You Wanna Go To Mars?

I, for one, was not all that thrilled about the landing of Curiosity on the Red Planet (of course it’s “red” due to a teensy amount of oxygen) last month nor am I ecstatic about NASA’s plans to send yet another robot to Mars for “drilling” purportedly in 2016. I, especially, object to the idea of sending humans to Mars. In concerning terms, it’s impossible–and I don’t mean impossible in the manner of saying that it can’t be done. It can, however, the results will be nightmarish. People will be left stranded.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Space science is incredibly important but I don’t see mass-manned presence in space as something that would give us a good return-on-investment. By all means spending money on technology in which spin-offs can be derived and those spin-offs could be used for the colonization of space since those technological derivations would have great Earth-bound applications (i.e., the study of ecological construction and maintenance) and, if at some point future technology and economics make space exploration/colonization practical [even though economics will not permit this, at least not for the United States], then all means go for it. But now is not the time to sit and stew in the thickness of mass space migration ideology.

In reference to funding of such an undertaking, in regards to public monies, the [“..we have so many problems…”] argument can be applied to just about all public investments in R&D. With short-term R&D, private industry is, in general, more cost-effective; with long-term R&D, there is the argument that there are so many immediate pressing problems in the world that we should not be concerned about sending humans to Mars. I’ll even bet that people will impose with the questions: “Why are we spending so much money on research? Do we not already possess the technology that will permit the accomplishment of such a proposed feat?”

Addressing the first question, frugally spending money on humanly-driven space exploration is exceptionally a good thing. Nobody is talking about spending trillions of dollars, at least not over the short-term. More likely over the span of fifty years or so, despite the fact that a trillion dollars spent over a fifty year-span ain’t a huge amount of money.

The answer to the latter query is an emphatically resounding “NO!”. There are several technological breakthroughs that need to occur in addition to growing food on Mars; obtaining water and oxygen; precision landing (I’m not talking unmanned spacecraft here); long-term and continuous electrical power; health and waste management, etc. Are there any human-capable landers? No. For those of you who wantonly bled on the pant leg of an unbreakable institution over Curiosity surpassing those “seven minutes of terror”, you might want to consider the fact that the Mars Science Laboratory costs $2.5 billion. NASA is wasteful yet not that wasteful. Clamor over the “productive” use of nuclear power all you want, truth is they used a rocket that half of the power of the Saturn V in order to both get vehicles to and land on Mars. We can’t do the precision landing that would be required for sending humans to Mars. Those human-capable landers would need to be spread out along a 40 kilometer long ellipse if they were to use current landing capabilities.

Do people not realize that new technologies would be needed in order for a mission of that magnitude to be a successful one?

Reality states that we do not know how to grow food in space or on Mars. There are no experts on the Martian climate. You have people here [on Earth] that do not know how their home planet functions in the manner of how the Earth warms; they’re unaware that the Earth is a cold planet; they’re unaware of the fact that we are in an interglacial period; they’re unaware that…


…emissions are actually good for the Earth. Not only do certain scientists lack a basic understanding of the planet on which they live, so does much of the general public. With that said, do you really expect me to believe that there exists an expert on the atmosphere of Mars? I would hope you wouldn’t. If someone thinks that they are an expert on the Martian atmosphere then that someone will have to prove that they are an expert on the Martian atmosphere by actually venturing off to the Red Planet. But since that will never come to pass [unless the proper protocols are to be taken into serious consideration] that means that there will never be an expert on the atmosphere of Mars. At most, an heuristical approach will be the closest a person will come claiming to be an expert on the Martian atmosphere.

Hey girrrrl, you look cold….

Referring back to NASA’s plans to send yet another rover to Mars by 2016, only with the proposed capability of being able to drill, this brings us back to what I stated initially in the first paragraph; we do not know how to do the mining and refining that is essential to this preposterous mission as far as obtaining water and oxygen goes. Understand something, just because a technology is known to function on Earth or has been put to use for a rather different purpose on the Space Station does not mean that the technology isn’t new. I’m talking about new, untested technology. Curiosity was never tested before it was sent to Mars.

SpaceX is pretty much borderline irrelevant themselves. SpaceX took ten years to do something that had already been done before. They had quite the helping hand from NASA and Japan regarding the rendezvous technology that was needed for its most recent mission. A human mission to Mars is a product of the imagination. In other words, not likely to happen. For humans, Mars is uncharted territory. SpaceX delivered some goodies to a vehicle that’s passively floating through near-empty space. The approach speed between the Dragon and the ISS was minute. Problems that occurred along the way were fairly easy to deal with; all they had to do was back out, analyze the situation, fix the issue and try again. Mars, in comparison, is a very different story. You don’t need the input of a “Martian atmospheric expert” to know that the environment on Mars is intensely hostile, particularly to a vehicle coming into its atmosphere with an initial velocity that exceeds escape velocity. To make that a little bit more clear, there is no backing out. You have one chance to do it right. Hence, those few minutes of extreme anxiety that was experienced right before Curiosity landed. However, that was an unmanned mission; I’m talking about the tedious and highly unlikely scenario of landing a spacecraft on Mars that’s carrying humans.

SpaceX sent some goodies to a vehicle that’s been built before and already has an extensive life support system. It was an construction that was an incredible feat in engineering. The Mars station has not been built–and I would venture to say that it has not even conceived as an idea as of yet–and there is no life support. A manned Mars mission of the sort being touted would have to build the station as well as the life support.

SpaceX sent some goodies to a vehicle where the technologies to bring the vehicles together with an incredible precision–within inches–and from that point the robotic arm does all of the work. That’s what precision landing is. On Mars, precision would mean within tens of kilometers. Improving landing accuracy is one of NASA’s main goals. As of now, nobody knows how to achieve the accuracies needed for a manned mission to Mars.

SpaceX sent some goodies to a vehicle where the closest access to fresh air is all but a few hundred kilometers away. On the ISS, there is always an escape vehicle in case the crew has to get to that source of fresh air in a quick fashion. For a manned mission to Mars, there is no escape. They’re stuck there. They will die there on Mars and it probably won’t take long before their demise sets in either.

The only place we can reliably grow food is here on Earth and it’s really no issue as far as transporting that food to the ISS. That would be a major concern for those stranded on Mars, don’t you think? As I’ve stated before, we don’t know how to grow food in space and we sure don’t have the advice from so-called “experts on the Martian atmosphere” to guide us through the trials and tribulations of experimenting on how to grow food on Mars.

Folks need to understand that there’s a huge gap between, “…we can do this on paper” to “…we can do it with this massively overweight and finicky prototype that only works in this controlled lab environment” to “…we can do it on Mars”. These huge gaps between paper, first prototype and operational use are precisely why the Department of Defense and NASA developed their concept known as the Technology Readiness Level (TRL).

The task of freeing oxygen from iron is no mean feat. Here, on Earth, carbon monoxide is used with end products being iron and…


A manned mission to Mars would propose to extract oxygen from all the “water” in the Martian soil yet here’s where it gets problematic. They won’t be landing anywhere near any of the poles on Mars, so what “water” are scientists referring to? And even if there was any “water” on Mars, how would they go about extracting it? Build a pipeline? That is something the kind of thing that we haven’t the slightest idea on how to do. Just because we know how to build a pipeline here on Earth does not automatically translate that we can do it on Mars as well. The technology to do this does not currently exist, not even on small scales, and even if it did things do not scale by orders of magnitude in the world of engineering. Technologies that work fine-and-dandy on a small scale or work just fine in a controlled laboratory environment usually fail miserably whenever they’re scaled up by orders of magnitude or when they’re taken out into the world at large. Scaling up by orders of magnitude or changing the environment [radically] so that a particular technology can operate turns things into a back-to-the-drawing-board scenario real quick.

It’s baffling when people think to themselves that they have drawn a conclusion to the issue by believing that pipelines can just simply be built transport “water” from the poles on Mars or that ores can be extracted from craters to build structures. Please know that the cost for doing these things here [on Earth] is extremely high. You want to build a pipeline several hundred kilometers long? You can get the concrete from companies that mine the required materials from Earth (the same can be said for the metals, plastics, electronics and machine components). These things require factories and a supply line that starts with someone sticking a shovel in the ground and it ends with a component being slotted in place. These industries require support too: you need trucks for transportation of said materials (roads to drive on, fuel to power them and garages to maintain them), electricity to power those factories, etc.

I sense a strong impression that people fallaciously overlook the fact that any action on Earth is not done in isolation. In reality, we have never sent a few tonnes of machinery to a remote location and had it mined, refined and utilized in-situ resources to construct machinery which can be used to build considerably large infrastructure. With that said, why is it assumed that this can be done on Mars? Reality also states that many necessary technologies are at a low Technology Readiness Level and even those at a high level that are now being used will never scale up. For example, life support. At the moment, the ISS is resupplied by regular transports from Earth. The same is going to have to be done for Mars as far as having a large payload delivered to Mars every month for the duration of the mission–a mission that will require significant development in multiple areas of science that range from propulsion and life support as well as the psychological/sociological study of small groups in confined/isolated environments. I’m among those people that are not–yet–convinced that propulsion is simply a matter of scale.

The people on the ISS, whilst isolated in a confined period, are only there for a period of months and they have the practical [and convenient] advantage of only being a few hundred kilometers from Earth with all of the psychological benefits that brings to them. On Mars, that benefit will be non-existent. Just factor in:

  • The anxiety of the crew while en route to Mars
  • Constant background radiation from galactic cosmic rays
  • Reaching Mars after eight-to-nine months of traveling via gas core nuclear reactors
  • The toxicity of Mars dust
  • Toxicity of Earth life (as humans, we are radioactive because of Carbon-14)
  • Launching from Mars
  • Coming back to Earth (not likely)

In reference to the issue of having to deal with radiation, water is only good at shielding from neutrons and other high-energy particles due to its high hydrogen content. The same can be said for polyethylene. However, gamma rays (ionizing radiation) can pass right through water. Bear in mind, that this is only a small part of the shielding dilemma. There is no technology available to produce a powerful magnetic field around a spacecraft so the option of “magnetic shielding” is out of the question. As soon as the water is exposed to the vacuum it will sublime away and not form a “plug” of ice. If the water radiation shield is breached all of the water will eventually boil and vent in space. For a long mission (such as this–sending humans to Mars), reactions in the structural materials of the spacecraft hull would be a huge concern. Surrounding the astronauts with water [and propellant, specifically liquified…

H_2, NH_3, CH_4

…or solid LiH)

…would be one way of improving the shielding. For ions, the best shielding would be light elements like…




…and for gammas and X-ray radiation, heavier elements would be best although in addition to that would be an increase mass which would increase the propulsive energy requirements. That’s the trade-off.

You belong on Earth. Deal with it.



Desmond J. Watson is a Co-Founder and the Chief Executive Officer of Hexagon Lavish®, a scientific R&D start-up that specializes in informational interpretation software development and unique IR techniques. He also manages the blog, Arheliean. You can follow him on Twitter, @TheRealOnanel. If you're rich and want to invest in Hexagon Lavish®, then do so.


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