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Two Worlds Are Better Than One

written by William Bailey on January 02, 2004 | forum profile | contact me
number of views: 74709 |   printable version (text) (PDF)

Earth and Mars
Earth and Mars
Credit: Brandon Berryhill
Humans must colonize Mars to ensure the survival of our species. If we choose to remain Earthbound; we risk facing a series of global crises that will have dire consequences for many generations to come. Overpopulation is already a problem, and it will only get worse with time. There are over 6 billion people on the Earth now, and that number is expected to double by the year 2050. 1 The strain on Earth’s carrying capacity, its ability to support life and our civilization, will be immense. Demand for electricity will increase exponentially as more countries become industrialized and increase their demand for energy hungry luxuries such as computers and household appliances. This could lead to blackouts such as those we have seen in California and New York. There will be intense competition for resources such as wood, coal, oil, and fresh water. Overfishing and deforestation will be rampant and could lead to the extinction of many species. The fierce competition for these dwindling resources could lead to wars, which would further devastate our environment. In a worst case scenario, global warming and depletion of the ozone layer could lead to the melting of the icecaps and a rise in sea level by as much as 200 feet. 2 Considering the fact that 50% of the world’s population lives along the coastlines, 3 this would lead to the largest mass migration of people ever seen in history. This is a grim future and when the Earth is all used up, we ourselves may be faced with our own extinction. Asteroid impacts are yet another extinction threat. Earth may have to deal with some of these problems even if we do go to Mars, but having two worlds to live on will provide relief and act as a safety net for worst-case scenarios.

Since our nation's earliest days, America has been a leader in exploration and technology. We must ask ourselves, do we want to continue to be a technological leader, or do we want to be a nation of museums, dedicated to our “past glory”? 4 America was founded by European colonists and African slaves who made the long dangerous crossing of the Atlantic in small wooden sailing ships. Brave pioneers headed west in wagon trains to settle the American frontier. The Wright brothers flew the first plane, Charles Lindbergh made the first solo non-stop Trans-Atlantic flight, Chuck Yeager was the first to break the sound barrier, and Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon. These famous Americans pushed the limits to prove that they could do what others said could not be done. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy said we would go to the moon "not because it is easy, but because it is hard." Now it is time for our generation to push our limits and prove what we are capable of accomplishing.

The first voyages to Mars will be a multi-national effort, but will most likely be led by the United States and Russia. The methodic building block approach of both space programs started with small single man capsules (Mercury and Vostok), and then progressed to larger 3 man capsules (Apollo and Soyuz). Next came the first generation space stations (Skylab and Salyut). Then the two programs diverged, with America flying the space shuttle and the Russians building a large space station called "Mir". 5 (translations) Today the two former cold war adversaries who competed against each other in the "Space Race" are now major partners in constructing the 16 nation International Space Station (ISS). 6

We will need to build various testbed projects to verify the feasibility of the equipment we plan to use for the first missions to Mars. Various groups and agencies have already built some projects. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has plans to build a "Mars Jar", a large sealed room where Martian environmental conditions can be simulated for testing habitats, vehicles, and spacesuits. 7 The Biosphere 2 Project was built in the Arizona desert to test an enclosed ecosystem’s ability to sustain life. 8 The Mars Society, founded by Robert Zubrin, has built an Arctic Flashline research station, which is designed to resemble a Martian crew habitat. 9 Russia recently announced it's intention to build a facility where cosmonauts would spend up to 500 days at a time living in a closed environment which would simulate the isolation of a long duration space mission. It will even include the 20-minute one-way communications lag that occurs due to the time it takes radio transmissions traveling at the speed of light to travel from Earth to the spaceship. The primary purpose of this facility is to evaluate psychological stresses that will be experienced by the crew of an interplanetary mission.

In 1989, President George Bush made a speech from the steps of the National Air and Space Museum, in which he introduced his Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). He stated that the nation should attempt a manned mission to Mars within 30 years. In response to this speech, NASA generated a proposal, which came to be known as the “90 Day Report” 10 (full title) NASA’s plan included doubling the size of the yet to be built Freedom Space Station, use it as an orbital dry dock for building a massive spaceship fully equipped with all fuel and provisions, additional orbital support stations for fuel storage and work crew living space, and a permanent lunar base to support the project. The mission would be about 600 days, with 30 days spent on the surface of Mars. Congress killed the proposal when they saw the price tag of 450 billion dollars because it was too expensive. The opposition argued that robotic exploration would be cheaper. NASA responded by dropping the idea of a manned mission, adopted a philosophy of “Faster, Better, Cheaper”, and introduced the Pathfinder series of robotic missions. The Mars Pathfinder/Sojourner Rover mission was a huge success, but many of the other robotic missions ended in failure. 11 (Polar Lander, Mars Climate Observer)

Robert Zubrin, then a Senior Engineer at Martin Marietta Astronautics, disagreed with NASA’s “Battlestar Galactica” approach to designing manned missions to the Red Planet, which involved high risk and limited scientific returns. Robert and his associate, David Baker designed a “Live off the land” mission plan called “Mars Direct” 12, which would utilize the Carbon Dioxide in the Martian air mixed with an onboard supply of Hydrogen to create Methane and Oxygen. This would be used as rocket fuel for the return voyage to Earth. This simple chemical reaction has been used by industry for over a hundred years. The equation is: 4H2 + CO2 à CH4 + 2H2O. Launches would occur every 26 months, which is how often the launch window opens for a trip from the Earth to Mars. In the first year, a Saturn V sized rocket launches the unmanned Earth Return Vehicle (ERV), the Air Converter, and a rover which would deploy a small nuclear reactor to provide power. Twenty six months later, the fuel has been made for the ERV, and a second rocket would leave Earth carrying the surface habitat and crew. The crew would spend about 500 days on the surface, with plenty of time to explore. They would have a pressurized inflatable greenhouse to supplement their food supply and a rover with a 1,000 km range. The crew would then return directly to Earth in the ERV, with a total mission time of about 900 days. Zubrin presented his project to NASA. The same group that evaluated the “90 Day Report” estimated that Zubrin’s plan would only cost about 50 billion dollars! The cost would be spread over a twenty year period, with the first ten years devoted to construction and the next ten years to flying up to three Mars missions. Zubrin was given $47,000 to build a working prototype of the Air Converter to demonstrate the feasibility of his idea. The small converter, when finished, had a 94 percent efficiency rating.

Some people argue that this is still too expensive, but I will provide a few examples here for price comparison. Fifty billion dollars will buy 50 Las Vegas casino resort hotels. One Nimitz class aircraft carrier costs 4.5 billion dollars, with the cost spread over ten years. The International Space Station (ISS) has a price tag of 95 billion dollars. The two year cost of the recent war and rebuilding of Iraq could be as much as 166 billion dollars! 13 Large construction projects do have benefits, such as createing jobs and boosting the economy, just as the Apollo program did in the 60s.

The greatest risk to the crew of a Mars mission is the potential for loss of life.

The dangers include vehicle failure (hull, propulsion, and life support), radiation exposure, microgravity bone loss, 14 cabin fever, and lethal Martian dust, which can damage air lock seals, electronic components, and an astronaut's lungs. Dust storms could cause sandblast damage and create a static electric shock hazard (8 kilovolts). Mars is also very cold, with temperatures below freezing (Pathfinder recorded Hi/Lo temperatures of -13 to -93 degrees Celsius in one day), and the atmosphere is extremely thin and poisonous. 15 History has shown us, however, that no amount of danger can thwart the will of people who are determined to accomplish their goals.

The dangers of traveling to Mars and living there can be overcome. Every person on Earth has a 20 percent chance of developing cancer during their life, whereas a traveler to Mars increases his risk by only 1 percent, for a total risk of 21 percent. There are various ways of spinning a ship to create an artificial gravity of .38 g, which would acclimate the crew to Martian gravity and reduce the dangers posed by living in microgravity. This can be combined with a rigorous exercise program, such as that used aboard the ISS, which requires 3 hours of exercise daily. One way to protect the habitat living area from dust is to use spacesuits with two layers; the astronauts would remove the dusty outer layer of the suit before entering the airlock. Landings can be timed to avoid the worst of the dust storm season, which occurs during the southern hemisphere's spring and summer when Mars is near perihelion. The temperature extremes that the Moon missions dealt with were far greater than those we will face on Mars, so this problem has already been addressed to some extent. Some psychologists worry that the crew will go crazy from the stress, isolation, and long duration of the mission. Many American GI's who fought in World War 2 were overseas for three years, sleeping outdoors, and getting shot at every day. I think our astronauts will be quite content with their warm beds, email, and the celebrity status they have to look forward to when they come back home. On the contrary, far from feeling isolated, they will probably feel like they are living in a fishbowl, with the whole world watching their every move! 16

Backward contamination of the Earth is another concern of some scientists. 17 One of the reasons for going to Mars is to find out if there is life there now or if it ever existed there in the past. If we do find life there, it will most likely be bacteria or viruses. The pathogens on Earth have evolved with the other lifeforms here for 3 or 4 billion years. These parasites require a specific environment in which to thrive (your body). Plants don't catch colds and people don't get root rot, so it is unlikely that an organism from another planet would find terrestrial life accomodating to it's needs. As a precaution, we could quarantine the astronauts when they return to Earth, until the doctors certify their health. Rock samples can also be quarantined, but I should also point out that meteorites that came from the surface of Mars have been landing on Earth for billions of years. 18

These initial steps will set us on the road to colonizing Mars. The new world (literally!) will face many unique challenges. They will have to build tented cities, mines, and railways. They will have the opportunity to embark upon the centuries long process of terraforming Mars. 19 They will have to warm and thicken the atmosphere, make it breathable, create oceans, and introduce genetically engineered flora and fauna that will be viable in the emerging Martian biosphere. A new branch of humanity will be created with it's own unique culture and politics. Ultimately, we will have our guarantee of survival in the event of a global catastrophe, for two worlds are better than one.

Works Cited:

1) World Population
2) ECES - Global Warming: Sea Level Rise
3) Putting the Bite on PLanet Earth
4) Robert Zubrin's book
5) United States, Russia, European Space Agency (ESA), Japan, and Canada.
6) Integration of Plant Growth into a Mars Habitat
7) Mars Society
8) 90 Day Report
9) Mars Polar Lander/Deep Space 2
10) Mars Climate Orbiter
11) Mars Direct Home Page
12) Space Research Builds Stronger Bones
13) SETI's Margaret Race criticizes Robert Zubrin
14) Robert Zubrin Responds
15) Quarantine urged for Mars sample return
16) Mars meteorites reunited after long split
17) Synergistic Terraforming

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