Space experts discuss exploring the Red Planet at special 'Mars' screening
By Hendrik Sybrandy
Let’s set the scene. It’s the year 2042. Nine years after the first human mission to Mars, the transformation of the planet to support human life has begun. This U.S. T.V. docudrama series “Mars” is National Geographic’s vision of what could be our future.
“This is the planet that everybody's dreamed about visiting ever since there's been science fiction,” said author Stephen Petranek who wrote the book “How We'll Live on Mars” upon which the series is based. He argues potential calamities like asteroid collisions or massive viruses make it imperative that Earthlings include other planets in their survival plan.
“I think you need a backup for the human race,” Petranek said.
At a special “Mars” screening recently, a panel of space experts gamed out the path to land on the Red Planet.
"I think technologically, absolutely, if we had the political will and the investment, that getting to Mars is doable,” said Kjell Lindgren, a NASA astronaut. “That does not mean it would not be challenging."
Petranek said cost has been the biggest hurdle for space agencies so far. It's estimated that a trip to and from Mars would take roughly three years. Astronauts have never been away from Earth that long. The big question is whether they could handle a mission of that duration.“As we go to Mars, I have concerns about radiation, I have concerns about the ability to maintain physical health,” Lindgren said.
The impact of solar flares and cosmic rays on astronauts away from Earth's magnetic field are a huge worry. And zero gravity space flight has been shown to cause bone loss and vision impairment.
"The problem is when you come back to Earth or when you land on the surface of the Moon or you land on Mars, when you reintroduce gravity, then your bones are weaker, your muscles are weaker, and that's sort of when that problem comes in,” said Allie Anderson, a University of Colorado Boulder Bioastronautics expert.
The isolation felt during a Mars-length mission represents another big challenge. Current space station experiments are geared toward addressing these issues.
“So all of these we know would just help a Mars mission or any other long-duration mission like that,” said Shankini Doraisingham, an engineer at C.U. Boulder's BioServe Space Technologies.
“So we're building the skills and practicing them now so we're going to be ready,” Doraisingham added.
Colonizing Mars, without over-commercializing it, Petranek cautions, would come later. While NASA tries to better understand the harsh Martian environment, companies including SpaceX are working on very long-range rockets.
“They're pushing very hard to do this as soon as possible,” Petranek said.
It's only a matter of time, many in the space community said before their dream is reached.
“I believe I will see people on the surface of Mars before I die,” Anderson said. “I might be old but I believe I will see it.”
If it happens, it'll be science that's fiction no more.