In recent times, the finite nature of Earth is even more noticeable. Not only do we humans experience scarcity in everyday life, we are coming to the realization that Earth’s environment is not an endless well. Lately, here in the Korean Peninsula, the influx of fine dust has made us aware of how imminent the dangers of depleting the environment are. Humanity is bringing calamity upon ourselves, caught in the delusion that we must be privileged creatures on this piece of dirt called Earth. Here on our pale blue dot, we have reached a turning point, where we can no longer continue to use the planet’s resources in the wasteful ways of the past. Fortunately, it is in our inherent nature to look beyond where we currently stand, and in our world today, it is space: the final frontier.
The Argus investigates human exploration that goes beyond the comfortable boundaries of Earth; namely Mars. What challenges does humankind face? What can we do about it? And more importantly, why should humans extend our reach to Mars? The Argus explores these questions with hopes that they instill dreams of a new space age in the hearts of our readers.
Space, the final frontier, is a topic of infinite potential that excites the human race. We are now at the start of a new space age, getting ready to become a multi-planet species. Space Pioneer Grady Moon says:
“Throughout history, mankind has always been driven into a perennial question of the unknown. The ancient pioneer Africans drew a map of human migration to colonize the world, and Christopher Columbus, the man who discovered America, also carried the idea that our species are innately curious creatures. Indeed, exploration sheds light on the evolution of human cognition. Questions we throw today such as, “What could be beyond Earth?” allow us to be true to our nature of exploration. Audacious dreams of human habitation on Mars root from the same instinctive lure.”
What obstacles are there to going to Mars?
How deep our wallets must go
“We went to the Moon in the 1960s because we wanted to beat the Russians, so the US government gave us however much money we wanted. Now however, there is no good motivation to go to the Moon or Mars, so people do not care about space exploration anymore,” says NASA Engineer Anand Iyer, “The biggest issue is funding.” NASA currently gets 0.4 percent of the US national budget every year. Amounting to $21.5 billion for the fiscal year of 2019, it is the highest-funded space program in the world. This figure is 37 times the budget for the Korean Aerospace Research Institute (580 billion won or US $510 million). Naturally, NASA leads the world in space exploration research and technology.
Even with the largest budget in the world, the progress towards landing humans on Mars is slow-going. Including the equipment, labor, and testing costs, NASA Engineer Anand Iyer says, “The figure could be anywhere between a low-end estimate of $800 million to upwards of $200 billion … We simply do not have the money to speed up the space program.” At the current rate, Iyer estimates that humans will realistically set foot on Mars in a timeframe between the late 2030s and the early 2040s.
The vacuum between Earth and Mars
From Earth, Mars looks like a little red dot in the sky. The average distance from Earth to Mars is 225 million km. However, this distance varies from as close as 54.6 million km to as far as 401 million km. Mars and the Earth both orbit the Sun, but at different speeds. This means Mars is sometimes alongside Earth in its orbit but also sometimes on the other side of the Sun as Earth. Missions to Mars have to be launched when the distance is least, and even so, it is estimated to take about seven months with conventional technology according to NASA Engineer Iyer.
Furthermore, distance will make communication a challenge. Even at the speed of light, it takes over 180 seconds to travel from Earth to Mars. Radio waves, which are much slower than light, take around seven minutes. For messages from Earth to get to Mars, then messages from Mars to get to Earth, there will be a 14-minute lag. In emergency scenarios, the distance will mean that the astronauts will be momentarily all alone to make decisions that may determine their survival.
The distance is literally astronomical. Astronauts on board the ship to Mars will have to face the reality that aside from themselves, their supplies, and their spaceship, they are floating alone in the vastness of space.
The hazards astronauts will face in space
During the seven-month-long journey between the safe confines of the Earth’s magnetic field and Mars, voyagers will be constantly exposed to space radiation such as galactic cosmic rays and solar energetic particles. These are highly charged electrons, atoms stripped of electrons, protons and other ions moving at extremely high speeds that can clash with atoms in the human body, destroy the atom, and create ionizing radiation. This secondary radiation can reach dangerous levels, according to a NASA article on the relevance of space radiation.
Outside Earth, there will be no gravity to hold the astronauts down. The human body has evolved to stay on Earth, and without gravity it will face a slew of problems such as muscles losing mass, the deterioration of the skeleton, and the redistribution of bodily fluids.
These are not the only problems. Professor Kim Kyu-sung of Inha University comments, “Lately, the studies regarding long-term space stay have expanded to the fields of psychiatry, nutrition, cognition, and hypnology.” Astronauts face stressors ranging from intensive work in confined spaces to enforced interaction with fellow crew members and a lack of privacy therefrom. There is a need for proper psych care, as well as the need for sleep schedules, nutrition plans, and well-prepared research into how the mind will handle long-term space travel.
The Martian environment humanity must adapt to
The Martian environment is too harsh for Earth-based lifeforms. The atmosphere of Mars is composed of 96 percent carbon dioxide, less than two percent argon, less than two percent nitrogen, and less than one percent other gases. Oxygen, which humans need to survive, is near non-existent as is a magnetic field that acts as a shield against harmful radiation from space. Moreover, the temperature ranges from -140 to 30 degrees Celsius. This spectrum overlaps well with that of Earth, but the extreme cold of Mars is a challenge that needs to be overcome. Alongside this, the gravity on the red planet, at 3.711m/s², is 62.5 percent less than what humans are used to on Earth. Humans will face similar problems to what they face in the weightlessness of space.
In addition, those setting foot on Mars will require sustenance. The lifeless surface of the planet will provide no sources of food. Engineer Iyer comments, “On average, a person eats at least two kilograms of food and drinks at least three kilograms of water every day. For a crew of seven over the period of two years, that’s more than 25 metric tons of food and water at a minimum!” The first astronauts to Mars will have to carry with them an exorbitant amount of food. An increase in weight would require bigger rockets, which in turn requires more money. Because of this, permanent settlements will need to have the ability to produce their own food.
Besides this, there will need to be accommodations on Mars that are essential to life on Earth. Earthlings on Mars will get sick and at times, need recreation. Appropriate facilities must be built as way of settling into life. “We need to make sure we go there to stay - start a long-term colony by building homes and farms, plan out long-term scientific experiments, create recreational facilities such as indoor gyms, libraries, games, and the likes,” adds Iyer regarding this.
How are we overcoming the obstacles?
Ongoing research at the International Space Station
One of the purposes of the International Space Station (ISS) is to research long-term effects and different aspects of prolonged stay in space. This research will heavily influence the life of the crew flying to Mars. They will face months of space travel where they will be required to live in the confined spaces of the spacecraft. During this time, it will be essential for the astronauts to maintain their health - both mental and physical. Research on the effects of microgravity on humans to mastering the methods of living in small modules have been going on since the construction of the station commenced in 1998.
Research on the ISS first tested the feasibility of interplanetary travel. According to Iyer, “It helps us understand the effects of long-term stays in outer space - how the zero gravity in space affects the body, what kind of radiation effects we have to deal with, daily processes like brushing and using the toilet in very tight spaces.”
The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and the Space Launch System
Over at NASA, engineers are working on programs to properly prepare for the seven-month-long flight to Mars. The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) program (also formerly known as the Deep Space Gateway), a lunar space station that will orbit the Moon, is in the works. Here astronauts will test the technologies that NASA is developing to go to Mars. Because the Moon takes only three days to get to, if something goes wrong, astronauts can easily come back to Earth. To make LOP-G operational and to bring the astronauts there, the Space Launch System (SLS), is being built. The SLS is a new massive rocket that is designed to bring people to the Moon first, then Mars. This system will continually be upgraded to be more powerful. NASA plans manned missions to the Moon with SLS by 2023, and has long-term plans extending well into the 2030s.
NASA has definite plans to make manned missions a reality. According to NASA’s budget estimates report for the fiscal year of 2020 released on March 18, 2019, it will continue to allot over US $5 billion into its Deep Space Exploration Systems.
Ways astronauts can deal with spaceflight
NASA Science Writer William A. Steiger says, “In general, there will be a shielded area, perhaps between water or fuel tanks, where the crew can take refuge during a space storm such as a solar flare.” Another possible solution is speed. Changing chemical rockets to nuclear rockets could reduce flight time to Mars more than sevenfold, thereby reducing the astronauts’ exposure to space radiation.
Other aspects of spaceflight, such as living in a small space with a crew, can be overcome by referencing life on the ISS. The ISS has been able to host six astronauts at a time since 2009. The crew of the first manned mission to Mars is expected to be four. Life in such a situation is not a first, and the experience of ISS astronauts will provide guidance on how to pick a crew and what to watch out for. “Making the crew compatible with each other,” according to Iyer, is a simple, but vital requirement to crew composition.
Ways we can survive the Martian environment
The very first humans on Mars will need to bring material for immediate shelter. The shelter must be properly insulated and protected from space radiation. A possible solution to this is using the Martian environment to our advantage. Steigerwald says, “Bases on the Martian surface could be shielded simply by covering them in Martian soil.”
The lack of equipment poses a problem, but NASA Engineer Iyer says, “We are working on various new 3D printing technologies, also known as additive manufacturing, so that we can build things outside of Earth. If any small part breaks, we will be able to make a new one instead of having to send a new part from Earth.”
In line with this idea of self-sustenance is “In-situ resource utilization.” According to NASA, it is “using space-based resources for human missions in deep space.” Rather than bring all the material needed for survival into space, Mars can become a source for some of the needed resources. For example, water and oxygen can be made from Martian ice and fuel for the flight back to Earth can be extracted and manufactured from resources on and in Mars.
Why should we go to Mars?
In the search for life outside of Earth, Mars has the potential to reveal previously unknown aspects on the origin of life in the universe. NASA Engineer Anand Iyer says, “Finding evidence of life on Mars would mean life in the universe may be quite common. On the other hand, finding absolutely no signs of life on Mars in its five billion years of existence could tell us that the evolution of life on Earth was by freak chance and that life is rarer than we think. This is incredibly important from a scientific standpoint. On a planetary scale, researching on Mars increases the sample for life from one to two.”
In addition to the origin of life, understanding Mars will help people understand Earth. According to a collaborative article in Science magazine, observations by the Curiosity Mars rover indicate the long-term existence of a lake with the possibility of atmospheric humidity. In other words, there may have been a point in Mars history when it was more like the water-covered, atmospherically stable Earth. Drawing from this, knowing how the Martian environment changed over the course of its history will be a great indicator for how Earth’s environment may one day change.
Advancement of technology
NASA Science Writer William A. Steigerwald comments, “Because space exploration is so difficult, it generates technology that is useful to solve problems here on Earth.” GPS, communication, satellite TV, and smartphones may seem obviously related to space exploration tech. However, GoPros, solar cells, water purification, firefighting equipment, LASIK for the eyes, MRI for cancer detection, infrared technology, artificial limbs, cordless vacuums, and freeze drying are some of the many offshoots of NASA technology that impact our lives today.
This development is happening in real time. Explorer Grady Moon adds, “As SpaceX does research on reducing flight time on rockets to Mars, a terrestrial transport system, where a pod travels through a vacuum tunnel, called the hyperloop may very well be commercialized.
Return on investment
The advancement of technology will bring great returns. SpaceX has plans on cheapening its launching technology enough so that it becomes a feasible method of travelling within Earth. According to SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy information webpage, a trip from London to Hong Kong can potentially be as short as 34 minutes. The trip normally takes 11 hours five minutes for a commercial airliner. With this technology becoming economically feasible, SpaceX would not only revolutionize, but also monopolize travel.
The technology gained in the effort to get humans to Mars will not only help humans solve problems here on Earth but open a new frontier. It will not just be limited to exploration. Easier intersolar travel will allow humans to expand our reach to resources in every corner of the solar system. Asteroids with trillions of dollars’ worth of precious metals will become plausible investments. Comets rich in nitrogen can be harvested for making fertilizer, and heavy industry and its associated pollution could be moved into space. Developing spaceflight, starting with Mars, will put civilization’s scope of economy at the next level. Additionally, in Steigerwald’s words, “Learning how to affordably access space and use the resources there will give us what people all over the world struggle for freedom.”
Inspiration, by Anand Iyer:
“Going to Mars will inspire the youth and younger generation of today to become engineers, scientists, researchers, inventors, and entrepreneurs. The more people there are of those that contribute, the better off society will be. Five hundred years from now, people will still remember Neil Armstrong and the Moon landings. They will not remember how well the stock market was doing, they will not remember what movies came out, and they probably will not even remember who the president was. But if we do end up going to Mars within the next 20 years or so, that milestone will be remembered, and The Argus and HUFSans will get the opportunity to be alive during that landmark time. Going to Mars is probably the most important thing that we can do today, and if we have the power and technology to do so, why not?”
By Kwak Hyun-jeong and Park Chang-hwan
Staff Reporters of Theory & Critique Section
People who helped us write this article
NASA Engineer Anand Iyer, Space Pioneer Grady Moon, NASA Science Writer William A. Steigerwald, Professor of Inha University Kim Kyu-sung