Is life on Mars a possibility?

Dave Mosher is a science reporter who’s written for Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic News, and Discovery.com. Throughout his career he’s watched humans and robots launch into space, flown over the North Pole to catch a total solar eclipse, and toured a cutting-edge nuclear reactor. He joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the potential of colonizing Mars.

TRANSCRIPT

Dave Mosher is a science reporter who has written for News and discovery.com.

Throughout his career, he's watched humans and robots launch into space, flown over the North Pole to catch a total solar eclipse and toured a cutting-edge nuclear reactor.

He joins us now to discuss the potential of colonizing Mars.

So how do we do it?

I mean, let's say, best-case scenario, we can get there.

Then what?

Well, this is the big open question right now, is, 'Once we get there, how do we survive?'

And this is one of the stories I've reported for the idea that we can just go to Mars, and then everything is great, and, you know, we'll grow potatoes and live a long, happy life.

That sort of is fiction right now, and some of the major players that are leading this effort are, of course, SpaceX and also Boeing and Lockheed Martin and, by extension, NASA.

They all want to go to Mars.

SpaceX appears, to me at least, to have the lead there, but what they haven't really thought through or I haven't seen evidence of, and nobody's really reported deeply on this, how do we survive when we get there?

What stuff do we bring with us to create a persistent, you know, established, self-sustaining colony?

We just haven't seen any of that equipment or thinking yet.

I mean, there are a lot of technologies that are necessary before we get there even to figure out how to we can travel for a year and a half in a box or however long it takes, and then when you get there, your basics.

How are you going to get water?

How are you going to get breathable air?

Right?

I mean, you can't just literally take it with you in a rocket ship.

Well, actually, you can take a lot of this stuff with you in a rocket ship, and it could be useful, too, because if you surround yourself in water... One of the big problems is that radiation is rampant in space.

Cosmic rays are just pummeling your body and blasting you with ionizing radiation, knocking As and Cs and Ts and Gs out of your DNA, and that's not good for a variety of reasons.

So you can surround yourself in water, great.

You bring that with you.

You can also use that water as fuel, you know, use solar panels, break it up into hydrogen and oxygen.

You burn it and shoot it out the end.

The problem is, how do you keep that going?

How do you create a self-sustaining colony?

Like, can you have a bunch of people with their... and equipment to make this stuff on their own without any shipments from Mars?

And furthermore, can they grow their own food?

Can they treat their own waste?

Can they recycle air?

You know, these are huge lingering questions, and scientists have been working and engineers have been working on this for decades, and they still haven't cracked that nut.

So there's a good chance that we will have the capacity, the technology, the wherewithal to get to Mars but still not all the necessary technology parts to be able to sustain life there.

That's correct.

There's a lot of focus on the rocket ships and the space ships and Elon Musk.

It's, like, really exciting, but we need to, like, think forward a little bit here.

What are we going to do when we get there?

How are people going to survive?

How are going to not want to, like, you know, for lack of a better phrase, kill themselves because there's just not all this stuff that they need to survive and also thrive?

Because this is... Mars is basically a big vacuum.

I don't think many people understand that.

It's like living in a vacuum chamber, so what do you do to keep yourself occupied there?

Especially when you've got a 10- to 20-minute delay in communications.

It's not really a ritzy, glitzy lifestyle.

Like, you're going to have to work every day to keep yourself alive, and if you slip up, that could be the end of it.

And are we likely to see surface habitation or down... this idea down in the caves of Mars where we might be shielded from some of that radiation?

So you can kind of do it both ways, but either way, you're going to want a lot of Martian soil between you and the surface because of radiation.

Because there is no air there, the cosmic rays are coming in, solar-charged particles.

A solar storm erupts and hits Mars, you're just getting blasted with all sorts of radiation.

So you're going to want soil to soak up and absorb some of that.

Some scientists have looked to these, like, tubes on Mars, you know, these volcanic lava tubes.

'Hey, let's go down there.

Let's make our base there.

That's sort of natural shielding.

It'll be a good, like, depot.'

Others have proposed building, like, kind of tube-like greenhouses.

You cover those in soil, maybe some water, too, and you just jacket the whole thing, and that protects you.

So you can do it either way, but you're going to want some soil between you and the surface.

Which way we'll go, I'm not sure.

We'll have to see.

All right.

Still a lot to be figured out.

Dave Mosher, thanks so much.

Thanks for having me.