Cumberland Times-News

April 6, 2013

Manned trip to Mars would be a bad idea

Bob Doyle, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

—  One of the most interesting space missions was Apollo 8, when astronauts first orbited the moon in December 1968.

The mission lasted six days; there was an oral reading of the first verses of Genesis as the crew viewed the lunar surface at close range on Christmas Eve.

Now a bold idea is being proposed by Denis Titov, the first space tourist. Titov states that in August 2018, the alignment of the Earth and Mars will be right for a human flyby of Mars, lasting 501 Earth days. The record for the longest human spaceflight is 437 days, held by Russian Valeri Polyakov on Russia’s Mir space station in 1994-95.

 This nonprofit mission is called “Inspiration Mars” and the mission’s cost is estimated to be $1 billion. So in the next few years, Titov will be trying to get donors to finance the rocket stages and capsule for the mission.

It is likely that SpaceX’s heavy lift Falcon rocket will be operational to launch this Mars mission.

 Titov is seeking a married couple to go on the mission. They would be living in a 33-cubic-meter capsule. For most of the mission, the capsule will be so far from the Earth that communications between the capsule and Earth would take ten or more minutes. So if there is an emergency, the crew would be on their own to resolve the problem.

 In Apollo 13, there was an explosion of an oxygen tank on the way to the moon. This prevented the lunar landing. On the way back to Earth, there was a dangerous build up of carbon dioxide in the command module.

Also the crew had to manually control the module to enter the Earth’s atmosphere at the right angle. If the angle was too steep, the heat shield would be insufficient to protect the module during reentry. But if the angle was too low, the module would skip off the Earth’s atmosphere and continue its flight through space.

In this emergency, there was very quick communication (a second or less) between Apollo 13 and the Houston control center (messages were relayed by a network of large radio telescopes around the globe).

 Even allowing for no emergencies, there are some real risks to the Mars crew. Never has there been such a long range mission away from the protective magnetosphere of the Earth.

The astronauts aboard SkyLab, Russia’s Mir space station and the International Space Station were shielded by the Earth’s magnetosphere. (The magnetosphere acts as a magnetic umbrella to shield us from high energy particles from the sun.)

The Apollo missions (outside the inner magnetosphere) lasted a little less than two weeks. Under weightless* conditions, there will be a build up of fluids in the brain and spiral cord that may impair the vision of the crew on this much longer mission. Hopefully, one of the crew members will be a physician to monitor such changes. (*In an unpowered space craft, gravity exists but within the space craft, everything is falling at the same rate, so there is no surface to stand on to feel your weight.)

 My biggest objection to Inspiration Mars is that little science would be done, far less than the Mars orbiters and landers that are now on Mars.

A better alternative would be a robotic Mars return mission that returns Martian rocks (both on surface and below the surface). These rocks would allow us to determine if there are Martian fossils. It is likely that Mars once had large bodies of water where life might have flourished.

Beyond Mars is the moon Europa of Jupiter, that likely has a thick ocean of water below its icy, cracked crust. A robotic mission would stay on Europa and send drilling probes into the cracks to analyze the water upwelling for signs of life.

 Decades from now, there will likely be nuclear fission rockets that can reduce Mars trips to a month or less. These rockets might be able to refuel their hydrogen tanks with Martian permafrost. Then having humans going to Mars and staying for extended missions would make sense.

SKY SIGHTS AHEAD: The moon is now a sliver in the eastern dawn. The moon will swing from the morning to the evening side of the sun on the morning of April 10. By April 12, the moon will appear as a narrow crescent in the 8:30 p.m. western dusk. On Saturday evening, the moon will appear to the left of the Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.