Going to Mars is a long-sought dream of humanity, often claimed to be just two decades away. Dreams, unfortunately, will not get us there so we have to face up to an often harsh reality. In this case, the dose of realism was delivered by none other than former NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield.
Hadfield was interviewed by Business Insider about the new space race and the ultimate goal of both space agencies and private companies to go to – and maybe even set a permanent base on – the Red Planet. Elon Musk’s Space X claims that we will be on Mars within a decade, Mars One and NASA by the early 2030s. Hadfield doesn’t argue about the tech, though, there’s another cost often ignored in these ambitious plans: human life.
"We could send people to Mars decades ago. The technology that took us to the moon and back when I was just a kid — that technology can take us to Mars," Hadfield told Business Insider. But, he pointed out, "The majority of the astronauts that we send on those missions wouldn't make it. They'd die."
The risks are many. There are long-term risks associated with being exposed to cosmic radiation outside the Earth’s protective magnetic field. But there are also risks associated with simply designing a mission that would take a handful of people on a journey millions of kilometers from Earth. Others, like Professor Brian Cox in a recent interview with IFLScience, have expressed similar reservations about the physical and mental toll of undertaking such a journey.
"It’s very different from going to the Moon or sitting on the International Space Station, where you’re always a few hours away from Earth," Cox said. "Psychologically, no one has been that far from Earth. And we’re talking about months, perhaps a year from Earth. I think that’s a challenge that we don’t fully understand."
The risk of something going wrong gets higher the longer you are in space, and getting to Mars and back could take up to three years. Even if many known risks can be minimized (and it's not clear at the moment that they can), there are certainly complication simply by being in space. Medical treatment, even simple surgical procedures, would be extremely difficult. That’s why Hadfield is unconvinced by NASA’s Space Launch System, SpaceX’ Big Falcon Rocket, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket.
"My guess is we will never go to Mars with the engines that exist on any of those three rockets unless we truly have to," he said. "I don't think those are a practical way to send people to Mars because they're dangerous and it takes too long, and it, therefore, exposes us to a risk for a long time."
Hadfield thinks that the key to safety is in new technologies. Some already exist, like ion propulsion or nuclear reactors, others are still beyond our limit.
"Someone has to invent something we haven't thought of yet," Hadfield said. "Maybe the work that's going on with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the space station and in the particle accelerator in CERN and other places ... is going to show us how we can harness gravity.
"It sounds outlandish, but we figured out how to harness electricity and what electrons do, and that seemed crazy, and it's revolutionized life and travel. So who knows?"
[H/T: Business Insider]