Extreme Engineering: A One Way Mission to Mars

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In this series, Mental Floss will examine the engineering problems associated with humanity’s most extreme endeavors, from mining asteroids to colonizing the ocean, and explain how engineers plan to solve them.

“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

As we’ve seen in this series, there are countless nontrivial engineering problems associated with building a Martian colony, and there are as many solutions as there are engineers. What everyone seems to agree on, however, is that when we finally decide to pull the trigger on this thing, we’re playing for keeps. A colonization mission is one-way.

Mars to Stay

You might have heard of Buzz Aldrin. He was a Korean War fighter pilot who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. Later, he was an Air Force aerial gunnery instructor and a flight commander for the 22nd Fighter Squadron. He enrolled at MIT and earned a doctorate of science in Astronautics. But he’s also a known street brawler, and when the on/off switch for the lunar module broke, he stabbed it with a felt tip pen, teaching it a little thing about respect, and saving the mission from certain doom (he also went to the moon).

So when Buzz Aldrin says the people we send to Mars need to just quit whining and stay there, maybe it’s not his genteel nature. But he makes a compelling argument. As he explained to Vanity Fair: "Did the Pilgrims on the Mayflower sit around Plymouth Rock waiting for a return trip? They came here to settle. And that’s what we should be doing on Mars. When you go to Mars, you need to have made the decision that you’re there permanently. The more people we have there, the more it can become a sustaining environment. Except for very rare exceptions, the people who go to Mars shouldn’t be coming back. Once you get on the surface, you’re there."

This is part of what has been termed the Mars to Stay initiative, and there are two very big advantages to such a plan. First, it’s cheaper. If a ship to Mars has to carry enough fuel for a round trip, it thus needs even more fuel on top of that to compensate for the additional mass of the ship. Those dollars start to add up quickly. Secondly, it’s a commitment. Look, let’s be honest here: Every time a president makes some big speech in front of our now-mothballed space shuttle, we listen with the full knowledge that it’s probably not going to happen—that the next president or Congress will hose things up and cut funding or find something newer and shinier to chase. (These days it’s capturing an asteroid. The last guy wanted to build a moon colony. The last guy’s dad ordered a ten-year plan culminating in a manned mission to Mars, which would make this year the 15th anniversary of the first human on the Red Planet.) But, see, you put a colony of people on Mars—people who will, if we get cheap, starve to death or asphyxiate or get irradiated into a puddle of goo—and suddenly there’s no shifting priorities around.

Last week, we discussed how to actually get humans to Mars. Here’s a question: What do they do when they get there? What are they going to breathe and eat?

Terraforming the Red Planet

Let’s talk Martian cuisine. Elon Musk, the Zip2-PayPal-SpaceX-Tesla-founder/real life Tony Stark conceived of a plan called the Mars Oasis, in which he would send a robotic greenhouse to Mars, which would then gather and treat Martian soil with nutrients and begin growing food. Said Musk, “You’d wind up with this great photograph of green plants and red background—the first life on Mars, as far as we know, and the farthest that life’s ever traveled. It would be a great money shot, plus you’d get a lot of engineering data about what it takes to maintain a little greenhouse and keep plants alive on Mars.”

(While developing the project, Musk realized that the real barrier to entry for Martian settlement is in rocketry, and resolved to first solve the rocket problem, which he actually seems to be doing.)

It’s easy to say, well, gardening is boring—tell me more about the fusion rockets!—but gardening is a significant problem. By and large, humans have a hard time growing crops on Earth. Now try to do the same thing with half the sunlight, less gravity, and way more radiation. That’s Mars, and it doesn’t want your plant life. But still, where there’s an engineer, there’s a good chance of success. NASA has been experimenting with certain types of LED lighting designed to hit that wavelength sweet spot in which plants love to blossom. Meanwhile, Martian greenhouses will be able to operate at one-tenth of an atmosphere, which is great news in terms of energy efficiency and required square footage. (The downside is that gardeners will be required to hoe their rows in atmospheric suits.) According to Space.com, NASA even has ten candidate crops in mind, each chosen for its resilience and edibility. This list: “lettuce, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, green onions, radishes, bell peppers, strawberries, fresh herbs, and cabbages.”

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. The food we grow will also contribute to the air we breathe. In a self-contained bioregenerative life support system—kind of a miniature ecosystem—plants generate food, oxygen, and clean water for humans, who in turn generate waste and gray water for bioreactors, which then break down said waste and generate nutrients and carbon dioxide for plants, and so on. Hakuna matata—it’s the circle of life, minus the lions. While all this is going on, in-situ resource utilization will provide things like air, water, and power.

Water, Water, Water

In-situwha? you ask. Good question. See, Mars is a giant, inhospitable wasteland, but it’s a giant, inhospitable wasteland with potential. There’s water at its poles in the form of ice caps, water vapor in the air, and ice patches strewn across the planet. But perhaps more useful is the chemically bound water in the Martian soil, which can be extracted. According to one NASA researcher, "If you think about a cubic foot of this dirt and you just heat it a little bit—a few hundred degrees—you'll actually get off about two pints of water—like two water bottles you'd take to the gym.”

NASA is investigating the use of microwave beams to heat the soil. Microwaves have the advantage of being able to penetrate the soil without the need for digging. Extractors would use a process called sublimation, in which ice is converted directly to a gas, which would then be captured and further converted to water. Once our Martian colonists have reliable access to water, they’re really in business because that’s also where their breathable air will come from. A process called electrolysis can extract oxygen from said water. At the same time, nitrogen and argon can be extracted from the Martian atmosphere to be used as buffer gasses for our breathable air. (Man cannot live by oxygen alone.) And the sun, by way of solar panels, as we discussed previously, could power all of this.

Here, I admit, we’re going to apply a little handwavium. See, for three columns now we’ve discussed the engineering required for colonizing Mars. The sheer scope of the challenges associated with building a colony on another planet should be pretty clear at this point. Yes, each of the technologies covered have solid foundations and laboratory successes, but they’re going to have to actually work, and work well, and not break, to be useful on Mars. And they’re all going to have to work at the same time. Any one break in the chain would pretty much spell certain death for literally everyone on the planet.

The Human Problem

So if you plan to move to Mars, you’d better be an optimist. Which leads me to one final point: the limitations of human psychology cannot be fixed with a soldering iron and a fabrication plant. (Yet.) In June 2010, the European Space Agency and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems launched a study called Mars 500 in which six men were sealed in a mockup habitat for 520 days to see what would happen, exactly, on a Mars mission. How would humans handle it? Their accommodations were windowless, and “contact” with Earth was realistically delayed by 14 minutes (the same delay by which the rover Curiosity transmits). The men of Mars 500 were chosen from a pool of greater than 1000 candidates. Who would you want on such an unpleasant non-mission, sealed in a can away from the world for well over a year? Probably someone with nerves of steel or a keen understanding of how the mind can play tricks on you. Someone like, say, a navy diver or a surgeon or a psychologist—which are exactly who the Mars 500 habitat had, among others.

How did it go? First the good news: They didn’t resort to cannibalism. But it wasn’t exactly hugs and rainbows “up” there. The big problems uncovered involved sleeping disorders and depression. One test subject somehow unintentionally found himself on a 25-hour/day cycle, which meant every 12 days he was nocturnal to the other crewmembers’ diurnal. One man developed chronic sleep deprivation and began fumbling basic performance examinations.

The instance of depression, though, gets at the heart of the real challenge of a one-way Martian mission. Only a fool would suggest that there’s a colonization problem that our engineers cannot overcome. But overcoming the basic limitations of human biology and cognitive ability? That’s going to take some doing. Already, scientists are working on ways to combat this. A lot of it can be handled by certain types of lighting to manipulate alertness and better simulate life on Earth.

Here’s the thing. Our Martian colonists will be confined mostly indoors, will live with the possibility of sudden extinction at any given moment, and—garden tending and science projects aside—will be faced with jaw-clenching boredom. On Mars, there are no trips to the mall, no walks in the park, no Redbox runs, no rainy afternoons at the coffee shop, no nights on the town. There is only your habitat and what you brought with you. The Mars 500 crew tried passing the time by playing Guitar Hero and watching DVDs, but they quickly grew sedentary and lethargic. Ultimately, only two out of the six crewmembers adjusted to the mission. On an actual Martian colony, the risk of a crewmember or colonist snapping is all too real, and the result could be devastating beyond imagination.

When Hawthorne wrote that the first two things colonists built upon arrival in the New World were cemeteries and prisons, he might as well have been describing our inevitable colonies on Mars. Such an endeavor will not be for the faint of heart, and it’s possible we won’t know the faint of heart until we get there. Our best hope might be Buzz Aldrin leading the mission.

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April 24, 2014 - 1:00pm
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