As part of the Imperial Festival, Neil Bowdler from the BBC teamed up with Imperial’s Professor William Pike and Professor Mark Sephton to explain how we might undertake a mission to Mars. Neil’s documentary on the subject won a 2014 European Digital Media Award and a Webby Nomination so the talk was much anticipated.
Neil’s love for space exploration became apparent from the word go and he began by talking of a childhood spent dreaming that he would one day visit space. He then explained that the realisation this was never to happen prompted him to make this documentary. But after this introduction, the talk felt more like a film screening with a few anecdotes about making the documentary and the odd additional explanation of certain aspects of physics, rather than a panel discussion exploring the topic. That’s not to discredit the documentary itself – it was full of great science and very well made; just the event did not match up to the description.
Several key scientific challenges were mentioned over the course of the evening. These included both technical considerations – for example, the need to generate all fuel for the return journey on Mars itself (a process that would take at least a year!) – to more human concerns such as astronauts having to drink their own urine and the risks in determining which medication they might take with them. Having the human challenges discussed as well really brought to light the scale of the potential issues: if astronauts needed to spend a year generating the fuel for the return journey, how long would they have to spend out there? Or would some kind of robotic system have to be sent out in advance? And if the ice needed for fuel was located far away from the landing site, how would astronauts traverse one third of the planet? Many questions were raised and, whilst some had answers, it became apparent that this was very much a work in progress. The professors even mentioned that NASA were still hunting for the best designs for specific parts of the fuel generation system.
All in all, the event was very informative. It was a shame that the film was the showcase rather than the science, and the work of the scientists themselves; however, the demonstrated ideas left much food for thought.
The talk ‘A Mission To Mars’ took place on 9 May 2014 at Imperial College London as part of the Imperial Festival.