Humans Are Essential for Space Exploration
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” With these words, President John F. Kennedy roused America’s support of space exploration in 1962. He also acknowledged the geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union that provided the impetus to make mankind’s greatest technological achievement a possibility. Absent that Cold War motivation, our manned space program has languished in low Earth orbit for the last 40 years. That drought drives home the point that we must return to the spirit of human exploration of the final frontier exemplified by the Apollo program. The need to see what is over the next horizon — and not to simply see it, but to actually touch it — is a fundamental aspect of human nature. Those horizons beckon on countless asteroids, the moon and Mars.
The manned exploration of space is an expression of one of our finest aspects — curiosity. To truly satisfy that curiosity we need to be participants. My colleague correctly points out that the robotic space program is a far more cost-effective means of advancing our scientific knowledge of the universe, and I could not agree more. While valuable advances have been made because of the manned program, it cannot and should not be justified on the grounds of scientific advancement. It is instead about something equally important as science — the inspiration of our species to pursue lofty goals.
Space scientists frequently make the mistake of assuming that the space exploration budget is a zero-sum game, lamenting the money spent on the manned program that could be used to fund ambitious and scientifically valuable robotic missions. It is naïve to expect that politicians would spend those same billions on purely scientific exploration. If the manned program was canceled today, its budget would disappear, never to be spent on space exploration of any kind. In contrast, the U.S. manned space program enables NASA to maintain a scientific program of space exploration that is by far the largest in the world. We need to move past the debate of manned versus unmanned programs and recognize that they serve different yet complementary roles, and that each endeavor ultimately strengthens the other.
Robots Are Key to Future Space Exploration
On the plus side, humans in space provide operational flexibility, inspiration and native intelligence. On the minus side, that flexibility comes at a steep price. Humans are heavy, fragile, dirty, vulnerable, picky about their environment, and have a low tolerance for the space environment (i.e., high energy radiation, extreme heat and cold, etc.). The fragility of humans, our aversion for risking human life, and the all-too-human need for consumables (food, water and oxygen) require vast amounts of money to pay for the extra engineering and multiple redundant systems we demand to reduce risk to astronauts, as well as for the vastly larger support crews needed to baby-sit every aspect of daily life during a manned space mission.
For crewed spacecraft, Venus and Mercury are impossibly hot, and the asteroid belt and Jupiter are impossibly cold. The longer travel times to these worlds would be a death sentence from radiation exposure, not to mention bone loss and muscle atrophy. Once at an exploration target, humans can be a mixed blessing. Imagine trying to search for life on Mars with human explorers who are shedding pollutants and terrestrial contamination with literally every step and breath.
Fundamentally there is no real choice between robotic and human exploration of space, however. Both are synergistic and mutually dependent. Robotic exploration is necessary to enable human exploration by setting the context, providing critical information, and reducing the risk to humans. Imagine how the Apollo program would have functioned without its robotic precursors — Lunar Orbiter to map the moon’s surface, Ranger to get close-up views of areas that helped perfect NASA’s navigation skills (remember that NASA missed the moon with two of the first three Rangers to get that far), and Surveyor to explore the surface, determine its composition and practice soft landings. Without these robotic precursors it would’ve been impossible to know where to go on the moon, to design the landing hardware, or to have any real idea of what to do once we got there — other than plant the flag.
Is there a choice between human and robotic exploration? Not really. Considering the current limited range of human exploration, robotic exploration is essential to enable manned missions. For the rest of the solar system, robotic exploration is the only realistic game in town.
Once the excitement of being a Mars One colonist wears off, the realities may start to set in. Being part of the Mars One colony is not only extremely dangerous, it is a recipe for a science fiction horror story. Here are the top 11 reasons why you shouldn’t be a ‘colonist’ with Mars One:
1. High Risk Travel
Space travel is high risk. During the launch, you will be strapped on top of a massive rocket that could explode. During the flight, you could smash into space debris. You could veer off course and be hurtled into deep space, or even towards the sun. But landing on Mars is probably the most dangerous event of all. When missions fail, it is often because of a crash landing. Your risk of a violent or even terrifying death is extremely high.
2. Radiation Poisoning
Flying to Mars may take over a year to complete and during that time you will face serious health risks from two main types of radiation: cosmic rays and energetic particles from the sun. Both types of radiation can damage DNA and greatly increase your risk of cancer. If you get cancer, there will be no chemotherapy available at the colony. Cancer will be a death sentence, and an excruciating one at that.
3. Survival as Experiment
Once you arrive on Mars, your survival is all a big experiment. No one has done this before. You have to create oxygen and food literally from the rocks. Your life support equipment could fail. Issues might arise that the scientists back on Earth hadn’t thought of. Imagine the horrific scenario of equipment that can only support half the colonists. Will you all die together, or will you decide the survival of the colony (and your own life) is worth a few murders?
4. Ripped Suit Death
Over the decades, it’s very likely your suit will rip at some point. If your suit rips, a number of horrible things will happen. First, CO2 will rush in and mix with your oxygen, instantly poisoning you and causing you to asphyxiate and choke. Second, if the outside temperature is over 10 degree C, your body fluids will boil due to the difference in atmospheric pressure. If it is winter, temperatures can plummet to as low as -150C, and you could get very cold very fast. But that doesn’t really matter, because you’ll die from CO2 poisoning long before you freeze.
5. Maintenance Issues Death
Over the decades, the machinery and electronics at your colony will experience natural wear and tear. We hope it will be easy to fix, but over many decades things will break down. Do you know how to fix your laptop? If not, how are you expected to fix the computer in your multi-billion dollar colony? Or how about the oxygen system? And what if the airlock jams? Hopefully, there will be someone in your colony that knows how to fix these things. But if that person dies in this high risk environment, you’d better hope nothing breaks while you’re still alive.
6. Rover Breakdown Death
If you’re going to Mars for the rest of your life, you may want to explore. At first, you may just walk. But if you get a rover you can explore further. Over many decades, your rover will experience wear and tear and may break down. If it breaks down while you’re exploring, you may be too far from home to walk before your oxygen runs out. Imagine the tiny sun is setting, you’re lost on a distant planet without any features, and you’re running out of oxygen. That’s a nightmare.
7. What if the Doctor Dies?
We’ll assume you’ll have a professional doctor at your colony. But what if that doctor dies before you? A doctor is an important asset in such a high risk environment where the smallest mistake could result in fatal injury. And that’s to say nothing of the millions of other ailments that could kill you if you were back on earth. Maybe you could do a video conference with a doctor, but do you really trust your fellow colonists to perform surgery guided by a video?
8. Extreme Boredom
You will live in a small pod, about as large as a jail cell. Because going outside is a process more complicated than scuba diving, you will probably spend most of your time in your pod. Over the years, the novelty of going outside will wear off. You’ll have explored as far as you can, and it will eventually become a chore to go out into the desert just to walk around. You may find yourself spending months at a time lying in bed alone playing video games or just staring up at the ceiling.
9. Crippling Nostalgia
You will never again feel the breeze on your face. You will never again dip your toes in the ocean. You will never again see blue skies with white fluffy clouds. You will never again see your family and friends, and over time you will slip from their thoughts. Replacing these things will be the inside of your pod, and a desert that is so inhospitable that you will die in seconds if you step out into it.
10. Last Man Standing
Over the decades, people in the colony will die and there is no guarantee that more people will come to replace them. In time, there will be only one person left on the entire planet. If that person is you, it will be very lonely indeed. You could be alone for ten or twenty years and possibly longer. It will just be you, marooned on an inhospitable rock out in the solar system, alone. That is truly the stuff of nightmares.
11. Big Brother
Mars One will be a reality TV show. One of its founders is Paul Romer, who also brough Big Brother to the heights of its success. In Romer’s words, Mars One will be the “biggest media event in the world. Reality meets talent show with no ending and the whole world watching.”
Over the course of 10 years, we will watch 1000 contestants widdled down to 24 finalists. These finalists will be sent up in batches of 6 over a number of years (it helps ratings to spread things out). Mars One will not be a colony. It will be a reality show; but it will be a much darker reality show than we’ve ever seen. There is no escape for the contestants and, like the Hunger Games, we are guaranteed to watch people die.
Being part of Mars One may seem like an adventure, but I implore you, think it over. If we were to send prisoners to start this ‘colony’, it would be a gross violation of human rights. Why would you put yourself through this? For fame? You will be famous, yes. But your legacy will inevitably become a science fiction horror story.
If you really want to join a Mars colony, consider supporting Elon Musk’s plan (the founder of Space X). He envisions a proper colony complete with 80,000 people–a city on Mars. There will be science and industry. There will be families, schools and jobs. There will be large transportation vessels taking people there and back. Musk’s vision isn’t a reality show. It’s the real thing.
This article was written by Jordan Harbour of the Twilight Histories, an alternate history podcast with a radio drama theme. Listen to this episode where Hannibal defeats Rome. 1000 years later, Carthage starts a small colony on Mars… with a dark secret.