Manned Missions to Mars

Elon Musk said, “There is a good chance that  settlers in the first Mars missions will die.” And while that’s easy to imagine, he and others are working hard to plan and minimize the risk of death by hardship or accident. In fact, the goal is to have people comfortably die on Mars after a long life of work and play that, may have some semblance to life on Earth.

There are major structural questions about how humans will settle on Mars. How will we aim Musk’s planned hundreds of starships at Mars during the right times for the shortest, safest trips? How will a spaceship turn into something that safely lands on the planet’s surface? How will astronauts reasonably survive a yearlong trip in cramped, close quarters where maximum possible volume is allotted to supplies?

Then there are logistical reasons to talk about potential Mars settlers in, well, actuarial terms. First, the trip itself will take a year based on current estimates, and applicants to settlement programs are told to expect this trip to be one way.

It follows, statistically, that there’s an almost certain “chance” these settlers will die on Mars, because their lives will continue there until they naturally end. Musk is referring to accidental death in tough conditions, but people are likely to stay on Mars for the duration either way.

Musk said in a conference Monday that building reusable rocket technology and robust, “complex life support” are his major priorities, based on his long-term goals of settling humans on Mars. Musk has successfully transported astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), where NASA and global space administrations already have long-term life support technology in place. But that’s not the same as, for example, NASA’s advanced life support projects.

Water is Not a Problem

Current thoughts  are that there are lakes of salty, slushy water under the Martian surface that could be mined, filtered, and made useful. Is there life in that slush? Who knows? Where’s there’s water, there is life either for the Martians or the Earthlings.

30 COMMENTS

    • There is no telling when or if people will land on Mars. I doubt that I will be alive to see it.

      STILL, it does pique the imagination.

    • It begins with aspiration, then vision as the various parts come together. I don’t know whether it’s worth the risk AT THIS TECHNOLOGICAL point in time, but what the heck?

  1. Elon Musk is putting a ton of money into making life bearable for the Mars pioneers. All 30 or 40 of them. Admirable.

    How is my and 100 million of my ilk’s lives going to be bearable with Joe Biden as president? Or worse, with Kamala Harris as president? Will Elon lend me a few million to ease my pain? And a trillion or two to ease my fellow ilk’s pain?

    I am not holding my breath.

  2. Musk has proposed a way of accelerating the transport speed. Just use a booster in orbit, drop it off once high speeds are achieved, use external fuel bladders on the Starship for the retro-burn and you’ll have enough onboard to finish slowing down, orbiting Mars, and do atmospheric entry. He’s talking about a transit of 3 – 4 months, which is doable right now by humans on the ISS with little long-term issues. Be interesting to see what sort of anti-radiation vault SpaceX comes up with to shield passengers and crew.

    Musk has been thinking about this for a very long time. And he’s also talked about just doing straight-up cargo only flights during the times where normal transit times become too long.

    And, yes, to acclimate for a long time to a low-G world like Mars may be a one-way trip. For a crew dropping off and returning? Maybe not.

    As to why Mars? Because. Simple as that. The tech needed to survive and thrive on Mars are also very useful here on Earth.

    President Kennedy said it best. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” Just insert (Planet, moon, place) for ‘the Moon’ and it fits.

    The tech payoff from the US Space Program, even during the garbage truck years, are uncountable and fantastic. Arguably modern electronics are the most noticeable payoff.

    • You nailed the big issue: Shielding in space beyond Earth’s radiation belts and shielding on Mars. Theorists suggests that the Mars Landing Crew could shelter in lava tubes, but to date, we haven’t found any. “They must be there” wouldn’t be much of an argument for me if I was scheduled for the flight. Mars lacks the sort of radiation belts that protect us, so all of that shielding has to be hauled and any EVA on Mars must likewise be shielded.

    • At some point in the dusty past, the Mars-bound ship was to have used their water supply as shielding. The ship’s main water tank would have a tunnel through it, and in case of solar flares, the crew would crawl into the tunnel.

  3. I am of the opinion that space colonization by earthlings will only take place after certain event takes place on Earth as predicted by The Book of Revelation.
    God help the universe if we get off this rock before then.

  4. I just wonder what he has in mind for a power source on Mars. Solar can work, but would require constant maintenance to keep the panels clean. If you have enough methane, you can run a turbine or a fuel-cell. If you can grow crops, you can make alcohol. Maybe there’s coal beds or methane ice. Those are more long-term solutions, but unless he can loft a small reactor up to them, I guess it’ll be solar.

    • We would need a small nuclear reactor on Mars to power long term colonization, and more than one to meet redundancy requirements. Maybe methane ice? But I think that’s a stretch.

  5. Hey LL, I hope you’ve been well.

    I like the fact that at least, there’s someone out there trying. The way humans have f*ked up this world is sad and ungrateful. Now that even Moon has been found to be radioactive (at least that’s what Internet said sometime ago), it looks like our options are reducing. Even then I think that our best deal is to clean our house and stay put, but looks like we’re nearing a Third World War anyways. In all this craziness, I am still hoping for the best for all of us. Good to see this beautiful space of yours, keeps up with your personality!

    Anyways, take care. Its always interesting to stop by!

    PA

    • There is tritium (hydrogen isotope) on the Moon that may be able to be mined for the benefit of fusion reaction (if that ever becomes a reality) back on Earth.

      Eventually, if humanity is to survive, we need an exit strategy that has some prayer of sustainability. Putting all of the DNA on one rock doesn’t make sense. Mars is a toxic place to humans and whether or not it could ever be terraformed is something that generations in the future will need to figure out.

      Thanks for the visit, PA.

  6. If only spaceflight was as easy as Star Trek makes it look. The 7 month trips to Mars are available only every other year. The rest of the time, it takes more. Sometimes lots more. Don’t forget longer trips require more storage for food and water. Since living in zero G during flight has been shown to be physically harmful to people, we need to either speed up the trips to make them as short in zero G as possible or spin the spacecraft to get the inertia of centrifugal force. That makes the ships need to be mechanically stronger, which means heavier and that’s a problem. They need something like the NERVA engine concepts. In Star Trek those are called impulse engines.

    Solar power on Mars is problematic. The incoming power is weaker than on Earth by the inverse squared law, and Mars has those planetary dust storms that could block the sun for weeks to months. That makes it seem that either burning methane, if it’s really a resource there, or nuclear is mandatory.

    Nuclear power makes the most sense. A couple of years ago, NASA was working on a system called KRUSTY – Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling TechnologY (one of those cases where they picked the name and thought of an acronym that could justify it). They were 10 kW nuclear sources specifically for the moon and Mars. The reactor core is solid, cast-uranium-235 about the size of a roll of paper towels. The “Stirling” part converts the heat energy to mechanical energy that can drive generators.

    Since the other thing Mars lacks is cooling water, something like this seems like the answer.

      • There’s water on Mars. The question is how much, can we get to it and then use a nuclear energy to extract the O2. Depending on the size of the colony, you might need a bit more energy than 10kw units can produce, but they could be a start.

        The issue of adequate shielding during flight and once you’ve landed can be managed, but it’s still problematic. I don’t know what Musk’s plan is in detail but my sense is that we’d take several years of launches to put everything on Mars that a sustainable colony would need before the first astronaut arrives. That would or should include satellites in orbit around Mars to handle coms and support for the ground game. The cost of that sort of venture could be stretched out for the sake of budgets, but it would still be considerable.

      • OOOOOPS to me! I totally forgot about about the low Oxygen content of the Martian atmosphere.

        Looks like they’ll need a reactor. Maybe one of the new Thorium designs. Supposed to be quite safe.

        Guess no 427 Corvettes will be running around…..

  7. The prospect of a do-over on another planet we humans won’t screw up is exciting. The tech to come from it Is intriguing. The logistics daunting, but workable, if the tech and support are available. However, I must ask: can we assemble a team of colonists dedicated enough to do the work make the sacrifices necessary to make such a project a success? Who determines the “right stuff” each person needs? I admit to being cautious by nature. What laws will they follow? Who will enforce them? What does Musk want in return?

    • Those are all good questions. I’m obviously not close enough to the shot callers to guess what they have in mind, but my sense is that you’d need a “sustainable population” if it was a one-way trip. I have no idea what that number would be, but 100? They wouldn’t need to arrive on the same ship, but you’d want more than five or six people on Mars.

      To me, the question would be, “what if you folks on Earth get bored with the Mars experiment?” The colony would truly have to be self sustaining. And there is a LOT that we don’t know about Mars. Is mining viable? Is there enough water (and science) to terraform Mars? If the US were to colonize Mars (pay for it), I am guessing that it would operate under US law. If it’s a joint effort with Europe, there would be compromise. At this point, cooperation with China is off the table, but Russia?

      • Let’s say you’re working on the O2 Extractor. Damn, another bolt out of specs to be replaced. But mission controllers only allowed for treble redundancy and this is the 4th time you need to replace that simple bolt. So you relay a request for replenishment. In good .mil fashion they send 4,000 bolts. But the bolt is held in place with a pin. And the specialized tool for pin replacement is wonky…again.

        There are so many failure points on a one way trip that either a continuous stream of support vehicles must be provided or on-site replication – to specs – of all parts must be ensure. Everything is a must. And it continues to be a must…for how long?

        I’m not much of a prognosticator of technology. But I am a student of history. History of humans strongly suggests failure especially when it is zero-fail occupation of a foreign planet.

        Perhaps ‘They died doing what they love’ will take a new unimagined meaning.

        I think Elon already has his secret lair. I suppose all that is left for him to want is trans-world control.

  8. Maybe we can convince the DNC to start sending their people to build a colony on the Sun – it’s a lot bigger than Mars (or Earth!), so that’s way better, right?

    -Kle.

  9. Probably at or very near the time this post was put up I had a very vivid dream. I was on the 1st crew to Mars. The dream became a cross between Twilight Zone and The Shining. The mission of our crew of three was to make operational the material which had previously arrived by cargo drones. This included the main buildings of the base habitat and laying out a runway for subsequent flights. Arriving ships would land like a conventional aircraft.

    The next crew was already inbound, having launched from Earth only several months after our ship.
    A problem soon developed. It wasn’t the water system, per se. It was one of our crew who exhibited diminishing physical and cognitive abilities due to an increasingly severe psychological angst concerning his survival – and ours – and that of the personnel to arrive. But it was the lack of water upon which he focused his anxiety.

    I found him in crew quarters pouring out out water supply. I struggled with him. The 3rd crewman was knocked unconscious in the struggle and lay in desperate need of medical attention. Having for the moment stopped the further exhaustion of our water supply I observed that the obstinate crew had placed a large boulder just before mid-field of the runway. This would likely result in a fatal accident of arriving aircraft. But that would be a problem for Earth Command to solve.

    I awoke to find I had been struggling with me. It was me who had acted towards the failure of the missions. I noted a gleeful outlook that my efforts would work towards a quick death of arriving crews in order to spare them the slow torture of a new life on Mars.

    I think the psychological ramifications of lengthy space travel and leaving behind everything you had ever known and cherished is not completely known. I wonder how it will be dealt with. Solo sailing across wide expanses of the vast ocean, multi-month inhabiting the ISS at least allow for the hope of return to terra firma and all it represents. But a one way flight to Mars is such a completely different animal. We are social creatures. It seems to me that that inner longing must be more than tamed – which is possible – but utterly exterminated.

    • Once we’ve had a Moon base up and running for 50 years, we can take a stab at Mars. As you point out, there are issues to be worked out.

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