I originally wrote articles about the idea last year, but since it has again cropped up, I thought I’d republish them.
The article today is A One-Way, One-Person Mission to Mars, describing, oddly enough, what is in the title, a proposal made recently by Jim McLane, a former NASA employee, although he is not the only one who has considered such a mission in times past.
Despite the name of the proposal, this is not to be a suicide mission in which one man is sent to live on his own in the wilds of Mars, slowly running and repairing equipment until his food supplies ends and he dies from starvation. It is, instead, a situation designed as a predecessor to either a future return mission (negating, in many ways, the one-way nature of the trip), or the first stage in the creation of a Mars station, with, again, the possibility of eventual return to Earth.
As the article mentions, many of the technological hurdles that exist come in the form of the return trip, and the hurdles necessary to overcome in order to make such a trip possible. This is why it was possible for Apollo to make it to the Moon, circle it, and return back to Earth several times before using the lunar lander module and returning to their craft. For Mars, there is also the issue of a much higher gravitational field, as well as the complications incurred by passing through a turbulent atmosphere. While there have been multiple safe landings upon the Martian surface, most famously that of Spirit and Endeavour, there have, as of yet, been no experience with lifting off of that planet’s surface, and so human technological expertise flows in the direction of landing, but not of exiting.
There is the inherent assumption that because the crew size is smaller, and thus the weight of the crew and the desire for consumables, that the overall weight of the mission will be less. What this sidesteps is that there is a greater need for fuel and for other life-giving supplies, assuming a duration of stay concomitant with a launch frame of every twenty-six months, stated as the average period between probable journeys, as well as a likely desire to provide either transportation, additional scientific instrumentation, or simply spare parts, material that would occupy the time and energy of the single living Martian.
Of course, many of these things can be landed prior to, or, after the landing, in the vicinity of, the human arrival upon the planet, but this contains therein an issue of its own: that of the safe landing and retrieval of materials provided to the astronaut that did not travel within his hold. Transport on the Martian surface would be provided for either by pedestrian movement wearing a spacesuit, or some form of buggy or other small, mobile, mechanical transport. In either case, the range is limited, as well as the carrying capacity, and that means that either a great deal of travel back and forth between the landed cargo vessels and the presumed home base, built in the location of the passenger vessel’s landing.
Given the duration of the mission, there is a need for mechanical devices that are fully and completely redundant, even more than on missions to space due to the lesser technical expertise (one man can simply not do as much as two or more), as well as the longer duration, as this would likely double or triple the longest time ever currently spent in an off-world environment.
However, what this mission does have, that those currently under examination do not, is a spark, a sense of adventure. It certainly seems far more likely to capture the public’s imagination than the repetitive shuttle launches and return to the Moon, a place that mankind visited forty years ago. That, alone, may well be worth the cost of the investment, especially if all of the material created, including the simple act of walking around, is captured and recorded through audiovisual technology. In the light of the modern era, a constantly streaming video-feed from Mars would garner a great deal of publicity, as well create ongoing interest.
Living conditions on Mars, as they are on any-nonterrestrial land to which we have the possibility of access, is harsh and exposed, with none of the amenities that are normally available. Rather than to help ease and enjoy life, the role of technology is simply to sustain life, to make it possible for macro-organic life to inhabit the planet. With a human being, there are three basic needs: air, water, food, and they can be arranged in that order of importance. For the retrieval of air, there are all of the standard options involving bottled oxygen, scrubbers that chemically break CO2 back down into O2, and plants, although the amount of oxygen generated by photosynthetic plants is simply not enough to sustain human life, although it can provide some small assistance. Plants are much more valuable as reusable food resources. Due to the experience with underwater and space environments, the issue is not developing tools, but rather improving the efficiency and longevity of the tool, so that they are effective over the timespan of the mission. Given that the minimum time would be at least two years, due to launch windows, I would recommend a minimal duration requirement of ten years, simply due to safety concerns.
Water, would, like air, be scarce, especially if the Mars mission landed away from the polar caps where there is a greater likelihood of ice forming and being convertible into a form suitable for human consumption. Unlike air, water is far harder to package in a small space, and, as with air, a recycling system would be the most necessary apparatus. Food is more difficult, because it is close to impossible to recycle food in a volume of sufficient quantity to feed an adult human male. This would necessitate a great deal of food being brought in by supply vessels, resulting in several of the issues discussed in the prior instalment.
Pursuant to the matters discussed above is the habitat in which the astronaut resides, and it is one in which a few limitations are placed. The first is ease of construction. There will be but one man in a spacesuit, and he must be able to create the habitat within a few hours, in order to ensure that there is sufficient protection from environmental hazards in a timely fashion. This necessitates either living within the landing capsule, or within a, probably inflatable, structure that is at the same time capable of shrugging off most of the harsh environmental, especially the storms and excesses of radiation.
What may well be the best is a combination of the two, one that relies upon the metallic structure and strong supports of the spacecraft as a retreat in time of urgency, as well as the sleeping quarters, while the inflatable section enables the space required for less important tasks. Also, if the vessel is designed in that manner, as supplies are slowly used from the cargo hold, it will expand the liveable area aboard the vessel. This would require internal portals to travel from the passenger area into the cargo. A vessel of the required form is feasible, but whilst space agencies have little experience in dealing with planetary conditions that do not match Earth’s own, it is likely that the technology will not be pushed in the proper direction. Reliability comes with time, and that time has not yet occurred.
Due to the possible reliability issues and necessary volume of supplies, it is without question that the launches of unmanned cargo vessels continue unabated, both before and after the arrival of the initial astronaut. Also, the mission must result in a relatively inexpensive transit both to and from the Red Planet, otherwise much of the purpose behind the mission has been lost. Exploration without the possibility of colonization abrogates the primary reason behind that exploration, and so it is incumbent upon any who journey beyond the Earth to do so in a manner that allows repetition of their exploits.
This did not quite go in the expected direction, but is hopefully informative nonetheless. Part #3 will likely conclude the series, with a discussion based around tasks and follow-on missions (again).