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Why “The Martian” will not get stuck on Mars – by accident

Why “The Martian” will not get stuck on Mars – by accident

by Bas Lansdorp on Thursday, 8th October 2015 in Expert Opinions, People, Bas Lansdorp

Have you already seen the movie 'The Martian'? It's about a NASA astronaut, Mark Watney, who is part of NASA's third mission to Mars and how he gets stranded on Mars. The movie is about NASA and the rest of the world doing everything in their power to bring him back.

I watched the film and I really liked it. It is technically pretty accurate, but has one major inconsistency with reality: it may sound logical and appealing to bring the stranded Mars astronaut back to Earth, but it is not going to happen. I don't believe humans will fly from Mars to Earth any time soon, certainly not by the time of the third human mission to Mars. 

Here are the five most important reasons why the first humans going to Mars, are going there to stay.

1. Technology: Going to Mars is hard, but NASA has already successfully landed seven (unmanned) missions on Mars. For a return mission, we'd need to develop rockets that are much larger than anything flying today and we'd need to land systems on Mars that are 40 times heavier than anything landed today. Moreover, launching rockets is difficult, even from Earth. In the last 30 years, more than 5% of the rocket launches didn't get their payload in the right orbit, sometimes because the rocket exploded. These are rockets that are checked in the days and weeks before departure by hundreds or thousands of engineers, launching from well equipped launch facilities. How can we even imagine doing that from a different planet, where there is only one crew to support the launch? There is no Cape Canaveral on Mars.

2. Risk: The trip to Mars is not without risk, which applies to both the return and the settlement mission. For the return mission, the crew will have to be launched from Mars. Back to 1969 for a second: The Lunar Ascent stage was 'tested' on the Moon for the first time with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin inside. Taking such a risk is not acceptable today. I think you'd have to test the launch of an unmanned return mission from Mars, identical to the manned mission, at least once before you risk the lives of the crew. Such an unmanned return mission will certainly add to the timeline and the cost of the return mission, but might actually be practically (almost?) impossible without the support of a single human on the surface. Even after a successful launch, there are still a number of single points of failure: docking the Mars Ascent Vehicle with the crew return vehicle, the rocket burn to send the ship back to Earth, re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere with the highest speed ever. All risks that are not part of a settlement mission.

3. Funding: Developing more capable rockets, larger landing systems, and a Martian launch capability takes a lot of time and money. A lot more hardware needs to be sent to Mars to facilitate the return trip: The Mars ascent vehicle, the crew return vehicle, the Earth re-entry capsule, the fuel for the ascend vehicle or the systems to produce the fuel, and a few more major systems that I have not mentioned here. The cost of transportation increases dramatically compared to a settlement mission where people stay on Mars. With an increased timeline and higher cost, the mission becomes exponentially harder to fund. 

4. The human body: on the way to Mars, on a trip that takes about seven months, humans lose bone and muscle mass because they are in a zero gravity environment. They land on Mars weakened, which is okay because Mars' gravity is only 40% that of the Earth. But after a month or a year on Mars, the crew will need to go back: another seven months in zero-g. After that, we need those humans to enter the Earth's atmosphere with the highest velocity ever, and therefore very high g-loads. The human body can't cope with that. Then there is radiation: staying on Mars halves the time the crew is exposed to the radiation environment of interplanetary Space. There are solutions for both problems, but they all increase the demands on technology and funding.

5. Efficiency: Even if we can solve all the problems above, I would ask why? Why send humans there that want to return? It will always take more time, money, effort, and risk to bring them back, even if going back were possible. Mars is a whole new planet to explore. There is enough work for millions of humans to work full time on making Mars our second home. 200,000 people have applied to go on Mars One's first mission. Why send humans who want to return when there are hundreds of thousands that would actually prefer to stay?

Let's have a look at the history of exploration: From 250,000 until 50,000 years ago, humans lived only in the west of Africa. For reasons unknown, groups of humans started to leave their home land. Continent by continent was settled until 10,000 years ago humans were living on all continents.

“One Way” was the way to go for a really long time. Even a few decades ago, most intercontinental travellers bought one way tickets on ocean liners. Return trips between continents, especially in planes, were a luxury only to be enjoyed by company executives, important politicians, and rock stars.

People leaving Africa 50,000 years ago and early settlers moving to the New World just centuries ago were often leaving home to go to places that had more risks and worse living conditions: dangerous environments, bad housing, and worse medical care. The trip took weeks or months, was usually not much fun and was not without risk. But the people going had the explorer's gene and they went anyway.

Mars astronauts will not be stranded on Mars by accident. They will go to Mars with the goal of becoming Martians. They will understand all the risks associated with the mission and they will be trained for survival and tested for their ability to leave their life on Earth behind. They will be settlers who do not even want to go back to Earth.

They will be the start of a thriving community that will one day be able to send a Martian back to Earth.

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