Dragons on Mars
On May 25th of this year, one of the most significant milestones of the space age was achieved. An unmanned spacecraft, Dragon, docked with the International Space Station: the first commercial vehicle to do so. Dragon is a transportation space craft, designed and built by the private organisation SpaceX, which has been collaborating with NASA since 2010.
The COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Service) program in that year saw NASA fund several private companies, such as SpaceX, half a million dollars to develop reusable spacecraft. The rationale was described by NASA administrator Michael Griffin several years prior;
“We believe that when we engage the engine of competition, these services will be provided in a more cost-effective fashion than when the government has to do it.”
This has proven to be true, as the half million funding is less than it costs NASA to launch a single spacecraft. Since NASA initiated the COTS program, it has been dependent on Roscomos, the Russian federal space agency, to provide passage, but will now only be using SpaceX services.
This liberates much of NASA’s resources, which have gone partly into the preparation of the Orion spacecraft, a reusable vessel specifically for exploratory voyages to the Moon, Mars, and potentially further afield. SpaceX have their own equivalent in production, the Red Dragon, due to be completed in 2018, three years after Orion, which will voyage to Mars to drill a meter beneath the surface in search of past and potential life, along with two other Dragon which will remain on Mars for communicative purposes.
These four craft are the precursors to the Mars One project. NASA plans that, by 2023, man will be permanently settled on Mars. The project, still in its fund raising stage, intends to create a reality television series around the selection and training process of the first astronauts to venture to Mars, to gather public money and support. The next step will be to bypass the proposed intermediary lunar settlement, due to its unsustainability, and send four astronauts to Mars on a one way only trip.
These two men and two women would lay the ground work, aided by remotely operated machinery, for the four more that would arrive each year, given the success of the first four. This comes down to the health hazards of the six month voyage to Mars, and inhabitancy of the planet. The short term effects of space, such as depressurisation sickness, and space adaptation syndrome (similar to motion sickness), are expected to pass once on the planet, while the long term effects due to radiation and low gravity are more concerning.
Cosmic radiation, which weakens the immune system, and increases the likelihood of developing cancers and cataracts, isn’t shielded by Mars’s atmosphere, and not deflected like it is on Earth by a magnetic field, as Mars has no magnetic field. NASA’s answer to this is that a Mars colony would be based underground, significantly reducing the exposure to radiation. On the surface, geodesic domes would have the same effect. The terraforming of Mars would reduce this risk further as the greenhouse gases used to heat the planet’s surface, in order to melt the ice into oceans, would absorb some of the rays.
The health risks of low gravity are less certain. In space, the near zero gravity causes fluid redistribution, muscle atrophy, and a decrease in bone density. When first in zero gravity, blood is pushed into the upper body, causing flu like symptoms. As the body adjusts, the fluids become more evenly spread. This causes no immediate damage, but can lead to atrophy of the heart, and potentially damage the eyes as the pressure behind them increases. On returning to Earth, astronauts find it difficult to stand for extended periods of time, as the body struggles to circulate blood. Muscle atrophy is due to the neglect caused by not having to support any weight, but is manageable through exercise and hormone treatment.
Both these symptoms fade within a few weeks of returning to Earth for most astronauts, while the decrease in bone density is longer lasting, taking on average nine times the period spent in space to return to normal. The success of the colony pivots on if Mars’s thirty-eight per cent gravity will reduce these symptoms. The first few groups to inhabit Mars will be equipped with emergency shuttles, but are assigned the mission on the understanding that if they venture to Mars, they will not be coming back.
The Mars One project is a global effort. Space law dictates that no cosmological body or region can be owned by a state. Contrary to this American law prevents NASA from cooperating with the Chinese National Space Agency. Whether the Mars colony will be a nation without borders, ultimately uniting Earth under one purpose, and the Outer Space Treaty is revised to prevent commercial ownership, or a privately owned planet is the solution, remains to be seen. A self-sustaining Martian colony is a centuries long project in the making.
For further reading see The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must by Aerospace Engineer, Robert Zubrin.