November 23, 2010
Here’s something to ponder over Thanksgiving dinner: who among your fellow diners would you send on a one-way trip to Mars? Or would you choose to go yourself and leave all you know behind for an uncertain future as a bold explorer?
Two scientists, astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University and cosmologist Paul Davies of Arizona State University, recently proposed in the Journal of Cosmology that we seriously consider having our first manned forays to the Red Planet be trips without return tickets. “A human mission to Mars is technologically feasible, but hugely expensive requiring enormous financial and political commitments,” they write. “A creative solution to this dilemma would be a one-way human mission to Mars.”
Any volunteers for such a project would get a head start in this scenario; unmanned missions could establish a site for a new colony, supplying it with an energy source, food, a rover, tools for maintenance and supplies for agriculture. Mars itself could provide water and shelter. And once humans arrived (Schulze-Makuch and Davies envision starting with two spacecraft, each with two astronauts), they could get regular supply missions from home.
There are several pros for such a plan: money would be saved. There would be no need for a lengthy rehabilitation after a return to Earth. The risk of death during take-off and landing and from exposure to radiation from space would be halved. Of course, a volunteer’s lifespan would be shortened by such a trip, due to the radiation exposure and lack of good medical facilities on Mars, and the radiation would also impede there ability to reproduce. For those reasons, the scientists suggest sending only older explorers, those age 60 or so.
But don’t think that this will happen anytime soon, and especially not soon enough to save you from an awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversation. NASA, for instance, isn’t too keen on sending anyone to Mars without a way to get them home. And even Schulze-Makuch and Davies acknowledge there are large hurdles to their plan. “To attain it would require not only major international cooperation,” they write, “but a return to the exploration spirit and risk-taking ethos of the great period of Earth exploration, from Columbus to Amundsen, but which has nowadays been replaced with a culture of safety and political correctness.”
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