Launching a Human to Mars

Dave Mosher is a Science Reporter who has written for Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic News and Discovery.com. Throughout his career he has 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 life on Planet Mars and the future of colonization in space.

TRANSCRIPT

Dave Mosher is a science reporter who has written for 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 us now to discuss life on planet Mars and the future of colonization in space.

Of course it's totally speculative.

We've never thought about living there actually, but there are more people deciding to think about living there long-term now and in the last 15 years than we've ever contemplated as a society before.

What kind of challenges do we have of thinking about living there?

I think the way to phrase this question is 'What challenges don't we have?'

...Don't we have, yeah.

Yeah.

So Mars is an average of 140 million miles away from Earth.

There are some windows every 2 years where we can get there pretty quickly, you know, within 6 to 9 months depending on how much propellant you have and how fast you want to go and how fast you can slow down, too.

So that's the challenge number one.

You're in deep space for months.

You don't have the protection of Earth's magnetic field, so you have radiation just pummeling your body, blasting away your DNA.

You can have not just... It's not just cancer, a risk of cancer.

You can lose your cognitive function, scientists are starting to think, based on animal model studies.

Mm.

You can lose your immunity, so if there is any sort of, like, biological attack, like, your body revolts against itself.

It's the bacteria in your intestines.

You may not be able to fight that off very effectively.

So there's all sorts of tangential effects of deep-space radiation that we're just now starting to understand...

Mm-hmm.

...based on research that's going on at the International Space Station, which frankly, I don't think is happening quickly enough based on some of the time lines that are being thrown out.

So that's one.

Two is how do you get all the supplies you need there without breaking, you know, the bank of the US government or other governments?

And then three is how do you feed people there?

Because stuff expires.

You know, your vitamin C, which you're going to need to avoid space scurvy.

That goes after a year or two, and that's just, like, scratching the surface.

There's so many other challenges that are in the way.

Yeah.

So what are the technologies that support the idea of getting us there?

I mean, there's the rocket ships, okay.

Now, okay, fine.

Let's say we know how to launch a rocket.

We certainly have launched satellites and probes around Mars' orbit and onto the surface, but what other technologies kind of do we have to be designing in order to sustain even just life on a rocket ship for that long to get here?

Yeah, so radiation, going back to radiation.

Yeah.

You need to protect yourself from that.

You need some sort of of a shield, some sort of a protection mechanism, especially if the Sun starts acting up and belching out a solar storm of protons.

You don't want those hitting your body.

It's actually more of the stuff they generate when they pass by you.

They can accelerate electrons, and those can hit you, and generate gamma rays and all sorts of stuff.

It's bad news.

So you need, like, you need somewhere to hide in your spaceship.

So that's one thing you've got to have.

Are we designing space suits differently?

Are we thinking about what kind of life-sustaining qualities those suits have that kind of our normal astronaut suits today might not have to have?

Yeah, so a terrestrial space suit is something NASA has been working on for a long time, in addition to all the other problems they're concerned about.

You need to be able to move around on the planet without getting some of the stuff on you.

Mars is covered in something called perchlorate, which is fine if it's in a vacuum, which is basically what Mars is, but once you bring it inside, it's nasty stuff.

You don't want to eat this stuff.

It's toxic.

So that's one challenge, and you also need a place to live.

Like, how do you live on Mars?

Do you live in your spaceship?

Do you live in a habitat?

Mm-hmm.

How do you create energy?

How do you recycle your water?

What do you do with your waste?

How do you grow food?

Is it more likely to be done by the private sector or different governments coming together?

So this is an interesting thing that's happening right now.

For many years, really up until Elon Musk said, 'Screw it.

I'm going to launch SpaceX,' in 2002 because he was frustrated that NASA wasn't doing anything.

Like, he logged onto NASAs website and was like, 'Where is the Mars mission?

Like, why aren't we going?'

So ever since then, you know, for the past 16 years, he has been pushing and hammering and pressing and fighting to get something that can go to Mars.

He is trying to do the 'Field of Dreams,' 'If you build it, they will come.'

The space agencies of the world are going to be like, 'Hey, we need to get on this train,' and then, behind that will come all of these technologies.

The life support technologies, the radiation technologies, like, everything you would need to stay there once you get there.

This drives the other question.

Why?

Why go there?

I mean, you just described a relatively inhospitable planet, at least for human beings.

What are we gaining from being there, colonizing Mars?

Musk believes that we need a backup planet.

He's seeing the way things are going on Earth and is not really... He's not really confident that we'll, you know, figure our stuff out in 100, 200 years.

You know, we're looking at very catastrophic, rapid climate change.

We are looking down that gun barrel right now on planet Earth.

That is why you would want to go to Mars.

Some people say, 'Well, why can't we fix the planet we're already on?'

That's a valid argument, I think.

But yeah, there's also this, like, sort of intangible, abstract thing of, like, knowing that we're on another planet that just sort of makes your spine tingle, and in a good way, I guess, makes my spine tingle.

It's sort of a thrilling idea, and I think that's exciting to a lot of people.

That's why there's so many fans of SpaceX.

They're fans of Musk's brusqueness and just sort of, like, can-do attitude.

They find that inspiring, and I think they're willing to follow that idea to its logical conclusion, even if it's going to kill people, which is something that Musk has been very clear about, like...

This is rocket science for a reason.

Yeah, and experts have told me, too, like, 'Look, when we launch these missions, people are going to die.'

Like, there's no bones about it.

Musk has said it.

I'm saying it.

This is incredibly risky.

You know, there's so many unknowns.

It's so dangerous.

Like, it is going to happen.

People are going to die.

All right.

Dave Mosher.

Thanks so much.

Thank you.