“Mars” flickr photo by Kevin M. Gill shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

     It has long been known that NASA is attempting to develop the capabilities needed to send humans to our nearest planet, and it’s the fourth one from the sun, Mars. In 2010 the American congress passed a bipartisan act, entitled the NASA Authorization Act, which set out this long- term goal, including plans to reach an asteroid by 2025 and then, eventually, Mars by the mid 2030’s.

Why Mars

     As the closest planet to our own and sitting almost smack bang in the middle of our own systems Goldilocks Zone, Mars is a rich and potentially priceless destination for scientific discovery. Its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth and its study could help us learn more about our own planet’s history as well as potentially our future.

      We know that at some point Mars held conditions suitable for life, with a weak but relatively non-toxic atmosphere and the potential for water to deposit on its surface. It’s these similarities to our own planet that could help us finally answer that age old question of, has life ever existed beyond Earth?

Why Send a Man to do a Robots Job?

     Some of you may be asking this very question. Well the answer is simple. Robots are not as smart as we are.
It is true that scientists have been using robotic spacecraft to observe Mars since the 1960’s, when the United States launched Mariner 4 in 1964.

     Since then numerous robots have orbited and indeed have landed on the surface of the red planet. Heck, NASA currently has two robot orbiters working around the planet and the European Space Agency has another two spacecraft orbiting as well. NASA also has plans to launch a further rover mission, code named Curiosity in 2020 which will search for ancient signs of life. There are even plans to send probes to both of Mar’s moons, Deimos and Phobos. In anybody’s book that’s a lot of robots.

     But whilst these plans are admirable in scope, the very limitations of robots soon become apparent when you factor in the risk of failure, lack of intelligence, inflexibility, and, if modern popular culture is to be believed, have a knack for rebelling and turning into murderous death machines over time.

How is the International Space Station Helping with the Study of Mars?

     While the impact of robots on the study of Mars is indisputable, there has been another rich source of information about space travel in general and that is the International Space Station. By having astronauts spend extended lengths of time at the Space Station, NASA has been able to study the effects of prolonged space exposure on the body and how it affects astronaut health. 

     This is a key area when you consider how long an astronaut will spend in space just getting to Mars and back. The Space Station has also allowed scientists to devise and develop deep space communication technologies that will keep astronauts and scientists on the ground in communication with each other.

How Close Are We to Our Goal?

     Well NASA’s next step for deep space travel is the sending of a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. This will begin sometime in the 2020’s when a robot aboard the Orion spacecraft will land on an asteroid and take samples before returning to Earth. The data from the robot should help scientists understand the propulsion requirements required to launch a spacecraft into deep space.

     Speaking of rockets, last year NASA finally began development and testing of the Space Launch System (SLS), the largest launch rocket system in the world. It will be this rocket system that will eventually propel a manned mission to Mars piece by piece. Under current plans, a dozen SLS rockets will be needed for one manned mission to Mars, as equipment, technology, and finally scientists will be sent on the long arduous journey.

     Unfortunately, current tests of the rocket system have proven inconclusive as to how effective they will be for deep space travel, and production bottlenecks have slowed development to a crawl, leading many to question if NASA will ever be able to get the system off the ground.

     There are positives, however. There aforementioned fleet of robotic spacecraft are providing information and knowledge about the Red Planet and are paving the way for future human explorers. A Mars Science Laboratory rover has been measuring radiation on its way to Mars and is sending this information back from the surface. This data has proven invaluable in planning how to protect the astronauts when they finally make it to the red planet.

     Tests have also taken place to study the effect of the Martian day on human bodies. It may seem insignificant but Mars takes 40 minutes longer than the Earth to fully revolve. But the tests by NASA have shown that this seemingly trivial increase in the day can have drastic effects on the human body.

     The entire mission control of the Sojourner path finder robot were kept on “Mars time” for the duration of the mission but within a month the controllers reported becoming fed up and feeling completely exhausted. It would appear that humans can only endure Mars time for short periods.

Mars One

     This one comes a little from left field. Mars One is a not-for-profit foundation that plan to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars. They believe that it is possible to create this human settlement using existing technologies, without the need to develop further technological advances. Mars One’s mission plan integrates components they feel have already been tested and are readily available from industry leaders worldwide.

     Plans were to man the settlement with volunteers but from the 220,000 original candidates there are believed to be less than 100 left. To compound problems further, a recent delay to the launch date was announced, making the chances of this expedition getting off the ground less and less likely.

Where Exactly Are We?

     Well, as you can see, plans to send people to Mars are still going strong. Small steps are constantly being made in terms of technological advancements, like the SLS system, and the study of the effects of deep space travel on humans. But with budgetary and technological problems hampering progress, it will still be many, many years before we finally realize the goal of seeing a man or woman walking on the dusty soil of the red planet.

     Let me know in the comments if you thought we were closer, or further along than what you have read here. Are you excited about this potential advancement or do you think we need to focus elsewhere? Let’s take that one step further. If you think we should focus elsewhere, where would that be?

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