You’re standing barefoot on the sand and it’s almost uncomfortably warm. It’s grainy, not fine as sand you would find on a beach, and it massages your feet. It is all around you, orange-yellow in color, but it’s turning gray and getting colder because the hot sun is setting behind you. You notice how quiet it is. You don’t perceive any animals at the moment, and no vegetation. It is very dry. Everywhere the eye can see there’s just this hot sand. In the distance you can see rock formations, hills, mountains. As the sun is setting, its last rays hit those mountains and explode in color: not only brown and beige, but also all reds you could possibly imagine: maroon, mahogany, burgundy, red, magenta, and fiery orange. You look up and you see the sky above those mountains turning to an incredible, impossible, deep purple, the like you have never seen before.
This place is ancient, with a vast past to tell of, and close to no one to listen. This is an actual memory of a visit to a wondrous place, the Sinai Desert, located in the Middle East, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. But except maybe for the color of the sky, I think this is what Mars feels like, except the heat.
How long will it take for humans to get to Mars?
The question has been asked since the 1950’s, and there have been dozens of attempts to answer, in the form of detailed studies and proposals, written by scientists working for multiple governments, universities, and private organizations. There are many countries interested in the subject, but there were mainly US proposals including multiple by NASA, and multiple European (ESA) and Russian. The proposals address issues such as the logistics and route to get there and back, logistics for landing, number of people, length of stay, supplies and habitat, health and survival.
The first one published in 1952 proposed 10 spacecraft carrying 70 people each(!), and surface landing vehicles. Since then the proposals varied greatly. Some planned a direct visit, and 2-way trip. Of those some proposed the payload to include all supplies, others suggested propellants for the return trip should be manufactured on location from the Martian atmosphere, to reduce cost. A 1-way trip was proposed in 1998, later to be repeated and advocated by people such as Buzz Aldrin, the ‘2nd man on the moon’. Are there any volunteers?
Recent US policy is very positive. George W. Bush endorsed manned space exploration in 2004, followed by hints from NASA of plans to launch to Mars from the moon. Current president Obama and the US Congress approved in 2010 a manned mission to Mars by 2030’s.
In 2000, Russians proposed an orbital mission to Mars, using a nuclear reactor to power an electric rocket engine. [Maybe that’s where the idea for the electric jet, proposed by the real Elon Musk to the character ‘Tony Stark’ in Iron Man 2, came from :-)]. Alternatively, chemical propulsion was proposed by NASA in 2009.
A 1991 international/French proposal suggested the spacecraft to have nuclear power and artificial gravity provided by rotation. This is a known model for a space station, not so much for a vehicle. Coincidentally (or not?), the 2000 science fiction movie Mission to Mars (starring some of my very favorite actors!) featured such a vessel. That idea was likely borrowed from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Other private initiatives:
1998, The Mars Society– an international space advocacy non-profit organization, promoting human exploration and settlement of Mars. Supported by science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson and filmmaker James Cameron.
2008, MarsDrive – a non-profit organization that envisions “a spacefaring civilization”, is working on designs for permanent settlement of Mars titled ‘Mars for Less’.
2012, Mars One, a private Dutch project to settle Mars as a 1-way trip, is proposing to settle in multiple stages by 2023, using components from suppliers such as SpaceX, and financing it by making it a reality show. The audience will get to pick the astronauts…
2012, SpaceX – founded to “revolutionize space transportation and … make it possible for people to live on other planets”, is proposing a Mars landing as a 2018 NASA study mission to search for life, and long-term plans for settlement. The CEO Elon Musk was seen wearing the ‘Available to Help Populate Mars’ T-shirt, sold online at Space.com.
So what’s stopping us?
Aside from the enormous logistics and cost, and aside from health and survival issues that can all potentially be resolved, there is one problem for which we don’t yet have an answer, and I hope is considered very carefully by all public and private parties. We have not yet found life on Mars, but if it does exist, even as microorganisms, it can be devastated by human presence, or it can be transported to Earth and cause devastation here, against which our civilization and possibly all other life on Earth will be defenseless. This explains some of the proposals to explore Mars remotely from its moons or from orbit.
What does SF have to say about Mars? Stay tuned for Feels Like Mars – Part II.