Don’t like it? Well, get used to it. Photo: Nasa
Show Hide image

People, please don’t go to Mars - you’ll die

The Red Planet is bad for humans in all kinds of ways, and being first there may be little consolation if you die before you even reach the surface.

A hundred people - “The Mars 100” - have been chosen by Mars One as the longlist in their selection process for a one-way trip to Mars. The mission aims to establish permanent human life on Mars by 2025, and the competitive open application process (asking “who wants to kill themselves on another planet and have Earthlings watch you do so in amusement on reality television”?) has had the interest of more than 200,000 applicants from at least 140 countries. All 100 Martian martyrs are happy to take the next leap for mankind, or die trying - or so they think.

Applicants have been awarded points and levels depending on how much money they "donated" to Mars One, and filtering the list reveals the highest pointer and leveller are Christian O Knudsen and Steve Schild respectively. Of all of the 100 candidates, a total of 40 finalists will be chosen to train for the mission. For the rest of us who are content with where we already live - or who are annoyed at missing out - here are just some of the reasons why Mars isn’t good for humans:

The atmosphere isn’t breathable
Breathe in Mars' air and you’ll suffocate and die in about three minutes. Mars doesn’t have much of an atmosphere; it’s about 100 times thinner than Earth’s in fact, so you’d struggle to breathe at all. Its atmospheric pressure is so below the limit for human survival that your saliva and the interior of your lungs would boil. If you do get a chance to breathe it’ll be predominately carbon dioxide, which, at such a low pressure, wouldn’t do the damage it could. Unless you have an indestructible spacesuit and an unlimited supply to oxygen (which, by the way, Mars has virtually none of) you’re as good as dead.

It’s cold - really, really cold
We assume Mars isn’t cold because we only see ice at the poles, but that’s because it’s dry and thin. Experiencing  Antarctica would be like a nice summer’s day out compared to Mars. 

Mars’ thin atmosphere means it’s unable to retain heat energy. To add insult into injury, it’s farther from the sun than Earth, meaning its temperature can reach a low of -153oC near the poles and, at best, at high of 20oC during the summer near the equator. The temperature can change drastically within one week, making it a dangerous playground for fragile, delicate creatures such as humans. Its temperature variations can also often result in global dust storms lasting for weeks, which can block as much as 99 per cent of sunlight, clogging electronics and interfering with solar-powered equipment. If that equipment is used to grow or cook food, starving to death is highly likely.

Deadly UV radiation
Due to the virtually non-existent atmosphere, Mars has in high levels of UV radiation, limiting the time spent on the surface without protection - otherwise the chances of you getting skin cancer will rise. Gold spacesuits and SPF 9000 anyone?

Low gravity
Mars’ gravity is much lower than Earth’s - about 62 per cent lower. So, for a person whose mass is 100kg on Earth, they’ll feel as if they weigh a mere 38 kg when on Mars.

Nobody knows whether humans could remain healthy long term in Martian gravity, but we know from other space missions that prolonged time in zero gravity can lead to bone loss at a rate of about 1 per cent per month, muscle atrophy at a rate of about 5 per cent per week and blood loss at a rate of 22 per cent in just a few days (a possible major contributing factor to heart atrophy). The record for the longest time spent in space goes to Valeri Polyakov, who spent almost 438 days on the Russian space station Mir in 1994 and '95. Living in zero gravity for so long meant he suffered from muscle and bone loss on his return to Earth. 

Long-term exposure to low gravity can also lead to serious vision problems. Unless you want to spend all day in a tank harnessed to a treadmill - meaning no time for the main objective of Martian exploration - you’re likely to suffer physical damage beyond repair after a relatively short amount of time.

You’d get bored to death of the scenery
The landscape of Mars wouldn’t hold the attention of human eyes for too long. Some photos of Mars might seem amazing, but these have been digitally enhanced with white balance so geologists can analyse the rock types. The naked human eye will interpret the sky and land as dull homogenous reddish-grey or brown.

How would you even get there?
As advanced as we think we are, humans are not yet capable of producing the type of technology needed to successfully land humans on Mars. “Mars is pretty far away," Nasa's director of the International Space Station, Sam Scimemi, said during a conference. "It's six orders of magnitude further than the space station. We would need to develop new ways to live away from the Earth and that's never been done before. Ever."

Travelling to Mars poses issues such as fuel shortages, designing (within our current capabilities) the right spacecraft to operate such as mission and how on (or off) Earth we’re able to keep astronauts alive - and this is after overcoming the inherent risks involved in launching any spacecraft, let alone a human-carrying one, as we all well know. There's little room for error.

In 2013, MIT researchers developed a detailed settlement-analysis tool to assess the feasibility of the Mars One mission. Their study, published last year, contained an estimate for how long they thought this mission would go before the first fatality. The answer: 68 days.

So is this mission technically and financially feasible at all? Not very, or at least not yet - the farthest any human has travelled from Earth is 400,000 km, and that was sort of by accident (the Apollo 13 accident). Mars’ average distance from Earth is about 225 million km away - and given the state of current space technology (which won’t magically improve overnight even if enough money is thrown at it), the candidates are unlikely to last 68 seconds on Mars, let alone 68 days, even if they even get there.

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
Show Hide image

Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.

Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.

Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.

The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”

Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”

The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.

Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.