“I want to die on Mars,” said Elon Musk last year. “Just not on impact.” The 42-year-old was not being flippant; he plans to use the $9bn he acquired through business ventures such as PayPal to leave earth’s orbit for ever. He believes it is the only way for the human race to guard against the fragility of life on a single planet, at the mercy of a supervolcano, asteroid strike or nuclear war.
Musk’s enthusiasm has energised a new phase of the space race: the conquest of Mars. Just over a decade ago, the US space programme looked severely dented, if not moribund. The explosion of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003 was both a human tragedy (all seven astronauts died) and a PR disaster for Nasa. Its space shuttle fleet was grounded for two years while the cause of the accident – a faulty foam block – was confirmed, and for a while it looked as if the Americans would need to cadge a lift if they wanted to get into orbit again. In his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Chris Hadfield describes that time as “one of the lowest points in Nasa’s history” and recalls that “many Americans were grimly questioning why tax dollars were being spent on such a dangerous endeavour as space exploration in the first place”.
Now, the picture could not be more different. Around the world, an unlikely alliance of tech billionaires, state agencies and private contractors is increasingly confident that, within 20 to 30 years, human beings will once again be striking out further than anyone has gone before.
The next big prize in the space race is the second-smallest planet in the solar system, a barren desert buffeted by 100mph winds, covered in the fine iron oxide dust that gives it its distinctive colour – Mars, the Red Planet.
To get there, our species must overcome four types of challenge: technical, economic, physical and psychological. The first is in some ways the easiest, or at least the most straightforward. We need better engines, and probably better fuel, too. “We can go to the moon with the engines we have, but we can’t go beyond,” Hadfield told me when I met him in London in December, just six months after he returned from his third trip to the International Space Station. “It’s crazy to accelerate for 12 minutes and then coast for six months.” When launching probes such as Rosetta, it is possible to use the gravitational pull of the planets and the moon as a kind of slingshot. But that method is too slow for a manned spaceflight.
“All the slingshot does is change direction, really,” Hadfield says. “You can do it through this long, laborious process of dipping into the atmosphere, but it takes months – and if you have a crew on board, they’re eating food and going to the bathroom, and wearing out contact lenses … it’s impractical. We can’t provide enough tuna for people for a two-year voyage; it’s crazy.”
He believes the answer might be ion propulsion, using electrically charged particles to create thrust: “Instead of putting a large amount of fuel out of the back pretty fast, you want to put a tiny amount out extremely fast.” Nasa already uses ion propulsion in small spacecraft such as the Deep Space 1 and Dawn probes, but it requires a sizeable input of power, and to scale it up to move people would be a huge challenge. “You probably need a nuclear power plant, and that’s really hard to launch safely,” Hadfield says drily. Nonetheless, he is optimistic. “You could have said exactly the same thing about cars in 1895 or airplanes in 1940: we can’t possibly make this work until we have new engines. We’re in the 1910 phase of rocket engines – we can do it, but it’s dangerous, and it doesn’t work all that well.”
Gathering enough speed to reach Mars is only half of the problem, though. The other half is stopping when you get there. The planet has stronger gravity than the moon – it’s 38 per cent of earth’s, whereas the moon is 17 per cent – and a very thin atmosphere, which does not generate much drag to slow a descent. “The atmosphere really just gets in the way,” says Tom Jones, who flew four space shuttle missions between 1994 and 2001, when I reach him on the phone. “It’s not thick enough to use a parachute for any appreciable deceleration.”
Preparing to land the Curiosity rover on Mars in August 2012, Nasa realised that the dust kicked up by a high-speed landing could damage the vehicle’s sensitive instruments, so it developed a system known as the Sky Crane. Essentially, after a parachute had slowed down the craft as much as possible, the rover detached from it, attached to a rocket-powered platform. The platform controlled its descent until the rover could be lowered safely, then explosive charges cut the cords between the two. The platform then flew off to crash-land.
Curiosity on the surface of Mars. Image: Nasa
The Sky Crane worked perfectly, but again – it won’t scale to a human-sized craft. “The minimum size for a rocket lander that would put a couple of people and their supplies for a year and a half on the surface of Mars is something like 60 or 70 tonnes,” says Jones. “We have a huge jump in technology to go from putting one tonne on the surface with the Sky Crane technology that Curiosity used last year, with airbags for the prior landers, to something that’s capable of putting down human crew and their supplies.”
Even if we did make it down successfully, there is a whole new set of challenges in staying alive for more than a couple of seconds. “The atmosphere of Mars has a density of 1 per cent of the earth’s and it is 95 per cent carbon dioxide,” says the astrobiologist Louisa Preston, a researcher at the Open University. “If a human being stood on the surface of Mars and took a deep breath … well, they wouldn’t be able to, because there’s not enough atmosphere, but what they did breathe in would probably kill them within three minutes.”
Trying to navigate the conditions on Mars is a sobering reminder that the “envelope” in which human life can thrive is tiny. The temperature on the planet is roughly -60°C, which might not be a problem in itself (human being live on research bases in Antarctica, where it can reach -90°), except that it can also change rapidly. Your equipment might be able to cope at low temperatures, but can it deal with a swing from 2°C to -90° in a single day?
The planet is also plagued by “dust devils”, tornados full of particles, like the ones on earth, only 50 times bigger. In the past, these have helped Martian rovers by cleaning accumulated grime off their solar panels, but a gigantic storm could abrade or even destroy vital infrastructure. (Because of the low pressure, if you stood in the middle of a 100mph dust devil, you wouldn’t feel much of a wind, but your equipment might get irreparably clogged with grains of sand.)
Preston’s research focuses on another technology that is vital to long-term colonisation of Mars: gardening. “It’s in the realms of science fiction, but we have an idea of essentially terraforming – where you could change the surface of Mars by creating a more earthlike atmosphere, and you could do that by planting acres and acres of grassland and trees.” She concedes such marked changes are centuries away, and in the short term there is an international agreement not to contaminate the soil of the moon or Mars with any terrestrial algae or bacteria; we might finally have learned the lessons of ship rats, or taking rabbits to Australia. But she insists: “If you’re going to move to Mars, you want to go with plants.”
We should be able to hydrate them without bringing water all the way over from Planet Earth: Mars has ice, and it is looking more likely it might have flowing streams, too, judging by the tracks the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has recently found on its surface. There may even be life on Mars, though it’s more likely to be “extremophile” bacteria than little green men.
One thing that any Mars mission will need is money, lots of it. It cost between $20bn and $23bn to get to the moon in 1969, when the median yearly wage was about $6,000. In 2009, Nasa calculated that the Apollo programme, with its six moon landings, cost roughly $170bn at current prices.
In an age of austerity, where will that kind of money come from? The obvious answer is the private sector: Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is probably the highest-profile commercial operation, but its short-term ambitions are relatively limited. Although technically it goes into space – defined as crossing the Kármán Line, 100 kilometres above sea level – its passengers will get only a couple of minutes of weightlessness in return for their $250,000 ticket. (When I ask Chris Hadfield if he’d take a free ride, he replies diplomatically: “Oh, sure . . but you know, it’s quite expensive. I am so spoiled; I’ve had a tremendous experience.”)
Yet Virgin is far from the only player. A company called Planetary Resources, with a line-up of backers including the director of Avatar, James Cameron, and Google’s Larry Page, wants to mine asteroids. In 2012 Elon Musk’s SpaceX became the first private company to send a spacecraft to the ISS under a $1.6bn deal with Nasa. And the not-for-profit B612 Foundation wants to comb the skies for anything that might be on a collision course with us, to help stop a real-life remake of Armageddon.
Musk’s ambitions are the most expansive: he sees SpaceX as his ticket away from this poky planet and on to a new colony off-world. But, for any of the nascent private spaceflight companies, the discovery of valuable minerals in space, along with the technology to mine them, would create a version of the gold rush. As the former astronaut Sandra Magnus, now the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, put it to me: “If somebody finds a way to, say, bring an asteroid here [to mine it], it’s a game-changer … because now you have the entrepreneurial spirit. The risk/reward totally changes and governments almost are totally out of the equation. It could be 20 years, it could be 100 years, but eventually that’s going to happen.”
Much has been made, too, of the increasing interest from emerging economies in spaceflight. Last year, China’s Jade Rover became the first spacecraft to land on the moon since 1976. When it malfunctioned before powering down to survive the lunar night, it was “mourned” across social media. (There is something slightly pathetic about the thought of rovers sitting on a distant world, all alone: Nasa’s Curiosity played “Happy Birthday” to itself on 5 August, the first anniversary of its landing on Mars.)
Where the “space race” was once characterised by competition, now co-operation is the order of the day. Since Nasa retired the shuttle, its astronauts have relied on the Russian Soyuz module to get to the International Space Station, crushing the hopes of all those strapping Americans who are too tall to fit in the smaller craft. There are three countries represented aboard the ISS: Russia with Mikhail Tyurin, Sergey Ryazansky and Oleg Kotov; America with Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio; and Japan, with Koichi Wakata. Chris Hadfield – the best-known astronaut of recent times, thanks to his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” going viral on YouTube – is Canadian.
Because of this global alliance, the official languages of the ISS are English and Russian and all astronauts are expected to know both. “You have to remember that we all train together internationally as a group,” says Magnus. “All the time, you hear French or Spanish, German or Russian or Swedish or whatever in the hallways.” For her, this co-operation is one of the most “impressive, intangible benefits of the space station programme – the fact we made it work. All of these cultures, all of these languages, all of these different approaches to solving engineering problems, all these national agendas, the English system versus the metric system … you name it, we made it work.”
The private-sector companies aiming to go to Mars are replicating this international approach. Mars One, a project set up by the Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, announced that it would accept applications in any of the 11 languages most commonly used by people on the internet: English, Arabic, French, German, Indonesian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, or Korean. Among the 1,058 candidates through to the second round were people from Uzbekistan, Rwanda, El Salvador, the Maldives and Saudi Arabia.
Several of Louisa Preston’s students applied for Mars One, though she didn’t fancy it. “I don’t mind being in a tin can, but I don’t like the idea of not coming back. They’ve got eight to ten years of training and education before they actually get to go, and in that ten years, what are the chances of you meeting somebody, getting married, wanting to have kids … and you just can’t do any of it because you know you’re leaving and not coming back? I couldn’t do it. They’re much stronger than I am.”
This brings us to the final element of any Mars mission, the moving part that is most likely to break down: those delicate sacs of organic tissue that need to be kept warm and dry, kept hydrated and fed, allowed to evacuate their waste, and to be protected from the vacuum of space. The humans.
On 3 June 2010, six men stepped inside a suspended module at Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems. The series of interconnected tubes, just 180 square metres in total (the average British home has only 96.8 square metres of floor space) was to be their home for the next 520 days. It had been designed to represent as accurately as possible the conditions that human beings attempting to travel to Mars would endure. These “astronauts” would eat dehydrated food, exercise in the gym, and visit a sauna to rub themselves down with napkins rather than take a shower. Three of them even got the chance to “spacewalk” in the sandy car park, converted to give it a passing resemblance to the Red Planet.
Although one woman had been involved in an earlier, shorter trip in the Mars mission simulator, no woman was chosen for this year-and-a-half-long stretch. A similar test in 1999 turned chaotic when the Russian captain forcibly kissed the only female crew member, a 32-year-old Canadian health specialist called Judith Lapierre. “We should try kissing, I haven’t been smoking for six months,” he reportedly told her. “Then we can kiss after the mission and compare it. Let’s do the experiment now.” Two of her Russian crew mates then had a fight so violent that it left blood splattered on the walls, prompting another member of the team, a Japanese man, to quit. Lapierre stayed only after the astronauts were allowed to put locks on their bedroom doors.
Luckily, the most recent Mars 500 mission faced no such problems. Its astronauts emerged on 4 November 2011, looking pale but healthy, the capsule’s walls apparently free from bodily fluids. But the experiment was not an unqualified boost to humanity’s hopes of getting to Mars. Four of the crew suffered sleep problems during the 17-month mission, probably related to the lack of natural daylight and close confinement. One was sleeping on average half an hour less each night by the time he left the simulation: a seemingly small difference, but one that could have had a big impact on his ability to carry out complicated tasks under pressure. Scientists monitoring the men concluded that they had, in effect, gone into hibernation. “This looks like something you see in birds in the winter,” said David Dinges at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who led the study.
The record for continuous time in space is 437 days, a title held by Dr Valeri Polyakov since his second stint on the Russian space station Mir in 1994-95. Like most astronauts, he experienced a loss of bone density because of the lack of gravity, although he recovered when he got back to earth. The ISS is now equipped with specially adapted gym equipment to offset this problem: there are treadmills with harnesses to ground you on the running belt. But at present there is no way to replicate the effect of gravity on your hips and upper femurs; without a load to bear, the load-bearing part of your skeleton wastes away.
Probably the easiest way to solve this is to design a fancier exercise machine, rather than create artificial gravity: there’s already a gizmo on the ISS that uses an evacuated cylinder to mimic resistance, which helps build leg and arm muscles. By contrast, artificial gravity involves “spinning things”, as Chris Hadfield puts it. “They’ve talked about having a tether, where you have a spaceship here and a mass at the other end, and spin them round each other. But tethers break and then you’re dead.” He pauses. “The moon has one-sixth gravity, which is probably enough to keep you healthy.” He doesn’t add: particularly if you’re never coming home to full-strength gravity anyway.
Illness will be a major concern of any long-term space mission. Hadfield knows this all too well, having nearly missed his final flight to the ISS after suffering an adhesion of his intestines to his abdominal wall caused by an old operation. (In the end, keyhole surgery freed the sticky glob of scar tissue and he was cleared to fly.)
Chris Hadfield lands in Kazakstan in May 2013. Photo: Getty
Being in space makes every medical problem a potential emergency. It’s not just the lack of doctors or equipment; it’s the confinement in a closed life-support system. On the 1968 Apollo 7 mission, Commander Wally Schirra developed a bad cold a few days in and passed it on to the other two crew. They became so bunged up – your sinuses don’t drain efficiently without the help of gravity – that they refused to wear helmets for landing, much to Nasa’s despair. On the next Apollo flight, one of the astronauts developed vomiting and diarrhoea (in mission log jargon, this was referred to coyly as “loose BM”). It left the inside of the spacecraft “full of small globules of vomit and faeces that the crew cleaned up to the best of their ability”, in the unimprovable words of Apollo 8’s Wikipedia entry.
Now, space agencies do as much as they can to mitigate sickness by quarantining crew members for several days before they get in a shuttle (astronauts also have to wear a nappy for launch because they are strapped in for so long). Yet even if you sterilise the craft and quarantine the crew it’s impossible to eliminate all pathogens.
When flights last months or years, there is the possibility of developing chronic or degenerative illnesses, too. Several astronauts have become depressed and withdrawn: one Russian on the ISS “checked out”, as Tom Jones describes it, and his crew mates had to cover his workload.
When you talk to scientists and former astronauts, this theme of human fragility emerges repeatedly. With the ISS, only 390 kilometres up, you can bail out and come home. On a longer mission, you can’t.
Since the Columbia shuttle disaster, Nasa has carried out extensive “war games” to test for the impact of astronauts’ death, liaising with the family, working out who will deal with the media, debating how to dispose of the body. That becomes even more vital when a Mars mission is on the cards. Oddly, half a century after Laika the dog orbited the earth for a few hours before expiring from overheating, many people would find it easier to accept the death of a person than an animal in space. After all, the human being chose to take the risk.
The last piece of the puzzle is the most intractable: can we cope psychologically with leaving the only home we’ve ever known? And can a small crew live in such a small space for so long without either retreating into themselves or having a punch-up? No one knows, but our experience so far provides useful indications of what not to do.
The space shuttle Atlantis. Photo: Getty
First, Sandra Magnus says, astronauts must be kept busy. “How many of us are just comfortable being couch potatoes, where we sit on the couch for 25 hours and don’t do anything else?” she asks. “We’re very busy on the space station. Even in our downtimes when we were ‘off from work’, there were things to do. Some of it was just taking pictures and cataloguing pictures, or watching movies and things like that.” It is unlikely that Mars colonists could surf the internet or chat with friends: there would be a 20-minute delay in communications with earth. (Even now, the internet on the ISS is so slow, it can barely stream YouTube videos.) And they couldn’t pass the time looking out of the window. As Tom Jones says, “Hadfield and I had the joy of looking at the earth if we cared to: it was always different, always amazing. When you’re on a cruise to Mars there won’t be anything to look at except the stars. And even then, if you have the cockpit lights turned up and you look out the windows, you’ll see just black.”
Second, astronauts need personal space. On the ISS everyone has a private cubicle, but a travelling craft is more crowded. “The shuttle was more like a camping trip, in that you would unroll your sleeping bag at the end of the day and stake your ground,” Magnus says. The selection of astronauts is crucial to cope with a confined space; Hadfield’s book describes how the alpha-male “Top Gun” test pilots of early Nasa missions have given way to more easygoing types. One suggestion, put forward by the non-profit Inspiration Mars Foundation, is that the ideal crew to send to Mars is a middle-aged married couple who are used to spending lots of time together; give them an allotment and a box set of Midsomer Murders and they’ll be happy as Larry.
Whatever the challenges in getting to Mars, everyone I asked was confident that they were not insurmountable. “I’d say 2040 is a reasonable guess [for the first flight],” says Jones.
The pioneering spirit that took us to the top of Everest and the bottom of the sea, that drives people to spend the winter imprisoned on an Antarctic research base, will always win out. Despite the risks – perhaps because of the risks – there are people alive today who probably will die on another planet. They’ll look up at the pale blue dot in the sky and, unlike any generation before them, that planet won’t be their home.