Aerospace

Reaching Mars is not insurmountable

When and how will we reach Mars? Experts discuss what's holding us back and what we will gain from a journey to the Red Planet.

Scientists must overcome a number of key challenges for a manned mission to Mars to occur in the near future.

While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to begin crewed missions to Mars in the 2030’s, experts note safety, logistics, and funding concerns are currently standing in the way.

Dr. Sylvester James Gates and Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, who each received the National Medal of Science for their work in physics, discussed obstacles to reaching the Red Planet on Sept. 26 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Former Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center Dr. Ellen Ochoa and Space Foundation CEO Thomas Zelibor joined Gates and Jackson at the event hosted by the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation.

“To me, the question ‘are we going to Mars,’ is the same question as ‘are we going into the future?’ The answer is yes,” Gates said, noting the better question is when will scientific advancement and public interest intersect to make the mission possible.
 
While they argued none of the challenges are insurmountable, reaching, studying, and returning from Mars would be a major leap beyond landing on the moon. Clearing those hurdles would also offer many benefits here on Earth, including technological and medical advancements — and a better understanding of our own planet.

“[Mars] seems to have all the ingredients or have had all the ingredients to have been habitable at some point,” Ochoa said. “We want to understand if there was life on Mars at some point and we also want to learn more about what are those characteristics that bring about life.”

Like Earth today, Mars once had a magnetic field, an atmosphere, and even liquid water. 

“Fairly early on, as it cooled, it lost its magnetic field. Then the solar winds stripped away the atmosphere. Then it was too cold and didn’t have enough atmosphere to support liquid water, but it had all those ingredients,” Ochoa said. “If we can understand whether or not there was ever life there, [we can] also understand where our planet may be headed that way in the future, given these massive changes that happened to planet Mars.”

Jackson added that because Mars doesn’t have tectonic plates “a lot of the history is still embedded in the planet.” 

"There is a romantic aspect to this that none of us should lose track of."

“We would be naïve to think that [earth is] not changing, just like other planets have changed,” Zelibor added.

But millions of miles are standing in the way of the research potential on the Red Planet.

NASA is planning for a trip to Mars that could take two to three years, including at least six months of travel between planets each way. 

The longest a human has spent in space to date is one year. NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly holds that record for his time on the International Space Station.

“Our normal missions are six-months long,” Ochoa said. “When Scott came back, people would ask him, ‘a year, what was that like?’ He'd said well let me put it this way, if a doctor told me tomorrow that I only had a year to live, my first thought would be ‘that’s a pretty long time.’”

All space travel comes with five categories of human risk: radiation, isolation, distance from Earth, the gravity environment, and the environment in the spacecraft, according to Ochoa. 

“Whether it is successful or achievable or not, when you start looking at the technologies that are going to have to be developed in order to sustain life on Mars … whether it is medical advancements, whether it’s robotics, sustaining life in an austere environment … all of those technologies will benefit us here on Earth,” Zelibor said.

Even with the right technologies, Zelibor noted that political will and financial capability are necessary to reach Mars.

“I’m a physicist. I do calculations all the time. That calculation doesn’t work.”

According to Gates, government financial support is seriously lacking.

“Let’s go back to the glory days of NASA going to the moon. This country spent about 5 percent of its annual budget to get us there,” Gates said. “I checked with some friends earlier today, the budget for NASA right now is approximately one-tenth of that number.”

“If you reduce the resources of the premier agency that got us to the moon by a factor of 10 and then you say we’re going to be there in 18 years — that calculation doesn’t work,” Gates added. “I’m a physicist. I do calculations all the time. That calculation doesn’t work.”

Gates said this mission is going to require “some kind of partnership between government and private business.”

NASA is already moving in that direction, according to Ochoa, working with Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and SpaceX.

“We have really changed our model in terms of how we work with companies,” she said. “We are now buying services. We don’t own the spacecraft.”

Politically this mission could gain traction since “space is one of those things that crosses all the boundaries and people don’t really get partisan about whether we should go to space or not,” said Zelibor. 

Gates added that in space exploration, Mars is special.

“Of all our sister planets, Mars is the one that has had the most impact on our culture for the last several hundred years as a place to go and think about,” he said. 

He added, “there is a romantic aspect to this that none of us should lose track of.”

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