Ep 94: Humans to Mars, Part 1 – Scientists

We’re learned about the failed missions to Mars in the past, and the current spacecraft, rovers and landers currently exploring the Red Planet. But the real prize will come when the first human sets foot on Mars. Robots are cheaper, but nothing beats having a real human being on the scene, to search for evidence of water and life.

  • Ep 94: Humans to Mars, Part 1 – Scientists
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    Fraser Cane: Time for more Mars. We told you we’d concentrate on Mars and we meant it.
    Dr. Pamela Gay: Oh totally meant it.
    Fraser: [Laughter] Now Pamela, you have, you dropped a bomb last week… And a bunch of people were wondering what was going on so, can you go into more detail about the government won’t let NASA look for life?
    Pamela: Well, okay. So that was a bit strong of a statement. A few years ago I was at an American Astronomical Society meeting as I have attempted to do twice a year and there was a study scientist who was going over the history of the search for life in the Solar System. He started off talking about how way back when once upon a time NASA quite happily funded the search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence study program.
    Then in the 1990s Congress in a budget cutting act mandated that there be no more government funded searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. This actually got carried through to a lot of well we’re not even going to look for microbes. We’re just going to sit back and do our thing and explore the universe and look for organics and look for chemicals and things like that. But we’re going to hold it off at the organics stage.
    Since then subsequently NASA has introduced the origins program which specifically is looking for signs of life, but not life. And how we’d identify them on extra solar planets and how we’d identify bacteria and other organics on Mars. So this wonderful talk that I was listening to basically went from how NASA went from searching for intelligence to not being allowed intelligence to searching for little bacteria which was far less exciting. It was a brilliant talk so it’s lingered with me.
    But NASA is out looking for organics and once upon a time they searched for intelligence. I find great irony in the fact that now NASA is searching for the origins of life and not for intelligent life.
    It’s just one of those things and I’m sorry if I spoke too strongly. It was a dynamic speaker and sometimes things linger in your brain and your brain contains more content than what comes out of your mouth.
    Fraser: Alright. So it’s not like a government cover up?
    Pamela: No, just saving funding. You can only fund so many things. Searching for extraterrestrial intelligence is a high risk, low return science. So the money got sent other places and Congress basically said you’re not going to spend money here.
    It’s sort of like a mom saying we’re not going to buy soda anymore. Sure, you’d like the soda, but when budgets get tight something has to go.
    Fraser: Okay, let’s move onto this week’s topic. We’ve learned about the failed missions to Mars in the past, and the current space craft rovers and landers currently exploring the red planet. But the real prize will come when the first human sets foot on Mars. Robots are cheaper, but nothing beats having a real human being on the scene to dig in the ground, to bang open rocks, to look through a microscope.
    So, this week I wanted to talk about the first wave of human explorers going to Mars and what that will look like and also the history. So, once again things have to start as a history lesson. How long have people been seriously realistically thinking about sending humans to Mars?
    Pamela: Well how long have people been thinking about sending humans to space?
    Fraser: Well, that’s why I said realistically.
    Pamela: Yeah, and it actually goes hand in hand. The grandfather of American human space flight Werner von Braun back in the 1940s and early ‘50s was the first person to start envisioning realistic ways that we could not just get off the planet Earth with the Mercury program, but keep going. And go to the Moon and then to Mars beyond. He was figuring out ways to do it with technology that he could build down at Marshall Space Flight Center.
    That’s what makes his plans so cool to look back as we look over the history of manned spaceflight. He was looking at “let’s throw all the resources we can at it and use thousands of space flights to launch all the parts into space and eventually get ourselves all the way to Mars with something that looks not too different from the space shuttle.”
    It was a winged lander to go and explore with humans a world that at the point he was coming up with these plans we hadn’t even explored with rovers. And that’s, what’s so cool. He was ready to go and ready to figure out how to do it technologically.
    Fraser: I’m going to say this once and then I’m not going to say it again for the whole show. Can you imagine if that had happened…if it was the Moon first then Mars human exploration where would we be? Sigh…Okay. I’ve got it out of my system. I won’t bring up again. So he had some ideas about exploration of Mars, and how did that pan out?
    Pamela: Well, you know there’s only so much funding to go around. Launching a thousand space flights into space I’m not sure we’ve quite gotten there yet and he was looking to send all of them up just for this one mission. He wrote a book, book got published in two languages, got beautifully illustrated by Chelsea Bonstell who’s basically the father of space arts.
    You have these two people who originated their fields working together and it didn’t really get beyond the book. What’s kinda cool is it did get incorporated into Disney Man in Space film series, and it went on to inspire generations of people as they looked up to look beyond low Earth orbit.
    Fraser: I think I’ve seen video of him presenting on some Disney show plans for Space exploration of human exploration of Mars building rocket ships. I have these memories. Anyway, so then obviously, here comes the Space race.
    You’ve got Sputnik going up and then the series of American satellites into the ‘60s. You’ve got humans going up into Space. So this clearly took a backseat, so what happened next?
    Pamela: Well, there were all sorts of plans to get ourselves to the Moon and keep going. There were [sigh] all sorts of ideas. There were U.S. proposals that came out of the jet propulsion lab that came out of NASA that had different companies putting together all sorts of detailed plans of how we could do it.
    They looked at ways to use the Saturn fives and ways to do this that and the other thing, but in the end NASA had to make a decision and Congress had to make a decision. Do we figure out how to go to Mars or do we figure out how to build a space shuttle?
    In the end even though plans were presented to Richard Nixon they were passed over in favor of building the space shuttle instead. We’ve been confined to low Earth orbit ever since.
    Fraser: There were some pretty radical ideas going into those proposals. If I remember correctly, they were going to use nuclear rockets to get there quickly. And as you said thousands of vehicles would have to be launched to build these massive space craft that would carry people to Mars and back.
    Pamela: We had plans to use nuclear power to ion drives as early as the late ‘50s as a way of helping to accelerate the space craft and their plans to send rockets ahead and have things all set up for the humans when they got there.
    The thing is all these programs, all these plans, all these things that have been put together haven’t just gotten discarded. They haven’t been just thrown out the window and ignored. As our technology advances we keep looking at the detailed plans that have been worked out over the years and modifying them.
    Today there are several plans to actually go and figure out how to get there. The modern plans you might say started to be seeded in the 1980s with two different plans. First there was the case for Mars plan which actually was published by the American Astronomical Society. This was a plan that built on the Mars Direct concept by Robert Zubrin that basically looked at first getting something there that will start providing fuel so that once humans get there they have hope of coming back. Not killing astronauts has been the core of all of these plans.
    The Mars Direct plan has first missions moving ahead that will drop fuel-garnering craft that will utilize supplies on Mars to generate fuel so that once astronauts get there they have fuel to work from and fuel to return back to Earth from that will then send rockets ahead that have habitats. Then we’ll finally send humans on a direct course six-month mission to get to Mars, spend time hanging out on the planet, and then come back such that the humans are off Earth for 18 months total.
    Fraser: Right. This whole concept really turned the Human Mars Exploration on its ear. In the past, they were approaching it very much like exploring the Moon. You would launch everything you would need from the Earth. You would get it into lunar orbit and you would send down a lander. People would walk around on the surface, and then the lander would have an ascent module that would take it back up to lunar orbit and then they would fly back to Earth.
    You take that whole concept but instead take to Mars, where the distance to Mars is further, where the gravity on Mars is more. So at every stage of the way you would have to have a much bigger, heavier, more expensive more robust system.
    With the Mars Direct approach from Robert Zubrin his thought was instead of trying to carry all of the stuff with you, like having to carry all the oxygen that the astronauts are going to need to breathe over the course of two years, he said well, let’s just make it there. There’s oxygen on Mars, there’s probably water on Mars. Let’s just carry everything we need to be able to make this stuff and then you can just slash your mission costs dramatically.
    They proposed they could make their oxygen on Mars, make their fuel out of oxygen and hydrogen on Mars and they could build water for the astronauts. So, once you start to look at exploring Mars that way you completely cut down on the amount of weight you have to get off of Earth. And at the end of day that’s everything, right?
    Pamela: And at a certain point, you don’t want to have all your eggs in one basket. Hikers know that it’s always good to know that there’s a spring here, there’s a stream there that you can get water from. There’s a place that you can get food up on this ridge and there’s shelter over here. It’s easier than carrying everything on your back and it’s safer.
    You have these extra back up reserves in case something does go wrong with what you’re carrying. With this sort of a distributed risk kind of mission, it’s possible to know yes, my fuel is there. Yes, my food is there. And, to not have to worry about well, today this broke because you know tomorrow you can get to the replacement parts.
    Fraser: Right. You launch the fuel builder and the water maker and the air factory ahead of time. Then you’d be communicating with them and you wouldn’t leave until all of those were ready. All that stuff is here now you can come.
    Pamela: And, one of the more interesting things about this was discussed in greater detail by Jeffrey Landis of the NASA Lewis Research Center was the fact that you really want to do this in small footsteps to keep people’s attention. One of the things that for better or worse that was learned from the Apollo program and from the space shuttle program is that if you accomplish all of your goals, your funding goes away.
    Mars program recently relearned this for the unmanned part of the Mars program. When you accomplish your goals everyone goes yay, well done, let’s move on to something else. We got man to the Moon and then we moved on. We have done a wonderful job successfully exploring Mars over the past several years and now the funding is getting dropped as we go to spend our limited resources on sending unmanned things to the outer part of the Solar System.
    With the space shuttle we also learned that if you do the same thing over and over and over and over again, the public starts to lose sight of all the cool new things you’re doing because they’re small things. They get lost in the details of another shuttle launch, another shuttle landing. They only really notice when something really bad happens such as a mission exploding…
    Fraser: Yeah, quickly. Name the shuttle astronauts.
    Pamela: Right. I can’t… [Laughter]
    Fraser: Right. Yeah, yeah…
    Pamela: Sally Ride…that’s
    Fraser: Yeah. There’s only so many that you can even name and we’re in the space science journalism business, so, you know they’re not the heroes that they were in the past. I think there’s a lot to be said about that.
    While most people can name every one of the Mars landers right, all the Mars spacecrafts because they’re doing it bit by bit and each one is quite exciting. That’s an interesting approach. I hadn’t heard about that. So, where did the case for Mars and Mars Direct go?
    Pamela: Well, it’s still being fought. It’s still the good fight. There’s the Mars Society constantly working to promote the whole concept of man missions to Mars and Jeffrey Landis is still working to put forward his idea of taking our missions to Mars and going in small steps. Going first and while doing what we are today with the rovers, and then perhaps doing a human flyby. Some of the first Apollo missions had men going up toward the Moon and didn’t actually land there. They just went around.
    Well, why don’t we try that with a mission to Mars as well? Go up, fly by and come on back home. And then instead of landing first on Mars, which is a big hard to get off of gravity why don’t we start by landing on one moon and then landing on the lower moon and then landing on Mars.
    Before people decide to cut our funding let’s delay things a little bit by taking on the challenge of landing perhaps inside Valles Marineris or somewhere else. Do things in small incremental steps that constantly build on each other and constantly embrace new challenges and new things that the public can get excited about.
    In terms of what NASA is actually doing, and it’s not just NASA here the European Space Agency the Soviet Space Agency or rather the Russian Space Agency all have their own plans to try and get people to the Moon anywhere from in 2020 to in the late 2030s or 2040s. All these different programs are looking at okay, let’s first start in Space, let’s then build our human habitation modules and send them from their construction sites on orbit out toward Mars. Let’s before we send humans and supplies ahead. There are unified plans that pretty much all have very similar aspects to them. Pretty much everyone is looking at 18 month missions…six months there hang out a while, six months back.
    Fraser: Well, it’s not hanging out very long though is it?
    Pamela: It’s not. But it’s long enough to say hey I’ve been there and to prove that you can live there. Anyone who has gone hiking where you have to carry your own water knows that you only stay out so long unless you have the source of water. We know there’s water on Mars, that’s not a question. But growing our own food, living off of our own food, is a lot more of a challenge.
    Everyone has a bad crop now and then, everyone kills a plant now and then, and everyone kills a fish now and then. How are these people going to eat? That’s a question that’s harder to answer and I think it’s easier to say well, let’s just worry about making sure they’re good for six months before we worry about making sure that they are good for six years.
    Fraser: Right. And so, I remember back in the late ‘80s, NASA announced it was looking at a Mars mission and they called it the, the 90 day study and they came back and said it was gonna cost a half a trillion dollars. I remember it was…
    Pamela: yeah… [Laughter]
    Fraser: And it got laughed at. That it was the, what did they call it…they called it the Battlestar Galactica Plan…
    Pamela: Right [laughter]
    Fraser: That was to send people to Mars. And that was once again back in that concept, of you know, this huge gigantic spaceship assembled in orbit and going to Mars and landing and people going back up and they would only getting to be there for a couple of months and then have to come right back. So right now, we’ve got the Constellation program which is gonna be sending humans back to the Moon and then how is that gonna… and then on to Mars. And even use that in the tag line. So, so how does that dovetail together?
    Pamela: Well, the idea of the Constellation program is that they’re going to build huge, huge, large rockets that can lift large heavy objects into space. This is basically a newer, bigger, better pickup truck and if you can get the parts to the construction site it’s easier to build a skyscraper. They’re going to be looking at let’s build things. Where they build them is still up for debate. A lot of things with Constellation are up for debate. Let’s build things, launch them and get ready to go but let’s start by first building the bigger, better way to get things into orbit.
    Michael Griffin has publically stated that the current plan is to launch humans to Mars by 2037. This is on the anniversary of the 1957 original launches. We’re looking at basically creating a moment in history at anniversary of a historic moment. Now the budget for this (currently they have just diverted 11 billion dollars) to the program, is not that much. But it’s a start at least. We’re going to have to see where this goes.
    Here in America we’re getting ready for a new presidential election and there are a lot of questions of what’s going to happen to NASA as we move into the new administration. The current U.S. Congress has basically turned to Bush and gone yeah, we’re giving NASA more money deal with it.
    Bush isn’t happy with the amount of money Congress gave NASA even though it’s kinda his vision to go back to the Moon and Mars. Congress has said that they find it important that we improve the U.S. manned space program. As we get a new leader in our country it will be interesting to see just how much more NASA gets enhanced.
    Fraser: Alright. So, you know, we’re not really sure, 2037 sounds great. We can’t be certain that it is actually gonna happen. But at least it’s part of the planning and if Griffin is right, all of the tools will be in place. The heavy lifters, the understanding of long duration space flight.
    There may very well be long term habitation on the Moon. So, all the pieces will be there for humans to go to Mars. So, I guess the question is then why, why is it a good thing for humans to go to Mars when we’ve got robots doing a wonderful job on Mars?
    Pamela: And that’s a question that I think is more difficult to answer when you ask a scientist like me. At the end of the day I want the answer to be well, you can do better science with a human being, but I’m not really convinced. The best thing that human beings can do in Space is build stuff. Improvise stuff. Figure things out on the fly. And we can only improvise so much with Exploration rover, with the Roving Science Platform with any batch of technology we send to Mars.
    We have stretched the poor Spirit and Opportunity rovers to the limit of their technological abilities giving them new things, new programming all on the fly all at a distance. But if you had a human being there, you could take them apart and put them together in a new way. And so the question is, how much can we dream? How many things can we envision? We have Astronauts figuring out how to do things.
    Part of doing this is proving that we can live beyond the planet Earth. Part of this is making our science fiction future a reality and in real science today. It’s not going to be strictly science. It’s not going to be oh, wow look at all these great new discoveries.
    It’s going to be a lot of oh wow that engine smells truly terrible. We need to figure out how to fix this. It’s going to be a lot of okay I’m really tired of eating lentils or whatever else it is that we figure out how to grow in Space as we discover all the things that don’t grow so well in space. It’s going to be proving that we can do it. And sometimes going and saying ha, what I did it is good enough.
    I personally am not so sure that I am a fan of spending NASA tax dollars to send humans strictly on missions of inspiration. I’d love to see the commercial space agencies that once they prove yeah, you can get a person to Mars, can start turning it into a tourist industry.
    Fraser: Well for me…
    Pamela: I’m in more favor of them doing it, but a…
    Fraser: Right. For me I think I don’t have necessarily the same scientific goals that you do. I mean, for me, it seems inevitable that humans will get off of the Earth and start living on other worlds and the only way to do that is to do it.
    So if you’re going to explore other worlds with human beings, send the human beings. If you’re going to live on other worlds with human beings, send human beings. That just sorta seems very straightforward to me. Now, what are the risks because it sounds dangerous and scary?
    Pamela: [Laughter] Yes. One of the most interesting things that I heard this year at the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference down in Houston that I went to was that NASA is currently making noises that astronauts who spend periods of time on the Moon with the Constellation Program and our current plans to put a base on the south pole of the Moon, won’t be able to go on the missions to Mars.
    The radiation is simply too high in both those places. You’re out there and despite all the protection you have you’re still going to sustain more radiation than you would just hanging out here on Earth even if you’re hanging out at the dentist’s office.
    Fraser: So, where is this radiation coming from?
    Pamela: Well, it’s the Sun. It’s the Space. It is cosmic rays. Space is a dangerous place. And here on the planet Earth we have a magnetosphere that protects us from cosmic rays, gamma rays, and x-rays. All those things are out there in Space at a background level. Over time it’s going to cause cellular damage. It’s potentially going to cause cancers and illness.
    We do work to protect the astronauts. We do work to shield them from the worst of it. But just like people working in nuclear power plants, you can only be exposed to so much before you have to go find a different place to work. So we’re going to limit the exposure of our astronauts by limiting what they can do. Gain your experience on the Moon and you can’t get experience on Mars. Pick one. And that has a few people sad.
    Fraser: Right.
    Pamela: The other issue is well, there’s things like the human appendix that likes to randomly get bad and explode and kill people. And so there’s talk periodically of well, anyone we send to Mars you’re going to have to remove their gallbladder and their appendix before they’re allowed to go just as a preventative measure.
    There are all sorts of other health concerns. There was an eye-opening moment a few years ago, where one of the researchers down in Antarctica. I believe she had breast cancer and she had to do the tests on herself because she was the doctor. What do you do if you’re on an 18 month mission and you develop cancer?
    What if you develop any number of life threatening diseases that aren’t necessarily bacteria borne and you can’t prevent simply by throwing people in quarantine for a long time before you throw them into Space?
    Fraser: You can imagine the skill sets of the people who would be going on these missions. They would be part mechanic, part surgeon, part scientist, part pilot. I mean, like if you want to be an astronaut going to Mars, fill your head with knowledge, because I can imagine them wanting the most cross skilled people out there.
    I remember there was a mission once again it was an adventure across Antarctica, they were doing a crossing of Antarctica and they took they were going to do it with a dog team. They were going to take four or five months across the Antarctic in summer which can still be pretty terrible. They had to get some of the most terrifying dental work done because one of the people was from China and he had never been to a dentist.
    He had to get root canal after root canal because once again, the last thing you want is to have an infection in your teeth while you’re away from human civilization. It’s the same kind of thing. Those astronauts better have nice teeth.
    Okay, so we’ve got radiation. And you didn’t mention the solar flares. I mean those are one of the big risks as well, right…
    Pamela: [Laughter] yes, yes.
    Fraser: And, then you’ve got the human body having some problems. You’ve got mechanical failure. What about Space Madness?
    Pamela: Oh yeah. It’s one of the mathematically intriguing things that Kim Stanley Robinson brings up in his wonderful book Red Mars. Every time you increase the number of people in a group, you increase the number of human connections by N factorial. That means that if you have four people, the number of possible interactions is one times two times three times four. You have seven people it’s one times two times three times four times five times six times seven. Things grow at huge rates as you increase the number of human interactions.
    We’ve all had a coworker that we’ve gotten along with great until we didn’t. You might not realize wow, this person I don’t know, it goes beyond snoring and farts in their sleep or something, until four months into a mission where you’re eating plants all the time. You can just imagine the random human tics that won’t be discovered until partway through a mission when you start to want to claw one another’s eyes out.
    Fraser: But I don’t think it’s as big a problem as a lot of people say. I think there have been many situations…submarines, even up in the space station where human beings have been put close together, had to work had to depend on each other for their lives and have done okay. You know, maybe they’ve gotten into a few fights but have been able to get through it.
    Pamela: And they always find humor. That’s what keeps coming out of the Antarctic missions. They come up with all sorts of games with cold weather to keep themselves occupied through the winter.
    Fraser: Yeah. You would think that the people who would go into it would get a lot of psychological testing beforehand. But if you get people who all their life have been thought of as wonderful team players, a joy to have around, endlessly helpful, I think you would be avoiding the sullen scientists. You know the aggressive pilot; you know every one of the people on one of these missions would be the greatest people to have around. Just as a starting base because they can deteriorate to every now and then feeling a little grumpy right? As opposed to the alternative, right?
    Okay, so you’ve got Space Madness, which you know I don’t think is that big of a risk but then I’m not a psychologist so what do I know? We’ve got the radiation, solar flares; we’ve got the mechanical problems…oh…
    Pamela: And there’s starving to death. That’s the one that I always think about. So, you’re on a spacecraft and presumably you have a certain amount of prepackaged food to take with you. But that can’t be your only source of food. There’s going to have to be hydroponic gardens and some other way. Perhaps caged fish that you can use to try and keep yourself from getting scurvy on a space flight.
    What if it turns out that these animals are more susceptible to radiation? What if your filter system goes out? What if your hydroponic system goes out? I’m sure they’d make sure they had enough packaged food that you’d have your minimum caloric intake if necessary from packaged food. But who wants to live on the minimum allowed calories for 18 months while trying to live out a dream?
    Fraser: Well people who don’t want to starve are the people who would do that.
    Pamela: Yeah, right. But, still we don’t want to do that to our astronauts.
    Fraser: Right. But I mean…
    Pamela: It’s a fear…
    Fraser: Sure but if someone forgets to make a rounding error on the food amount, or makes a rounding error on the food then I think we’ve got a problem. Other than that I think, as you said they’ll probably have enough prepackaged food to meet their caloric needs and then have all this other stuff for a treat. So, fresh fish from the tank [Laughter] so, are there any other risks? Oh, I remember the big risk…landing.
    Pamela: Oh yeah, yeah. That’s, that’s the one I had sort of put out of my mind, because [Sigh] that is one that we actually have some amount of control over. Whereas solar flares are a bit harder to make sure don’t happen. But landing is always a risk. We have problems today even with landing things here on the planet Earth.
    There is the Soviet capsule, or rather the Russian capsule recently that decided not to land where it should or enter the atmosphere at the rate that it should. Landing on Mars at least has lower gravity, but it doesn’t have an atmosphere to use to break you. So, it wouldn’t be that hard to hurt yourself and your craft and you want to be able to get back home. There aren’t exactly triage nurses on the other side if you do decide to crash.
    Fraser: We’ve got a great article on Universe Today about this. Nancy Atkinson wrote this really detailed article on why it’s so difficult to land on Mars. There’s atmosphere and there’s not enough atmosphere and it’s a big problem.
    NASA is really struggling with how they can land large payloads down to the surface of Mars. The problem hasn’t been solved yet. It could very well be that the humans come down in a nice safe thing that’s very light, maybe as light as the Mars Rovers.
    But the cargo comes down in a much harder, heavier, more dangerous way. And that might be all they can do, so it’s a big problem and a big risk. Anything else?
    Pamela: And we have to figure out how to get everything to land in roughly the same place. And that’s a bit of a challenge.
    Fraser: Yeah, yeah. That water factor is no good to you if it’s across the planet.
    Pamela: Right.
    Fraser: Okay. Well, are there any other, any other risks? I think next week the plan was to take things to the next level. We’re going to talk about the colonization of Mars.
    Pamela: And terraforming or not.
    Fraser: And terraforming, unless it turns into three shows. I don’t know. We’ve got a lot to talk about and a lot of questions.
    Pamela: [Laughter] We’re currently on our never-ending Mars series. Don’t worry folks, we are going to move on and we’re going to start adding question shows for our weekly round up as well.
    Fraser: We promised you, some special respect to the Mars Phoenix lander, here you go.

    This transcript is not an exact match to the audio file. It has been edited for clarity. Transcription and editing by Cindy Leonard.

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