It’s a godawful small affair. Morning on Mars, January 2114 in the Gale Crater, not far from where the Curiosity Rover landed a century ago, and temperatures have been below freezing for weeks. You wake, yawn and stretch – but not too far, because you and your three fellow Martian colonists sleep in bunks with barely enough room to turn over – then spill out of your cot to pee in the water-recycling urinal. Water extraction isn’t up and running yet, so you’re still drinking and washing in distilled, filtered, ionized water from urine and other waste. It tastes OK, if kind of flavourless.
“Play the news,” you tell your digital implant and it cues up the morning’s bulletin from Earth, downloaded overnight, into your ear canal. You scratch and put on a new pair of paper underpants (the last pair are at the end of their month’s life so you stuff them in the recycler to be mulched and reprinted; there’s no laundry on Mars) but don’t bother getting dressed. The cameras connecting you to the streaming TV service that’s co-funding your mission don’t come online till 10am Earth time. It might be cold outside but your sealed Martian habitat is swelteringly humid.
You’d look out of the window but there isn’t one. Because of the massive carcinogenic radiation pouring down on Mars, which has no magnetic field to divert it, colonists are based underground. The four citizens of Europe’s first Mars colony call one another the Mole People. Still, today is a good day. The water rota has come round to you, so you’re getting your first 30-second shower in 10 days. Luxury.
Today’s job, like yesterday’s, is to suit up and go out onto the planet’s surface to check on the solar panels that power your tiny colony and its water extractors, hydroponics and gigantic 3D printers, which are fabricating new, radiation-shielded habitats for the next wave of settlers from materials in the Martian soil. But before you head out, you perform two hours of intensive exercise to stop your muscles wasting in gravity that is only 38 per cent of that on Earth. First though, breakfast. You open up another, smaller 3D printer in the tiny kitchen and see that it has created a sheet of cereal pieces for you from the dried food extracts you brought from Earth.
The food here has got a lot better since the hydroponics came online – you’re now eating a little lettuce, spinach, peppers, herbs and cabbage every week or so – and Earth control keeps updating the food printer menu with new options. The four of you shared a passable printed pizza last week. But you’d kill for some real meat, which you long ago accepted that you’ll never eat again. Or drink beer. Too water-intensive.
Instead, you drop a precious couple of hydroponic strawberries onto your printed bran flakes, stir in some Mars-grown, Mars-watered soy milk and instruct your implant to play last night’s TV. There you are, the first British person on Mars, eating cereal and watching last night’s football in your underpants.
Something like that. Everything you’ve just read is based on practical experiments or concepts currently being explored for real Mars missions, even the Star Trek pizza machine (Nasa just invested $125,000 in a food printer initiative, creating an edible margherita as proof of concept). Some ideas, like self-building colonies, are further away than others but none of it is science fiction.
In the past decade, the notion of a mission to Mars and perhaps a semi-permanent colony there has moved from the fantasy territory of Total Recall to the realm of the plausible. But how close are we to getting there, and why do we want to go in the first place?
In 2004, President George W Bush made a much-mocked call for a return to the Moon by 2020 as a staging post for a Mars mission, an announcement many saw as an attempt to distract from the mess in Iraq. In 2010, Obama cut out the middle-Moon and declared that Americans would go straight to the red planet within three decades. But early in 2012, Nasa lost $300m in funding during the US budgetary convulsions and the Mars programme was gutted.
Last May, Nasa proposed capturing and analysing an asteroid as part of the run-up to a manned Mars mission in the 2030s, but there are still no concrete plans. The Chinese National Space Administration says it’s on a timetable of manned flights to Mars in the 2040s – but who knows with those guys?
Meanwhile, the private sector is pitching in. Most conspicuous is the quixotic Mars One project, the £4bn Dutch non-profit that says it will establish a permanent human colony on Mars by 2023 – as a one-way trip. The plan is to use private contractor SpaceX’s rockets to send cargo missions and rovers to the red planet to set up an outpost for human settlers to arrive in groups of four every two years.
The catch is, you never come home. Also, they’re selecting their prospective astronauts from a global reality TV show. Mars One had 202,586 applicants from around the world, proving either that the pioneer spirit is alive and well or that people aren’t thinking too hard about this stuff.
“This is the biggest media event in the world,” claimed Big Brother co-creator and “Mars One ambassador” Paul Römer. “Reality meets talent show with no ending and the whole world watching.” Well, yes, except reality TV thrives on the kind of inane squabbling that would imperil a real space mission. And there’s a very real chance of all four “winners” in the Mars One competition dying alone 225 million kilometers from home.
“Many people will tell you a manned mission is plausible but a colony is not likely,” says space journalist Tereza Pultarova.
“Even if the colonists could acclimatise to the cramped environment and to the low gravity, you have to think longer term. How are they going to build a society? Would they be able to have children? What would those children look like?” Then there are the sandstorms and the fact that, with the Martian year being twice as long as Earth’s, Martian winters are also twice as long.
“We have a very strong argument against it right here on Earth. If we can’t even live permanently in the Antarctic – where we can breathe and get supplies – how can we live on Mars?”
What is the big deal with Mars anyway? Ultimately, a manned mission is about the higher inclinations of science connecting with the old-fashioned impulses of exploration. We want to find signs of life because we don’t want to be alone. We want to go to Mars simply because it would probably be the greatest achievement in all human history.
The Mars rovers are already deep into the question of whether life ever existed on Mars: Nasa’s Curiosity just cast doubt on a long-held belief that methane, a key biosign, is present in the Martian atmosphere.
In 2018, Europe’s ExoMars rover will head to Mars equipped with a drill to cut two metres into the Martian surface and look for traces of life that would have been destroyed on the surface by radiation. Martian geology suggests a wetter past, possibly with bacterial life. You only need a few centimetres of rock or sand coverage to protect their remains from Mars’ pitiless environment.
But the real incentive is that it is a challenge of exploration equal to the Moon in the Sixties or the New World in the 1400s. “It would catalyse the whole of mankind,” says Fabio Favata of the European Space Agency. “That would justify the effort and cost in itself. It’s an enormous challenge and it would require huge political vision. Columbus was funded by the Crown of Spain, one of the superpowers of the day. They ended up in a very different place than they’d imagined – but the return on investment is incalculable.” It’s arguable that Mars One could be the same but on an even more vast scale, not just a new world but a second planet for the human race.
Yet it all comes down to the same question: could you go? Would you leave behind your family, your home and your entire life forever if it meant your name went down in history? “It would be pretty cool to die on Mars,” SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk said, “just not on impact.” It’s a joke but maybe he’s right. If you set out to be Neil Armstrong, maybe it doesn’t matter if you end up as Laika.
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