Humans first went into space in 1961, landed on the moon in 1969, and have been continuously living and working on board the International Space Station (ISS) since 2000. But where will we explore next? This was the question UK Space Agency’s Libby Jackson posed at our lecture meeting this month.
The Moon landings were all about exploration (arguably, actually, they were all about politics!) – and in contrast the activities aboard the ISS are all about science, part of which is to understand the effects of prolonged exposure to space travel on humans. The next phase in space flight is reverting to exploration with visions of trips to the Moon and Mars. But we have enormous problems to overcome.
Propulsion for example. For the Moon missions the Saturn rocket could lift a payload of 40 tons for a two week trip. The ISS is the size of a 5 storey building and took many missions to build it to its present size and functionality, and is constantly being re-stocked. A journey to Mars will take 9 months, then 6 months there waiting for an appropriate planetary alignment before setting off back, and another 9 months to return to Earth. The resources needed for such a trip will require an approach to getting stuff into space some orders of magnitude greater than what we currently have. The advances made by the likes of Elon Musk and his Space X operation may be the way forward here.
Astronauts will need to be protected from solar radiation because unlike us on Earth, protected by the Earth’s magnetic field, they will not have such shielding either during their journey or whilst on Mars itself – Mars has lost its magnetic field, remember. Right now, no technology exists to provide such protection (putting them in a lead spacecraft, for example, is impractical due to the weight).
The physical well-being of astronauts in long terms space flights is beginning to be understood – in short, space travel causes instant ageing (for example Calcium very quickly leaches out of bones under zero gravity resulting in osteoporosis). Solutions to this and to have astronauts who can actually function on arrival at Mars, will need to be devised.
Landing will pose problems too – it’s a sobering thought that half of all Mars missions so far have failed in this regard. Mars has very little in the way of an atmosphere and the problem of opening a parachute in a near vacuum (if this were to be the mechanism chosen) has yet to be solved.
Communications at these distances is lengthy. At maximum Earth-Mars separation for instance it would take a radio message 24 minutes to travel one way. Astronauts on the ISS or even the Moon are accustomed to more or less instant communications. The Apollo 13 mission recovery required constant and immediate dialogue between the stricken spacecraft and Mission Control. A different level of autonomy and self-sufficiency will be needed by the astronauts.
And how would astronauts cope psychologically over a 2 year period eating dried rations and being out of direct communication with friends, family and Mission Control? Simulations of such conditions on Earth have been carried out so at least a partial understanding is being gained here.
Finally, there are ethical, legal and environmental questions which require solutions – bio-protection is an issue even here on Earth when we start exploring the Arctic for instance. Indeed should we even consider going to Mars, risking us contaminating the Red Planet, or even bringing Martian contaminants back to Earth?
It has taken almost 60 years to get to where we are in space exploration from when Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth. Libby Jackson highlighted the formidable gaps in our knowledge and technology to take the next steps in space exploration. Nevertheless she remained upbeat about overcoming them and was optimistic that in her lifetime she would witness humans on Mars.