Future Plans for Mars Travel

The Economist summarizes current plans for missions to Mars:

Six decades later, on February 27th, Dennis Tito, an American investment manager and space enthusiast who, in 2001, became the world’s first space tourist, unveiled his own plan. Inspiration Mars is a more modest affair. If all goes to plan, in January 2018 a single, small spaceship, carrying two crew members, will blast off for a 501-day trip to Mars and back. If it arrives safely, there are no plans to land. Instead, the idea is merely to fly around the planet and then head back to Earth. Unlike von Braun’s project, little government involvement will be necessary. Mr Tito hopes to pay for Inspiration Mars with a mix of his own money, donations from the public and the sale of media rights.

That is not to say that Mr Tito’s plan is timid. On the contrary: it is eye-wateringly (or, as one colleague puts it, “bowel-looseningly”) bold. Although endless studies have been done on how it might be possible to ferry humans to Mars, no one has ever attempted it. Mr Tito’s launch date is fixed, for it is designed to take advantage of a rare period of orbital proximity between Mars and Earth. If he misses his deadline, another opportunity will not present itself until 2031. That gives the team just under five years to design the mission, specify a spacecraft, find a rocket to launch it on, select a crew and carry out all the necessary checks and double-checks. And, without the financial muscle of a nation-state behind him, all this must be done on a budget.

Also:

And other non-profit foundations are interested, such as Mars One, a Dutch group that has been advertising for volunteers for a one-way trip, whose crew would end up stranded on Mars, although it has nevertheless received plenty of applicants.

All this interest implies that sending people to Mars is merely a matter of political will and a bit of ingenious engineering. It is not. It is extremely difficult and dangerous, a fact that Mr Tito mentioned repeatedly in his press conference.

So dangerous, in fact, that The Economist initially called the Mars One “a suicide mission.” They’ve since issued a correction in the piece.

A Mission to Mars (on Earth)

“Our main challenge right now is to avoid being bored. Every single day is very similar to the previous one.”

At the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow, six men (three Russians, an Italian, a Frenchman, and a Chinese national) are finishing up a remarkable 520-day experiment in isolation. They are participants in a simulated mission to Mars about a “ship” dubbed Mars500.

Bill Donahue, the author of the Wired piece, had a chance to interact with the participants:

When I visited the institute last year…The voyagers were sealed off from terrestrial life, each one allotted a private bunk room just 32 feet square and access to a common living room, a small gym, a greenhouse, and two minuscule lavatories. The crew’s food storage room is almost as big as their living quarters, and when they entered isolation on June 3, 2010, it contained every single calorie they would consume as they soared through “space,” then spent nine days on “Mars” (in this case a small pit of red sand) before returning and exiting a year and a half later.

I did find the betting on who would quit the program a bit unsettling:

Isolation is hard; being deprived of fresh air and social variety makes you go batshit. That narrative is so ingrained in the collective psyche that when the Irish bookmaking chain Paddy Power set odds on Mars500, it all but anticipated failure. If a bettor wagered a dollar that the original six-member crew would not last the whole mission, he was, by Paddy’s lights, practically predicting the sun would rise tomorrow—he’d only get $1.20 back. Paddy, meanwhile, set 8-to-1 odds that at least one crew member would go “clinically insane” after leaving the Mars500 experiment. (Fairly long odds until you consider that most jobs don’t come with an 11 percent chance that you’ll go clinically insane in a year and a half.) The Irish bookie even set odds as to who’d be first to quit. It tapped the sole Chinese astronaut, Yue Wang, putting him at 2-1. (Yue was, after all, the most culturally isolated.)

And if you think everything is rosy aboard the Mars500, consider what has happened in a previous isolation experiment (in the year 2000):

The booze wasn’t the only contraband aboard that simulated space station run. The ship’s Russian cosmonauts regularly watched pornography, Kraft admitted, and one Japanese man, Masataka Umeda, left the mission two months early in protest. Meanwhile, there were cockroaches in the showers and mice crawling up through cracks in the floor.

The experiment sounds quite unpleasant, but these men are doing it for science!

Being aboard Mars500 is mostly menial and toilsome—the astronauts are glorified lab rats. Scientists are keeping close tabs on how the isolates’ hearts are coping with the stress of confinement. They are monitoring the microflora in the crew’s intestines, subjecting them to questionnaires on their interpersonal dramas, and hitting them with regular doses of blue light to gauge its effect on their psychological states. The regimen is at times exhausting. “The biggest challenge for me,” Charles wrote in one email, “is the width of my bed—60 centimeters. As soon as I have more than one device to wear during the night (for blood pressure tests, electrocardiograms, electroencephalograms, etc.), I can’t move.”