Something is out there – Space-exploration, Mars and Humanity’s Backup-Plan

Kate Prendergast

By 2022, manned flight to Mars will begin. Such is the bold claim of Elon Musk, the billion-dollar entrepreneur who in 2002, turned his attention and sizeable fortune to space exploration with the founding of his privately-owned company SpaceX. Revealed in September last year at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, Musk’s grand plan for multi-planetary human settlement for the purposes of “minimizing existential risk” would involve in-orbit re-fueling, fleets of durable, reusable ships, and the biggest rocket ever built. This rocket – which has yet to be built can carry a shitload of cargo to space, and it’s quite powerful too. It can generate enough thrust to lift a 1000 cars in to space at the same time.

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Despite a few mishaps – inevitable in spacetravel – Musk’s optimism remains undiminished. Many of his sponsors and partners also remain stalwart, if somewhat more cautiously. On September 1, SpaceX suffered its gravest setback yet after a years of pretty much uninterrupted success, when the Falcon rocket booster exploded into a fireball at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. In the process, it destroyed its $200 million Facebook cargo satellite and severely damaged the company’s main launchpad.

Following months of investigations, Elon Musk announced that the problem was identified as the result of a helium tank failure, and fully resolved. Yesterday, after much anticipation, SpaceX launched Falcon 9 – this time carrying 10 satellites to put into orbit for the Virginia-based communications firm Iridium. The launch was successful, and the shuttle returned smoothly into orbit to land on a drone ship floating in the Pacific Ocean. (You can watch the webcast here.)

Musk was not alone last year when it came to big announcements in privately-funded spacefaring. Distinguished theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking also launched his own project earlier in April under the name Breakthrough Starshot. Backed by a team of scientists and with the financial leverage of Russian venture capitalist and former physicist Yuri Milner, Hawking’s vision has an even broader scope.

Within a generation, the aim is to build an ultra-light spacecraft that would travel to the Alpha Centauri star system – long fixated upon by scientists a beacon of hope for its relative proximity (4.37 light years) and promising conditions. Built out of wafer-thin material, with a chip no more expensive than that in a modern iPhone, the ‘Nanocraft’ probe would propel itself using a sail through the far reaches to explore the distant system, coordinated by a 100 megawatt laser back on earth (or perhaps the moon). The journey, states Hawking, would take just twenty years. To put this in perspective, a standard probe would make the same distance in about 30,000.

“I believe what makes us unique is transcending our limits”, said Hawking, speaking at the project’s unveiling at the One World Observatory in New York City. “Gravity pins us to the ground, but I just flew to America. I lost my voice but I can still speak. How do we transcend these limits? With our minds and our machines. The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars.”

The dream of space travel

Whether it’s interplanetary or interstellar, humans have dreamt about exploring the great mystery beyond our blue-marbled planet for thousands of years. There are two predominant reasons cited. The first and more ancient one is simple curiosity. To look at the stars is to wonder: “Are we alone?” “What else is out there?” followed by the more powerful “Why?” and “What if?”

The second reason is a more modern one, and in some people’s minds, more urgent. For the last hundred or so years, the human population has expanded at an exponential rate. Our ‘swarm’ as species has put increasing pressure on dwindling resources through desertification, pollution and the loss of arable land through urbanization. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, by 2050 we will need to produce twice as much food as we did in 2006 in order to avoid mass starvation. And then of course there’s the diminishing water resources needed to grow crops and maintain life, and the fast-accumulating effects of climate change – which could see a rise in unpredictable seasonal swings and severe weather events, as well as exacerbate the spread of a plethora of new pests and diseases.

In various ways, we have created a parasitic relationship with our planetary environment, and in a few thousand years we may have despoiled the land to such an extent that it will barely be habitable. Whether it’s by our own self-destruction then, or through a natural event of unforeseen cataclysmic proportions (such as an asteroid collision or massive solar flare), human extinction on earth is at some point, inevitable. Colonizing other planets is therefore often framed as a moral imperative; a future investment necessary to ensure the long-term survival of our species.

Developing the technology

The invention of the telescope was the first milestone in space-related technology, popularized and improved upon by Galileo in the early 1600s. At the turn of the 19th century with the industrial revolution in full swing, the literary genre of science fiction burst into life with narratives of space travel and discovery – from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. Although these novels would inspire new generations of scientists and thinkers in critical ways, what really moved the needed technology forward was conflict – more specifically the second world war.

In WWII, high-speed rockets were developed as missile weapons to exterminate enemies on the battlefield from unprecedented distances, and with unprecedented violence. This picture is of a German rocket fired by the British, during the hilariously named “Operation Backfire”.

This technology was further developed during the Cold War’s Space Race, between the U.S. and Russia. With each party aggressively pouring more money than ever before into space programs in the effort to outdo the other.

In 1961, Russia’s Yuri Gagarin sealed the advent of spaceflight – launching from Vostok 1 to become the first human in space. Eight years later, Neil Armstrong would take mankind’s “giant leap” when Apollo 11 made its historic landing on the surface of the moon.

Although only eleven other men have followed in Armstrong’s lunar footsteps, the quest to journey further into the galaxy has since moved forward in huge theoretical and technological strides. Scientific understanding of space has never been so sophisticated, and our engineering capabilities never so adept.

Alternatives to the inefficient chemical jet propulsion method are under development all over the world – though each is encumbered by their own set of problems. There is, for instance, the fabled ‘space elevator’ that would shuttle astronauts up via a cabled enclosure to space terminals – either as a final destination, or a stopover for conducting maintenance and repair work on nearby satellites or space stations.

For all entrepreneurs and dreamers, pessimism is the killer – particularly as each new success tends to pave the way for another. Witnessing exciting new developments in space technology incentivizes investors to pool their resources into the industry, spurring it on by the most essential ingredient of any market: confidence.

A parallel can be drawn here to Earth colonization and the ‘discovery’ of America by Columbus in 1492. The voyage captivated the minds of the European pubic, loosening their purse-strings to such an extent that shipmaking would thereafter enjoy a period of enormous innovation never seen before, and it all started with these three bad boys

Had Columbus not been so audacious in his voyaging, who knows by how many years cross-oceanic travel and the mapping of the world would have been set back? The point here is that once the way has been paved for profitable space-flight, market dynamics will ensure that investment are channeled in to innovation in this field. This ensures that space-related technology will be pushed forward, similarly to how ship-technology was massively improved upon, once we figured out that we were able to cross the atlantic.

The perils of spaceflight

Let us take an imaginative leap over improbability for a moment and consider that humankind has managed to develop a rocket of adequate speed, endurance and power for interstellar flight. We are then left to consider a fresh set of challenges to face: those of successfully navigating through the uncertain void of outer space.

While the universe may be mostly nothing, it is nevertheless replete with an almost inconceivable variety of perils. Travelling through it has been compared to bolting through a shooting gallery. Even dust can spell the end – ripping effortlessly into metal and flesh – if it’s traveling fast enough – which it might be.

If the space-craft is manned, the relentless assault of radiation and charged particles on soft tissue through cosmic rays (from which we on earth are protected by our magnetic field) will require upgrades in space suit technology.

According to a recent study in Scientific Reports, even a short trip may expose astronauts to enough radiation “to cause long-term brain damage in astronauts…resulting in dementia, memory deficits, anxiety, depression, and impaired decision-making.” Bone mass loss from microgravity is another problem already affecting astronauts, with many suffering osteoporosis, fractures and other related health complications upon return. After spending just three months aboard the International Space Station (ISS), astronaut Chris Hadfield lost 8% of bone mass across his hips and upper femurs, which took over a year to regain. Unless a solution is found, the bones of an interstellar astronaut would fare far worse.

Again however, human ingenuity is not to be under-estimated, and with enough resources poured into innovation, this is just another problem to be solved by engineering and technology.

The challenges of colonization

Now for another round of assumptions: firstly, that a manned spacecraft has made it to its destination, and secondly, that this destination is habitable. The conditions does not need to match those of the Earth completely, but the so-called ‘Goldilocks planet’ must have several fundamental properties and features to make colonization possible.

Mars has long been considered ‘prime real estate’ in this regard. Our closest neighbor at 54.6 million kilometers, is half the size of Earth with a fluctuating surface temperature averaging -53°C. Though sparse, lifeless and dusty, it has carbon dioxide in its atmosphere from which we can extract oxygen; water vapor by which we can sustain life; and a mineral-seamed regolith which could be used for growing crops.

It could look something like this

Excursions outside of the closed, regulated base settlement ecosystem would be infrequent however. With pressures far lower than those on earth, a small tear in the lining of a suit could mean – as NASA senior research scientist Chris Webster puts it – that “within minutes the skin and organs would rupture, outgas, and produce a quick painful death.”

Whether on Mars or in another galaxy altogether, disease could potentially spell the end of the entire base too. Science has already established that there are extremophiles capable of surviving in non-Earth environments, with ‘space fungus’ growing on the International Space Station. Although the seed colony of humans would need to be extensively screened and immunized for a full range of infections, it is impossible to screen against all of them. If an astronaut were to become infected by a contagious disease, fails to be quarantined early, and there is no suitable cure available on the outpost, the colony could face swift collapse.

Equally importantly (yet easily overlooked) is for outpost co-habitants to get along. It can hardly be expected that we be ‘less human’ on an alien planet – and humans have proven themselves to be a singularly fractious, intolerant, violent species – particularly when placed under high-pressure conditions, in foreign environments, with limited autonomy and options available.

Simply put, conflict is an inherent characteristic of every society – put people in one place together without a means of escape, and tensions will build and gaskets blow. Jack Stuster, a cultural anthropologist who studied the records of International Space Station trips, found that a principle concern of the astronauts was getting along with crewmates.

In 2015, the University of Hawaii conducted an isolation study on the volcano slopes of Mauna, where for eight months, six volunteers (three men and three women from 26-to 28-years-old) mimicked the daily lives of Mars astronauts in order to test the effects of isolation and confinement. “Astronauts tend to be resilient, low-drama types,” wrote the New Yorker in a feature-piece midway through the study. “On top of these qualities, [study coordinator Kim Binsted], wanted sociability—a thick skin, a long fuse, an optimistic outlook, and a tolerance for low stimulation.”

Harmony and good morale don’t depend exclusively upon individual temperament however. How living spaces are designed can have an enormous impact upon psychological wellbeing and group dynamics – with functional, aesthetic environments reducing stress and promoting healthy morale. Expert architects will therefore need to be recruited by space agencies to draw up models which would best facilitate optimal structures of interaction through intelligent design.

Activity and purpose are also crucial – through both entertainment and work. Boredom is a well-known breeding ground for discontent, and there is no Netflix on Mars. To put it succinctly, the colony should look like the diametrical opposite of the Big Brother household.

Other issues endemic to human societies will arise. What, for instance, will be the political ideology of the new world’s colony? Will it lean right or left? Will there be a government, and how will it rule? Will capitalism preside? And what about love? With coupling a pragmatic act, how will the meaning of romance change in outer space?

There are many challenges to overcome, and not all can be solved by technology, but the potential rewards are so great, that we as a species will find a way.

The benefits of space-exploration

No human endeavor is more costly than space travel. Nor is any investment more risky. Mission success is never guaranteed. So far, humanity has sent just one spacecraft beyond our galaxy – the Voyager 1 probe, launched in 1977. And even if we do achieve Carl Sagan’s “two-planet” ideal, it may not be the answer to our species’ salvation.

Are we overreaching ourselves? Do we have our priorities right? There have been countless arguments impugning space travel as a hobby for the world’s technocratic elite; a high-finance indulgence of curiosity at the expense of the impoverished majority. What’s more, whatever we find out there, we can almost be fully assured that no planet will be more ideal to our comfortable living than the one we’re living on now. Should we not first fulfil our duty as caretakers to our fragile, beautiful home, rather than neglect it with wild dreams of escape? Do our billion-dollar projects make us altruistic to the yet-to-be-born, or selfish to the here-and-now?

Though compelling, these questions overlook something vital: space programs do not only benefit space travel. Earthlings benefit too. And the spin-off advantages are as tremendous as they are varied. G-suits worn by astronauts to protect their internal organs during high-acceleration launches are saving the lives of women suffering postpartum hemorrhage. The same science that hopes to transform Martian air into rocket fuel is also used by microbreweries to carbonate beer.

The fluidics-based shock absorbers which safely removed extraneous parts during rocket lift-off has since been incorporated into buildings and infrastructure to absorb seismic energy during earthquakes. From 3D printers to higher quality speakers, fire-fighting equipment to cabin pressure monitors – the investment into space technology overflows to produce and enhance a wealth of other industries and applications. In this way, space program efforts – even those that seem futile, and those that seemingly fail – are never wasted.

The main point here however, is that we are making tremendous progress towards being able to put the first people on Mars, and eventual colonization of the red planet and beyond.

The frontiers of space are the greatest challenge man can ever hope to overcome. And it is this key word – ‘hope’ – which brings dignity to the pursuit. In the final lines of his closing address as U.S. President, Barack Obama named mankind’s first step on the moon as one of the greatest testaments of our dauntless will to overcome that which seems insurmountable. For all of its obstacles, improbabilities, debacles and tragedies, our ongoing quest to probe the mysteries that surround us – to dream beyond our earthly reckoning – enriches us, and it ennobles us.’

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