Saturday, July 20, 2019

Mars is not for humans, not now and perhaps not ever and here's why...

And so it continues by some folks at NASA Headquarters that we are going to the moon with the Artemis program so that the agency can then put people on Mars. Folks, I'm sorry but they're just not and here is why:

Sooooo sorry!

In a previous blog,, I explained how Mars rose into the consciousness of so many people over the past century or so as a desirable place to send humans to land and live. But Mars has always been more of a myth than reality.

To understand the reality of what Mars really is, think of it as a corpse or a mummy. It is interesting as a former living thing and deserving of study but also somewhat repulsive.

This is Earth...
And this is Mars.
So, just for a moment - and I'm really sorry to have to let reality intrude because Mars is a great fantasy - let's look at what Mars really is:

It is a tiny planet, only one third the size of Earth and only twice the size of the moon. In many ways, it's just a large dwarf planet.

Its atmosphere is deadly poison, a very thin mix of mostly carbon dioxide. The atmospheric pressure at the top of Mount Everest in what is called the "death zone" is 5 pounds per square inch. On Mars, the maximum atmospheric pressure is .088 pounds per square inch. Even if Mars had an atmosphere of pure oxygen, it would mean a quick death for anyone who tried to breathe it.

Mars is a dead planet. It has no magnetic field like Earth. Our magnetic field captures radiation like a shield and keeps us relatively safe from the harmful effects of all those whizzing particles.

Golleee! I thought Mars was bigger than that!

Mars is very cold. On average, it's about 81 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. This is much colder than anywhere on Earth. Ever seen the black, ugly frostbitten toes of the climbers on Mount Everest? Let a boot warmer not work for just a few minutes on Mars and you'd have horribly frozen toes. Same goes for other parts of the body including hands. On Mars, frostbite would be a constant worry not to mention failure of the moving parts of your suit.

You wore those boots on Mars? I told you their heaters weren't working.
Now you're going to lose all your toes!
The surface of Mars is awash with radiation that is deadly to humans. The only instrument sent to Mars to measure radiation was nearly destroyed by solar flares that would have killed within hours any Earthian mammal. Think living in Chernobyl. Not in the city. In the nuclear plant.

Mars is very far away from the Earth in both distance and time. On average, it's about 140 million miles away. Earth and Mars do a complicated dance around the sun. Most of our robots sent there take about 10 months one way and we could expect most human missions to be the same. However, it's only every couple of years that Mars and the Earth line up so that the journey isn't longer.

Plants can't grow in Martian soil without intensive leaching of the perchlorates out of it and the addition of vast amounts of fertilizers. In other words, Mars dirt is poisonous to Earthian plants. You can't live off the land without a huge dedicated farming effort requiring trillions of gallons of water and tons of fertilizer in amounts that are simply humongous along with physical labor and the operations of machines plowing and digging and sowing and reaping unknown to humankind in the entire history of the world ever.

Mars dust is poison if breathed. That's right, kids. Mars dust is everywhere, floating, drifting, getting into nooks and crannies. And if breathed? Those perchlorates I mentioned above that kills plants? Well, breathe it in and it will kill you, too, and there is no way to get away from it without massive care, huge filters, and even then, it will still probably get you. You know, like the sand from the beach you do everything to keep out of the villa? Dust to dust will mean more on Mars than even on Earth!

The surface of Mars. It's kind of desolate. Pretty, agreed, but still deadly

OK, got it? Now, with these realities of what Mars is really like, let's pretend you're the manager of the team responsible to send humans to Mars. Here (vastly simplified) are your tasks.

• First, you would have to figure out to deal with the limitations of the human body outside our protective atmosphere and magnetic field. Just some of the things that would have to be overcome are these realities:

     1. Prolonged weightlessness is not good for humans. As a minimum, living for months in microgravity causes loss of muscles, loss of bone calcium, possibly slows brain function, and causes eye damage. In other words, it makes you weak, your bones brittle, your thinking somewhat muddled, and fuzzy vision. Can you think of any human groups presently like this? Of course. Weightlessness makes you old before your time. Unless that's solved, sailing astronauts through space to Mars and landing them would be like placing 80-year old folks atop Mount Everest and expecting them to get out and go to work to stay alive.

     2. Prolonged exposure to the radiation in space outside our magnetic field is not good for humans. Background radiation that is everywhere in open space is bad enough but undeterred cosmic rays will zap through the human body like little bullets destroying flesh, blood, and anything else that gets in its way. In ten months of exposure, unprotected humans might look normal but inside they'd be like Swiss cheese with lots of health problems on the march that would kill them.

    3. Prolonged time away from assistance from other humans is not good for humans. There is a lot that can go wrong with the human body. The appendix is a good example. It can be fine one day, completely haywire the next and will kill you if you don't get it immediately surgically removed. Wintering over on the South Pole is about the closest we've ever come to separating a group of humans from everyone else in modern times. When a woman (who was a physician) was diagnosed with breast cancer there, she had to operate on herself and an emergency evacuation took place which would be impossible for anyone on a flight to Mars (or on the surface of Mars, of course). Although she survived the ordeal, the poor woman would die a few years later because the cancer had been left untreated for too long.

Sick person on way to Mars
• Next, recognizing these human limitation problems, you would have to build the hardware, software, train your crews, and organize the Earthian support teams for the voyage. Let's see as a minimum (and again vastly simplified) what that would take:

     1. You'd quickly realize that nothing NASA or anyone else has on the drawing boards would be adequate as a living space for humans on a 10-month journey through space. The Orion capsule that NASA keeps touting as its "beyond the moon spacecraft" would be laughable to your engineers. Orion is a death trap for any voyage longer than a couple of weeks. It couldn't begin to carry the water, air, and supplies necessary to survive the ordeal of flying for months through irradiated space.

You're going to travel 140 million miles and ten months through space in that?
"Farewell and adieu to ye fair Spanish ladies..."

    2.   Something big then would have to be designed to overcome the limitations of the human body, and then tested, and then flown numerous times with test crews outside the magnetic field of Earth in order to assure that the flight is survivable. Nothing like this has ever been done. It will take an enormous effort to build this spacecraft that might provide artificial gravity (spin it?), radiation shielding (Lead? Water? Unobtainium?). You'll also need inside this ship a full medical lab, a complete pharmacy, a surgical ward, and an optics specialist that can treat eyes and make spectacles as needed.

Hi there! You're sick, too? And we're only a million miles into this flight?
Thank goodness, NASA paid my way through medical school and I only have to do this once!

    3. If your engineers come back to you (as they probably will) and say that ten months is just too long to fly through space, you'll have to build advanced propulsion systems such as nuclear thermal rocket engines. These do not presently exist so they will have to be built and tested and actually flown through space, preferably all the way to Mars. These might cut down the journey to a few months but, sadly, even for that smaller amount of time, you'll find you still have to provide all that medical assistance and shielding. It'll just cut down on your odds of having a disabled (or dead) crew upon arrival at Mars.

    4. Somewhere along the line, one of your engineers is going to ask "How much food is the crew going to need? And water?" The answer is enormous amounts and both quite heavy. So now, you've got to design a galley and stuff your ship full of food and water. It is mindful of what the German U-boats had to do to cross the Atlantic during World War II. Every available space, even the toilet, was stuffed full of food and they still starved and some came down with scurvy. Let's say you only have a three-person crew. For a journey requiring ten months, they would need (according to the U.S. Army's field guide for soldiers in the field) about five tons of food and 25 tons of potable and 25 tons of non-potable water.  Of course, you can recycle some of the water but not all so you'll need to make sure you've got that mechanism all figured out without any possibility of failure. Otherwise, you're risking your crew dying of thirst or, at best, really stinky since they won't be able to wash. Best thing, you'll realize, is carry lots of water. You've got to get back, too, so you kind of end up doubling everything. Better triple it just to be sure. Uh oh. Better get a bigger ship! And rocket!

Eat your limes, m'boys ere ye gets the scurvy!!!
But we be astronauts, ain't we Cap'n?
Yeah, but ye ain't immortal.
    5. How about poop? Well, you'd better put in a number of toilets and they'd better work. Poop can be slung outside and probably will be but if there's a problem and pipes get clogged, better come up with something better than they've got on the ISS which has a nasty toilet according to everyone who's had to use it. Think what it would mean to have to use a rural gas station toilet for ten months! And then another ten months!

    6. Uh oh! How is the crew going to get power? Solar panels? They're going to have to be huge! We're going away from the sun! Nuclear power plant? Where? How? It's got to be shielded and somebody's going have to know how to operate it. I've got it! Let's use fuel cells. Oh, wait, one of those almost killed the crew of Apollo 13. What to do, what to do? Nobody knows. Talk about engineering arguments! You'll finally just have to choose something but you realize there are going to be serious drawback to any power solution. You realize on a lot of choices you're making in the design of this big ship, you're crossing your fingers. You can't wait for vacation. You take a cruise and one of the passengers, a young person, dies of something along the way. You're stressed! That could have been one of your Mars crew! You start thinking of early retirement.

People die on cruise ships. All ages. It's sad but true.
But if you could put a ship this size in space
and send it to Mars, you might be on to something...
    7. So let's say you've got your ship designed and a-building. It's a big, complex thing but you think it'll get a crew to Mars without killing them but now you realize that the crew is going to have to be trained on living in this contraption and ground crews are going to have to be trained to keep track of what's happening in it and also every facet of its systems. Checking back on your spaceflight history, you realize that the Apollo missions had tens of thousands of people on Earth who knew precisely their particular part of the Apollo capsule and lander and a thousand or so people who were fully occupied every moment of their lives with the flights that lasted a little over a week. But for Mars, you're going to have to have all these people dedicated to keeping track of every component of your spacecraft for months and years. It will be a vast, marching army that will stretch out to the horizon and somehow you're going to have to keep them trained, salaried, and happy. Nothing like it, short of war where the nation went into rationing to support its troops in the field, has ever been done. Just as D-Day was practiced and the Apollo missions were practiced, a ship to Mars is going to have to be recreated in a realistic simulator on Earth with crews spending months inside it and wave after wave of ground controllers moved in and out to their stations while simulations teams throw problem after problem at them. There will be day, evening, and night shifts and the sims will be interminable. Not every person hired will be able to take the incessant training and pressure. Constant retraining will be necessary. Finally, someone will come up with ships at sea which are monitored and maintained entirely by the crew inside. It will be tempting to get rid of ground support and just put enough crew aboard and let them go essentially on their own. But who will dare to let this happen?

Mars Mission Control (multiply this scene by about six times in size
 not to mention behind the scenes controllers) operating
24 hours a day for years at a time incessantly without relief. 

To keep things going, you're going to have to pay these guys a lot and
they're still going to burn out.

    8. OK, you've got your ship a-building, your crews and ground support a-training, and then one of your pesky engineers is going to ask, "Um, what about landing and how long are they going to stay?" This will start yet another round of engineering design with lots of unknown factors. For instance, will the crew be healthy enough to land on Mars? And, if so, how to do it? Retro rockets? Parachutes? How will they get back to the mother ship? And what are they going to do to dodge all that radiation down there? What are they going to eat? What about water? Got to put tons of everything down there first... somehow. OMG!

    9. So you've got a lander which has the ability to take off again - you hope. But you can't just have your crew wander around. You've got to have a habitat that shields them from the radiation and where they can eat, drink, poop, pee, and get surgery as required. So you realize you've got to ship not only food and water in advance but some place for them to live! This will mean putting that ship for the crew which was a-building on hold, and all those simulations and ground controllers on hold, and now having to construct a survivable habitat and somehow getting that to the exact place where the crew will land and then train the crews to live inside them and the ground folks to monitor them and then...

Humongous Mars Craft of Some Sort Kind Of Maybe

•  And THEN you're going to realize that for what it's taking to put this sad and probably sick little crew on Mars, you could've built a thousand, nay TEN THOUSAND robots capable of scouring the surface of the little planet AND by the time you've built all these contraptions and trained all these people and driven yourself and a lot of other people pretty much crazy, you could've waited until Artificial Intelligence got to the level that AI droids could even look like people and you could even kind of crawl inside these semi-people's heads and see what they see and feel what they feel.  AND they don't get sick, they don't care much about radiation, and they don't eat or drink or poop or do any of the things that people do AND everything is suddenly simplified!!!

So we would go from this scenario with humans on Mars:

Mars Mission Director: Hey, what happened to Ken?
Crew Controller: He fell off a cliff and broke his arm. Compound fracture.
MMD: OMG! How is he?
CC: In emergency surgery. His arm is also infected. Doc says he'll need massive amounts of antibiotics and they're running low. He needs a blood transfusion, too. Sir, I think Ken might not make it.
MMD: Just because of a broken arm?
CC: Afraid so.
MMD: How's his significant other?
CC: Buffy is stressed out of her mind. The doc told her to rest. She took a pill and went to bed.
MMD: Can we get them out of there?
CC: Not really.
MMD: What's to be done?
CC: We probably should send along a crematorium on the next cargo flight.
MMD: I don't get paid enough for this.
CC: None of us do, sir.

Ken broke his arm on Mars!!!

To this scenario:

Mars Mission Director: Hey, how's AI Buffy and AI Ken?
Crew Controller: AI Ken fell off a cliff yesterday and broke one of his arms. AI Buffy is replacing it with a spare.
MMD: Great. How's AI Buffy's power pack?
CC: She'll be dead in about two months but she's gone a year past her design.
MMD: Great. She going to be able to operate that well digger until then?
CC: Don't see why not. A new improved AI Buffy is on the way there to replace her, too.
MMD: Great. Carry on.

The new AI Buffy on Mars is doing swell and
the old one fixed Ken's arm!

And that, folks, is the sad and sorry truth on why people are not going to Mars any time soon and very possibly never. It's not that it's too hard. It just doesn't make any sense with the technology we've got, the limitations of the human body, our ability to keep ground control armies marching forever without some economic or national-survival sense to it,  and the present and near-future capability of robots and artificial intelligence. Besides that, Mars just isn't the planet it's made out to be. It's a hellhole, pretty much, an interesting hellhole to be sure but not the place we need to dump so much effort into. Let's save that for the Earth-like planets around other stars. We'll get there, one way or the other, because they will be, unlike Mars, worth the time, blood, and treasure.

Oh, and I'll add one thing more. All those folks who think they really, really want to go to Mars and live should just go out to Garfield County, Montana, where I hunt dinosaurs every summer, and squat down in the badlands and spend a few months without communications with anyone and just kind of live off the land or what they've carried with them. I guarantee you by the time a few weeks are done - and most likely a few days - they'll be begging to get out of there and, compared to Mars, those marvelous badlands I love so much are positively benign.

Me in the Montana badlands - benign compared to Mars.
 Wonderful country but not forever, thanks.