December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

A science-driven marathon, or a colonial sprint?

Astronauts in desert

Motives for humans to expand their geographic extent have constantly evolved through time. A million years ago, migration would have been fueled by survival instincts: either through lack of food, competition, or generally tough times. Once the birth of civilisation made humans less vulnerable to these hazards, our exploration voyages became less of a necessity and more of a noble endeavor powered by the old dictum: ‘God, Gold, and Glory’. Today, overpopulation and accelerating technological advances have allowed us to set our sights on neighbouring planets. Private space companies promise imminent Mars colonisation, whereas planetary scientists have spent decades searching for opportunities to study Mars. The question is: who should board the next rocket to Mars- deep-pocketed individuals looking for their next dinner party conversation, or a professional scientific team searching for answers on the formation of our Solar System?

Hopping on a ride to Mars isn’t quite like your average commute. Technological challenges, namely the trade-off between spacecraft weight and fuel, combined with biological adversities (i.e. radiation, prolonged weightlessness, long-term confinement) mean that such a trip would be  gruelling and perilous, not to mention currently unfeasible. The recent emergence of private companies like Boeing, MarsOne, and SpaceX into the space race has resulted in promises of faster, cheaper, and safer expeditions to the Red Planet. SpaceX’s Elon Musk suggested a traveler could pay $200,000 and enjoy abundant luxury all the way to Mars, including in-flight amusements such as zero-G games. Essentially, said Musk, “it’ll be, like, really fun to go”, and definitely “not cramped or boring”.

Space agencies around the globe have been laying out plans for Mars exploration for over 30 years. With meticulous attention to the risks and technical limits, the selection process for astronauts at NASA is comprehensive and exhaustive. Today’s astronauts are prized for their excellence in sciences, engineering, computing, and mathematics. They must also endure years of training in order to obtain peak shape and physical competence. 5% of these ‘superhumans’ have perished in spaceflight. Nonetheless, space tourism companies like SpaceX promise to deliver people safely and reliably to Mars even within the next 10 years. These passengers will lack the years of training and experience of NASA’s astronauts, let alone the psychological preparation indispensable for a confined 26-month journey with minimal Earth contact.

Overcoming the hurdles of space travel is just the first part. Once this is achieved, passengers face the harsh reality of landing and surviving on Mars. During landing, precision is key, and the Martian atmosphere is a big variable to factor in. Over the decades, NASA has built a substantial entry database from seven successful Mars landings, with only one landing failure. Earlier this year however, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket failed to land on a sea-going drone ship, making it the company’s 4th landing failure, with a total landing success rate of just 20%— and that’s on our own planet. That is not to say space agencies have mastered Mars landings- far from it. The Soviet Union has had seven landing failures, and only months ago the European Space Agency’s long-awaited Schiaparelli lander crashed anti-climatically onto the unforgiving Martian surface. A half-decade of experiences may have improved our chances, but they are nowhere near 100%.

Space X rocket launch

Even if the spacecraft is able to successfully land on Mars, there is another big issue to consider: should we collect data and return intermittently, or try to permanently colonize the planet? This underlying question has a huge impact on who should board the spacecraft in the first place. If we want to bring back samples, the team should probably consist of different experts to plan, locate, and perform site investigations. These would most likely be during a sandstorm, in a clumsy spacesuit, against a ticking clock, where a crew of 100 idle tourists would probably get in the way. If the goal is, however, to remain on the planet permanently, the outlook is very different. Everyone will be expected to play a part during their stay, and contribute to the growth of a new civilisation. Instead of a select group of scientists, or a swarm of well-off travelling enthusiasts, the population should consist of the entire spectrum of building blocks required to build a new world. Ultimately, this crew would represent the entire human race and begin a brand new interplanetary branch of our evolutionary tree.

The future implications of human colonisation can be both positive and negative. Although spreading our species ensures its biological success, the contamination of untouched habitats and potential Martian life is a substantial danger. Disregarding any socio-political drivers, the search for life and habitable environments is arguably our greatest motivation to explore Mars. Even if we decided it was ethically acceptable to terraform Mars, centuries could pass before it could actually harbour an oxygen-rich atmosphere and a stable enough environment for life to thrive. This transformation would irreversibly change, if not erase, all present-day Martian surface processes, which attest to the 4.5 billion year old record of the planet’s formation and evolution. However, interplanetary colonisation is something we can’t avoid forever if we truly want to survive. There is no need to rush since we are under no direct threat; instead we should focus our efforts on extracting as much information as possible from our red neighbour before we end up changing it forever.

Gaia Stucky de Quay is studying for a PhD in Earth and Planetary Sciences

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