I’ve always thought that Mars was a step too far too fast and wasn’t a practical proposition. Mars is effectively like the moon in atmosphere and survivability. You just can survive a few more seconds on Mars if something goes wrong. There is an atmosphere on the moon, but it so tenuous that you can consider it the closest to being a vacuum without being a vacuum. Mars isn’t that much better, with the atmosphere having a pressure of less than 1/100th that of earth and almost pure carbon dioxide so is very similar except if you hit it at ultrasonic speeds. Given the almost a year trip and a year return, as long as Mars and Earth are in the correct positions, we just don’t have the level of systems integration at present to make the trip, even if the crew could survive the radiation. If the calculations are wrong and the windows are missed, then it could add as much as a year to the trip or stay, and a two year planet to planet route would be particularly unhealthy. Are we going a bit too far too fast? Mars is a much more glamorous and fashionable than the moon, a place that is considered dead and uninteresting to all but the scientists these days.
The fact is that any settlement that is constructed on the moon would probably be suitable for settlement on Mars and vice versa. Mars has a lot more dust, so rather than being the advantage of a planet over a moon is a distinct disadvantage, although a 100 mile per hour wind wouldn’t even be noticed on mars, being somewhere near one of the weakest of earthly breezes. So virtually all aspects of habitability would work on the moon, and if it wouldn’t work on the moon, would probably not work on Mars.
We have seen in many programmes devoted to the Mars project, simulated conditions in various remote places on earth, but they all had one difference. They all had a full terrestrial atmosphere, and people could be pulled out of them within an hour. Without it, they simulate next to nothing, basically playing at exploration in a similar manner to children building a house out of chairs, even if you simulated the effects of a much lower gravity.
To fully simulate an environment that is as close to Mars as possible, you need to look no further than the moon. You can test as to the practicality of most Mars things in an environment that does not have a year or two between problems and unlikely rescue. Unless it was catastrophic, you could arrange help at short notice, especially if you had craft standing by for that purpose. On Mars help could be as much as two years away, by which time a trivial problem could escalate into a terminal one.
Water and carbon dioxide in small amounts is what Mars does have, but the oxygen would need to be not only disassociated from carbon, but would need to be concentrated to a level 60 times its current density. It would need to be concentrated first as probably the disassociation would not work unless it was at a certain pressure. You can’t easily disassociate next to nothing. Recently it has been found that the moon is not the bare rock of imagination, but may harbour resources such as water in some craters, and rock contains a fair amount of oxygen. If you’re not at least prepared to investigate disassociation of powdered rock, you will have problems with doing it with water.
When you have the systems working on the moon, and proven to have worked for a period of years, that is the time to raise your sights to Mars. If you can’t do that, it is pretty reckless and to rely on the long-term space durability of what are untried and untested levels of confidence.
At our current levels of technology and systems integration, I’m personally expecting attempts by at least the first three crews to end in total loss of all astronauts. If this happens it might damage space research and travel for the next 50 years, if it ever recovers. You think public opinion was damaged by shuttle disasters, such things happening when prior warned would destroy it and possibly the space program, then maybe game over for life.
But where are we in terms of survivability of the species and all life on this planet?
It’s an interesting thing as to the state of the sun and earth. Using the carbon-14 absorbed by live and buried trees we are in a level of the highest sun spot activity for 8,000 years, although it’s been the weakest solar maximum for 100 years. It seems to go through a 100-year pattern of waxing and waning. The sun also has an 11 year cycle for sun spot minimums and maximums where you can get long lived coronal holes which in low periods seem to allow for more effective coronal discharges. Adding to that the earth’s magnetic field seems to be in the process of quickly changing, being speeding up over the past 100 years and now being 15% less than 200 years ago and still reducing. Such a thing causes a very weak electromagnetic barrier because of long-term instability; we may be heading for a major problem over the next 50-100 years if there is a major discharge that targets the earth. The earth’s magnetic field changed 781,000 years ago and usually changes every 200-250 thousand years, so it’s long overdue. It’s an interesting thing that mankind in it’s present form has gone from primitive tools to landing on the moon in about 15,000 years, and we’ve been roughly around in our present form and intelligence for maybe 30 times that. Is there something that regularly reduces civilization to a point at the start of an iron age, reutilising any metal that can be found? Are we now waiting for the perfect solar storm? Or are we leaving our chance to late?
The moon is a bit close, but the death of the earth and everything on it is certain. It’s just a question of mankind leaving it in time to not become extinct with all the rest of the creatures on it. If we don’t, taking some with us, it’s guaranteed they will all go extinct as well at that point.
That said, if there is no chance of changing the minds of the people involved, as fashion can be very fickle, then we must give them the best chance at survival we can.
Radiation is going to be a major problem. It’s said that earth is protected by an electromagnetic shield from the earths core, which allows life to flourish without too much damage. Now that shield does not apply to just earth, as there is some effect in all of earth’s local area, including possibly as far as the moon to a small extent. The International Space Station orbits at about 250 miles from the surface, almost certainly within the major confines of that field, so has a certain amount of protection. A craft travelling between planets would have no such protection as soon as it left earth’s orbit, so we will need to have as much protection as possible for those astronauts as part of the construction of the craft. It would not help it the astronauts were totally incapacitated by radiation sickness when they reach their destination. An electromagnetic system like earths is possible, but the required power levels needed would likely make it very impractical except for a massive craft.
An initial Mars craft would probably need to be of an onion design consisting of plastic concentric balloon layers that could be inflated with something like hydrogen fuel or water from tanks when leaving earths orbit, and pumping it back into them at arrival at each end. The layers would have lower pressures as they progress outward, the innermost at the highest, the layer next to space the most tenuous. This would also give a much safer buffer area against such things as meteorite puncture. The supplies could form another layer within those layers, but around the crew quarters. The layers would be flat against the side when not inflated by using a semi-vacuum and possibly have internal metal coatings to increase protection. The layers could be like those under bed vacuum bags. If the craft could spin it would help distribute and keep the inflated protection in place.
You could also put a number of pre-launched supply stations orbiting between earth and mars that had the potential to return to earth or onto mars, so they could act as base camps. If used, they could travel onto and orbit mars and be replaced by identical unused ones. This could give mars orbiting stations that could not only act as lifeboats but also retransmission stations.
The key to storage of food is to have a method by which standard compounds that would not suffer biological degeneration by radiation could be used to construct simple carbohydrates, fats, proteins and amino acids. If they are heavily irradiated such compounds would suffer less damage and requiring disposal, as it is always easier to construct non-life generated versions that will have lesser problems being used as food by the astronauts or hydroponic type systems. If you can construct from scratch, it lessens the impact.
The next thing is habitation. It would be nice to have it on the surface, or build a reinforced cave out of mars clay ala Martian, but all you really need to do is have a large balloon reinforced with internal cables and inflate in within a suitable cave. Living on the surface is very hazardous on Mars, so a subterranean existence, only venturing onto the surface when necessary is a must. You can drill for minerals on the surface, but it is very much harder than being underground and drilling for minerals, and even finding sub-surface water.
Using airlocks to tunnel out to find other caves and resources is much easier, solar power, nuclear reactors and possibly thermocouples being the main sources of power.
Another option is to ‘borrow’ a very small asteroid, manoeuvring it into earths orbit, then using the drilling and the inflation method above, to hollow it out and use it to travel between planets. If the asteroid was given an off centre mass, you could spin it in and out of orbits using carefully timed blasts accumulating to escape velocities. Positioning the crew compartments at a suitable point inside might even give them an artificial gravity at full spin, or having an internal counter spin if this is not practical. You would then have a lot of rock or ice if you prefer to protect the crew from radiation, plus a facility for lots of storage units.
Alternatives to space travel for survivability of our current sets of DNA. We cannot tell when a solar or stellar catastrophe wipes out the planet. We know it is certain, but are unaware of the timing. So to allow for continuation it might be possible to send out our DNA and others of important species in some durable form in what I call continuation pods. We have this penchant for making sure out equipment is completely sterile to stop contamination of results, but this in fact works totally against survivability of our DNA. If earthly bound life is unique, listening to people who put their own personal investigations above the continuance of all life are sadly misguided, putting their own interests in science before their obligation to life kind as a whole, and short sighted scientifically. A planet without technology or life cannot further science, and everything that has been learnt will be lost. I have read with aghast at comments about not contaminating Mars and jeopardising the ultimate survival of mankind, as it might interfere with their research.
Interstellar space is a very hazardous and dangerous place to send anything, so a good alternative would be to launch such a pod to outer planets or moons, possibly Mars as well that could land and burrow into the rock or ice, preserving its contents using the cold and/or rock barrier.