29 October 2010

One way ticket to Mars

Cosmos Magazine
There's no shortage of people eager to take the next giant leap and make the long and hazardous journey to Mars, even if it's a one-way mission.
Home Sweet Mars

Future generations might live in the cities and suburbs of Mars. Credit: Jamie Tufrey/COSMOS

Neil Armstrong’s first small step was widely believed to be the start of a long and glorious road to the stars. But 40 years after the first Moon landing, the dream has faded. Astronauts have been stuck in low-Earth orbit, boldly going nowhere.

American attempts to kick-start a new phase of lunar exploration have stalled amid the realisation that NASA’s budget is too small for the job. A U.S. committee concluded that “no plan compatible with the … 2010 budget profile permits human exploration to continue in any meaningful way.”

Clearly, some creative thinking is needed. Returning to the Moon may be worthy and attainable, but it fails to capture the public’s imagination. What does get people excited is the prospect of a mission to Mars. The lure of the Red Planet lies in its Earth-like conditions and the prospect of some form of life.

Unfortunately, existing plans are too expensive and will remain unrealistic for decades. But there is a way to put humans on Mars with foreseeable technology and at a fraction of the cost.

Five years ago I proposed that a handful of astronauts be sent on a one-way journey to Mars. Not a suicide mission, mind you. With its protective atmosphere, accessible water and carbon dioxide, and significant amounts of methane, Mars is one of the few places in the Solar System that could support a human colony.

By eliminating the need to transport heavy fuel and equipment for the return journey, costs could be slashed by 80% or more. Supplies and a power source would be sent on ahead, and only when everything is functional would astronauts be dispatched. Other essentials could be re-supplied from Earth every two years.

Yes, the mission would be highly risky; but so is round-the-world ballooning and mountaineering. The ideal astronauts would be scientists and engineers who could continue to do excellent science while serving as trailblazers for the colonisation of a new planet.

Eventually, more would join. After a century or two, the colony would be self-sustaining.

The first ‘Martians’ would have to accept reduced life expectancy due to radiation, lack of advanced medical resources and lower gravity. Our ancestors accepted such a bargain when we abandoned nomadic life and settled down to farming: lifespans shrank as infectious diseases became more prevalent. In any case, returning to Earth entails similar hazards, and since the most dangerous parts of space exploration are take-off and landing, cutting out the return halves the risk.

The response to my suggestion has nearly always been positive, despite the persistent myth that nobody would volunteer to go. In fact, I have found no shortage of eager scientists, young and old, who say they would accept a one-way ticket.

While it makes sense, it leaves us with the key question: why? A permanent base on Mars would have a number of advantages beyond being a bonanza for science. If, as some evidence suggests, exotic micro-organisms have arisen independently of terrestrial life, studying them could revolutionise biology, medicine and biotechnology.

Mars would also provide an excellent forward base for mining the Asteroid Belt and developing new industries. And a self-sustaining Mars colony would serve as a ‘lifeboat’ in the event of a global catastrophe on Earth. In coming centuries, our civilisation faces threats from comet and asteroid impacts, world wars, global pandemics and climatic upheavals, any of which could wipe out civilisation and possibly humanity.

An outpost on Mars would keep the flame of human culture alight even in the worst-case scenario.

Another motivation is political: no single nation has either the will or the resources to do it alone, but a consortium of nations could achieve it within 20 years. It would bring nations together, with the scientific and technological advances shared among them.

Creating a second home for humanity in the Solar System would be the greatest adventure our species has embarked on since walking out of Africa 100,000 years ago, and would provide a unifying influence unparalleled in history. It would cost a lot less than a war in the Middle East and deliver untold benefits to humanity.

Now is the time to put a one-way mission to Mars at the top of the space exploration agenda.

Paul Davies, an English physicist and author, is the Director of BEYOND: the Centre for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, and a member of the Cosmos Editorial Advisory Board.

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