lives.
Additional Popular Solution: Robots are landed on Mars prior to human arrival and construct a pressurized heated habitat in a lava tube or on the surface.
Problems with Solution: There is no precedence for such strategy. Robots have never autonomously built anything of significance on Earth (a much easier task theoretically) and due to the location of the lava tube just as it blocks out radiation, radio signals from Earth designed to control the robots will also be hampered heavily reducing build efficiency, that is assuming that the signals can be received successfully at all. Quadrotors from University of Pennsylvania currently have the most potential, but are still far away from any real usefulness. Very little attention has been paid to this seemingly obvious obstacle. One interesting aspect of using robots is that some group shave attempted to create ‘Mars-like’ environments on Earth in order to better understand the conditions colonists would be exposed to, yet none of these environments have included constructing shelter elements with autonomous or radio controlled robots.
Concern: Lack of available oxygen for even short duration stays.
Popular Solution: No one has really proposed a realistic one. The most popular seems to be creating oxygen through the electrolysis of water.
Problems with the Solution: The concern with this problem is that even adamant colonization near/mid century supporters seem to completely ignore it magically thinking that water electrolysis will somehow provide enough oxygen for the continuous and normal breathing of 2-6 colonists. Individuals who propose this solution seem to ignore the fact that water is also necessary for human survival and is currently scarce on Mars so destroying 2 molecules of water for 1 molecule of oxygen is not a wise choice. Also in the early stages of Mars colonization there may be intermittency associated with energy availability, which would reduction electrolysis efficiency and available oxygen.
Also small hydroponic gardens are not going to provide any significant amount of oxygen through photosynthesis in the early/midterm of colonization, but will require water and a small supply of oxygen themselves. Creating additional water through extraction from hydrated materials is extremely optimistic in the short-term because of the high-energy requirements and very low resultant water yields.
Some next century and beyond colonization supporters propose breaking down the numerous amounts of metal oxides on Mars to oxygenate and thicken the atmosphere (a solution that will take centuries and assumes that the Martian atmosphere will retain that oxygen instead of letting it leak into space). Others want to seed Mars with genetically engineered cyanobacteria, which will produce an oxygenated atmosphere similar to how the one on Earth was created. However, such solutions are not applicable to those who want a colonization mission in this century.
Concern: The long transit flight between Earth and Mars will expose astronauts to deadly levels of radiation.
Popular Solution: The only safety assured solution is to decrease the length of the trip, thus use of chemical based propulsion is not advisable. One of the more popular solutions to this effect is the use of a Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) with a nuclear-electric generator to shorten travel time to between 39-95 days depending on orbital location of Earth relative to Mars.
Problems with Solution: The only major problem is that VASIMR has never been tested in such a manner. Such tests could be conducted by using it to send preparation supplies to Mars (after launch due to its low thrust-to-weight ratio). Also the utilized water supply for transit should be concentrated around the sleeping area to further limit radiation exposure.
There is a disturbing trend by some proponents to mitigate radiation danger by simply making linear additive judgments regarding damage potential when there is no reason to exclude the damage potential as exponential due to the continuous high relative level of exposure (especially for humans having lived on a generally protected Earth); an exponential damage potential could overwhelm biological safeguards for managing mutated DNA resulting in higher fatality rates.
Concern: There are obviously infrastructural power problems for colonists as a pressurized, heated and oxygenated shelter with water filtration and some form of hydroponic greenhouse are required for even short-term survival. Where does the power come from?
Popular Solution: Pre-arrival distribution of solar panels.
Problems with Solution: There are numerous concerns with a solar panel approach. First, the total solar energy that reaches Mars is approximately 43% of that which reaches Earth, thus even in ideal situations of efficiency at least twice the infrastructure will be required. Second, Mars has numerous dust storms that typically last for a few weeks to a few months, which could at best eliminate power generation for the duration of the storm to at worst destroy the solar cells. How will colonists receive power in a dust-clouded environment? Currently Mars does not lend itself well to energy storage options. Third, distance between the colony, more than likely located in a subterranean lava tube, and the solar panels, more than likely on the surface, creates a transmission problem. Basically a transmission infrastructure will need to be created and maintained. The better solution is to use a small modular nuclear reactor. The reactor can either be converted from the VASIMR after landing or can be delivered prior to human arrival. Nuclear waste can be managed due to its limited creation and sealed in a salt vault (sufficient lead availability will be unlikely).
Concern: The ability to grow food on Mars is severely compromised due to poor quality soils, lack of sunlight, dust storms and inconsistent water availability.
Popular Solution: Hydroponics in greenhouse type structures using artificial light.
Problems with Solution: Hydroponics appears to be the appropriate choice, but the lack of detail provided for food growth on Mars in the numerous treaties created by colonization proponents is especially troubling. Food growth is one of the more direct unambiguous elements of Mars colonization. One would expect that an entire ‘meal plan’ had already been designed for colonists so that they would have extra energy for EVA days, restricted calories for rest days and have sufficient vitamins to ward off any diseases brought on by specific vitamin deficiencies. However, proponents seem to have taken the stance of “use hydroponics to grow anything and let other people figure out the details.” This concern is especially important regarding what happens if the hydroponic system fails and plants start to die. So the individuals pushing for near-future colonization want other people to figure out the details of how colonists are going to grow and consume food on Mars?
Concern: Who will make up the crew of the first colonization crew?
Popular Solution: There is no general agreement in age, size, nationality or profession, which is surprising for like food there are very few uncertainty factors surrounding theoretical crew selection. One element that needs to be better identified is the training regiment for potential colonists because just placing candidates through NASA training will not be enough.
Problems with Solution: The fact that there is no recognized strategy is a problem. Some argue that the first colonists should be beyond their reproductive years because of significantly shortened lifespans and problems that would arise from the pioneering group having to care for children (thinking colonists will remain abstinent is unrealistic). Some argue that the first group should be young because of the physical toll living on Mars will take on the body and all of the exploring and general work that will be required for survival. Not surprisingly both youth and experience will be required, but it is essential that these differing age groups not create bias among themselves fracturing the colonists.
Nationality is irrelevant because it is likely that the first group will never return to Earth (one-way mission) and based on the Article II of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty: “no celestial body is subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” A government could not claim resources or land on Mars; therefore no one could be directly excluded due to his/her nationality.
Professions for the first group have some clear choices in there must be at least one physician (although multiple people should have some form of medical training), one psychologist, one lab technician and one electrical engineer (if nuclear power is utilized from a small modular reactor nuclear engineering knowledge would be useful as well). Someone with training in physical therapy would be useful for dealing with any muscular or skeletal issues that arise from the gravity and pressure changes, but would not be necessary. The importance of choosing professions is having individuals with experience in elements that will require direct immediate on-site interaction versus time-expanded elements that can be researched or instructed by experts from Earth.
Some may argue that an ‘on-site’ psychologist is unnecessary because individuals can communicate with a psychologist on Earth. While true, a psychologist among the crew fosters increased preemptive action when confronting a problem and allows for easier direct arbitration of a given conflict. Also there will be times when communication with Earth will not be available, thus a psychologist among the crew will be available to mediate problems at all times.
Concern: Funding a colonization mission to Mars is not a problem in the initial/capital cost, but instead becomes costly and potentially problematic in the maintenance cost because of numerous pre-colonization missions for preparation and post-colonization missions for support. Estimates that colonizing Mars will only take 11 to 30 billion dollars could be accurate if one has little interest in the landing colonists surviving beyond a very short period of time. One of the biggest problems with this issue is that even ardent supports have yet to produce an invoice cost structure for the overall capital and maintenance costs associated with Mars colonization detailing every single task and cost estimate with appropriate assumptions. Overall without the intricacies of a mission design it is impossible to reasonably estimate costs, thus realistically any number that has been estimated cannot be taken seriously (this statement should be noted by Elon Musk and Robert Zubrin especially).
Popular Solution: Sell sponsorship elements to private corporations and heavily materialize the idea of a mission to Mars and associated colonization.
Problems with Solution: Privatizing the issue of Mars colonization comes off as tacky and cheapens the whole idea among the honorific charges that the ideal behind Mars colonization is enrichment of the human spirit, feeding humanity’s innate curiosity and enhancing survival probabilities of the species. How inspirational will it really be for the public to hear about the Google Solar Searcher making landfall and the Apple iPhone 27 colonist setting foot on Mars? Proponents of this marketing solution also typically overestimate the amount of money that will be raised forgetting that a vast majority of people are interested in characters not concepts. For example what drives ‘Star Wars’ sales… people buy more because of an affinity to Hans Solo or Darth Vader over an affinity to space travel in general.
People like drama, but only when there are no real life-death consequences to that drama. Watching people actually die on Mars as a part of some reality show concept will instantly turn-off most of humanity (or at least it should otherwise that says something about humanity). Also little traction has been made on a mission to Mars; this lack of progress may have diluted its believability in the mind of the public, thus a reality series may not draw the attention proponents want until the public has the belief that a colonization mission will actually occur; otherwise such a ‘show’ will be viewed as a publicity stunt, which would further damage colonization credibility. Unfortunately for proponents this ‘chicken/egg’ issue is a similar one that faces electrical vehicles with the relationship between its required infrastructure and total sales.
Popular Solution #2: Exploration of Mars will pay for itself because valuable minerals and precious metals mined from Mars can be returned to Earth and Martian land can be sold to private citizens. In fact some propose a triangle trading system between Earth, Mars and localized asteroids.
Problems with Solution: The idea of creating an economic ‘juggernaut’ from Mars is rather far-fetched at the moment. Even the most optimistic estimates would acknowledge that even with basically everything going right in colonization (something proponents always seem to assume) it will still take decades until even a little economic productivity on Mars is produced beyond the simple elements required for survival. Name the number of companies that are willing to invest billions of dollars in a project that has a low payoff probability with a successful ROI of over a decade? The idea of selling Martian land is quite insane because sovereign nations are not allowed to claim ownership and a first come first served privateer mentality would probably also not be viewed as valid legally due to the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the colonization of Mars. Thus the very idea of Martian land ownership until thousands of people are on Mars will do nothing but cause problems and increase the probability of death for the colonists.
Speaking of private organizations…
Concern: The state of the government sponsored space program places significant limitations on Mars colonization because the United States, who has been the leader for the last two decades in space exploration, has quasi-quit manned space travel, largely due to the setbacks in the Constellation Program, creating a significant gap in space travel capacity for humans.
Popular Solution: Mars proponents think that privatization can drive the colonization of Mars citing such successes as SpaceShipOne (Mojave Aerospace Ventures) and SpaceX.
Problems with Solution: Proponents are thinking very short-term with this solution. As stated above the realistic profitability potential of a colony on Mars is decades, if not a century, away from any positive potential and companies do not like to invest in things that have such a large uncertainty time frame. For example suppose a private corporation responsible for transport for Mars colonization goes bankrupt, in part because of the colony infrastructure transport, before the colony is self-sufficient? Is another private company going to pick up where that first company left off, especially if the colonization project had a role in driving the bankruptcy?
What proponents fail to consider is that 99.99+% of all cost estimates in business are underestimates with the actual costs being greater. To those who think that corporations would never simply allow the colonists to die… corporations kill people everyday and think nothing of it and could easily scapegoat colonist deaths by blaming the colonists themselves. The simple fact is that as of this moment it is difficult to justify the direct involvement of private corporations in a Mars colonization endeavor. Realistically unless it is very lucky privatization will probably be relegated to LEO space tourism versus spearheading Mars colonization.
Concern: The possibility of life on Mars in the form of rudimentary bacteria has not been eliminated, thus what should be the response of colonists to this possibility?
Popular Solution: There is no definitive solution offered. Most plans involve colonists eventually searching for this life and conducting routine collection and cultures to identify.
Problems with Solution: While standard protocol for exploration and classification of any discovered life after colonization is understandable very little discussion exists regarding addressing bacteria on the colonization site itself. While the probability that any encountered life is pathogenic is remote, without the existence of a biohazard analysis area (including such a structure for the initial portion of the colonization is rather inefficient) the region surrounding the initial colonization site should be sterilized. Sterilization is easy enough as an UV light strobe can be deposited in a centralized location of the colonization environment and a continuous pulse should be sufficient to eliminate any Martian life in the region. Some may argue against this idea citing morality issues of killing indigenous Martian life, but it stands to reason that if life exists on Mars then it is not concentrated in a single place. Therefore, such killing can be attributed to killing E. Coli in milk through pasteurization.
In the end it is understandable that after reading the above criticism some could argue that this post did little to advance the aspect of specifics associated with a mission to colonize Mars. Such a contention is correct, but this blog is also not devoted to promoting a mission to colonize Mars thus there is less expectation or responsibility to produce the nauseating specifics required for such a mission. Such an expectation would be akin to wondering why a biomedical engineer did not draw up the blueprints for the largest skyscraper ever in lieu of a civil engineer. However, it is appropriate for a biomedical engineer to ask questions regarding the blueprint even if some of them may be regarded as unnecessary/stupid. One interesting option to expand the demand for specifics is if various Mars colonization groups could organize a televised debate among ‘experts’ on the various elements associated with Mars colonization. Such a debate would force speakers to expand details beyond checklists and rosy assumptions that everything would always work out in favor of the colonists. As of now no rational person should support a mission to colonize Mars with the lack of details and DIY attitude that most proponents seem to have relative to the colonization. Colonizing Mars and colonizing North America is hardly the same thing.