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The Advisability In Space Programs Of Living On Mars

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Buzz Aldrin once said, “By refocusing our space program on Mars for America’s future, we can restore the sense of wonder and adventure in space exploration that we knew in the summer of 1969. We won the moon race; now it’s time for us to live and work on Mars, first on its moons and then on its surface.” The possibilities and questions about if life on Mars, the red planet in the solar system, have been around for years. With new research, this possibility is becoming a more of a reality every day.

Before understanding the possibilities of living on Mars, it must be understood why humans cannot live on Mars now. The first main reason that humans cannot live on Mars is due to the climate. Mar experiences extreme colds that include temperatures down to-100o C (the freezing point of water is 0oC). Without technology, humans would never be able to live in these extreme temperatures. The air can get so cold on Mars that the carbon dioxide will sometimes freeze into dry ice (Walker). Another main reason humans cannot live on Mars is due to the extremely thin atmosphere. There is so little of an atmosphere on Mars that there might as well not be one at all. Per Robert Walker, “The pressure is so low, your saliva and the moisture coating the interior of your lungs would boil. The average Mars surface pressure is well below the 6% Armstrong limit which absolutely is the limit for human survival.” the average surface temperature, which is anything but hospitable. While temperatures around the equator at midday can reach a balmy 20 °C, at the Curiosity site – the Gale Crater, which is close to the equator – typical nighttime temperatures are as low as -70 °C.

The gravity on Mars is also only about 40% of what we experience on Earth’s, which would make adjusting to it quite difficult. According to a NASA report, the effects of zero-gravity on the human body are quite profound, with a loss of up to 5% muscle mass a week and 1% of bone density a month. And then there’s the atmosphere, which is unbreathable. About 95% of the planet’s atmosphere is carbon dioxide, which means that in addition to producing breathable air for their habitats, settlers would also not be able to go outside without a pressure suit and bottled oxygen.Mars also has no global magnetic field comparable to Earth’s geomagnetic field. Combined with a thin atmosphere, this means that a significant amount of ionizing radiation can reach the Martian surface.

Another reason humans cannot live on Mars is due to the extreme dust storms. NASA explains that Mars can produce dust storms so intense that the dust can be seen from telescopes on Earth. A planetary scientist at NASA also says, “Every year there are some moderately big dust storms that pop up on Mars and they cover continent-sized areas and last for weeks at a time.” Besides these common dust storms, global dust storms occur every 3 years (around 5 1/3 Earth years). These global dust storms cover the whole planet and are much more intense than the moderately big dust storms that appear more often (See Figure 1B). The intensity of the wind isn’t necessarily what makes these storms, but rather the lack of visibility that is produced from these. The particles that are blown during a dust storm are also slightly electrostatic, which means they stick to almost any surface they touch making it almost impossible to see if one were to encounter a dust storm (Mersmann).

The closest place in the universe where extraterrestrial life might exist is Mars, and human beings are poised to attempt to colonize this planetary neighbor within the next decade. Before that happens, we need to recognize that a very real possibility exists that the first human steps on the Martian surface will lead to a collision between terrestrial life and biota native to Mars.

If the red planet is sterile, a human presence there would create no moral or ethical dilemmas on this front. But if life does exist on Mars, human explorers could easily lead to the extinction of Martian life. Once humans start living on Mars, they will contaminate it with some of the 100 trillion micro-organisms in 10,000 different species that humans are host to. There is no way to avoid this. The rovers that are on Mars are sterilized to prevent contamination. when astronauts are sent to Mars, they’ll travel with life support and energy supply systems, habitats, 3D printers, food and tools. None of these materials can be sterilized in the same ways systems associated with robotic spacecraft can. Human colonists will produce waste, try to grow food and use machines to extract water from the ground and atmosphere. Simply by living on Mars, human colonists will contaminate Mars. (Walker).

Life in a Martian colony would be miserable, with people forced to live in artificially lit underground bases, or in thickly protected surface stations with severely minimized access to the outdoors. Life in this closed environment, with limited access to the surface, could result in other health issues related to exclusive indoor living, such as depression, boredom from lack of stimulus, an inability to concentrate, poor eyesight, and high blood pressure—not to mention a complete disconnect from nature. And like the International Space Station, Martian habitats will likely be a microbial desert, hosting only a tiny sample of the bacteria needed to maintain a healthy human microbiome.

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Another issue has to do with motivation. As Friedman pointed out earlier, we don’t see colonists living in Antarctica or under the sea, so why should we expect troves of people to want to live in a place that’s considerably more unpleasant? It seems a poor alternative to living on Earth, and certainly a major step down in terms of quality of life. A strong case could even be made that, for prospective families hoping to spawn future generations of Martian colonists, it’s borderline cruelty.

And that’s assuming humans could even reproduce on Mars, which is an open question. Casting aside the deleterious effects of radiation on the developing fetus, there’s the issue of conception to consider in the context of living in a minimal gravity environment. We don’t know how sperm and egg will act on Mars, or how the first critical stages of conception will occur. And most of all, we don’t know how low gravity will affect the mother and fetus.

Seidler, an expert in human physiology and kinesiology, said the issue of human gestation on Mars is a troublesome unknown. The developing fetus, she said, is likely to sit higher up in the womb owing to the lower gravity, which will press upon the mother’s diaphragm, making it hard for the mother to breathe. The low gravity may also “confuse” the gestational process, delaying or interfering with critical phases of the fetus’ development, such as the fetus dropping by week 39. On Earth, bones, muscles, the circulatory system, and other aspects of human physiology develop by working against gravity. It’s possible that the human body might adapt to the low-gravity situation on Mars, but we simply don’t know. An artificial womb might be a possible solution, but again, that’s not something we’ll have access to anytime soon, nor does it solve the low-gravity issue as it pertains to fetal development (unless the artificial womb is placed in a centrifuge to simulate gravity).

A strong case can be made that any attempt to procreate on Mars should be forbidden until more is known. Enforcing such a policy on a planet that’s 34 million miles away at its closest is another question entirely, though one would hope that Martian societies won’t regress to lawlessness and a complete disregard of public safety and established ethical standards.

For other colonists, the minimal gravity on Mars could result in serious health problems over the long term. Studies of astronauts who have participated in long-duration missions lasting about a year exhibit troubling symptoms, including bone and muscle loss, cardiovascular problems, immune and metabolic disorders, visual disorders, balance and sensorimotor problems, among many other health issues. These problems may not be as acute as those experienced on Mars, but again, we simply don’t know. Perhaps after five or 10 or 20 years of constant exposure to low gravity, similar gravity-related disorders will set in.

Seidler’s research into the effects of microgravity suggests it’s a distinct possibility. “Yes, there would be physiological and neural changes that would occur on Mars due to its partial-gravity environment,” she told Gizmodo. “It’s not clear whether these changes would plateau at some point. My work has shown an upward shift of the brain within the skull in microgravity, some regions of gray matter increases and others that decrease, structural changes within the brain’s white matter, and fluid shifts towards the top of the head.”

Seidler said some of these changes scale with the duration of microgravity exposure, from two weeks up to six months, but she hasn’t looked beyond that. “Some of these effects would have to eventually plateau—there is a structural limit on the fluid volume that the skull can contain, for example,” she said. “And, the nervous system is very adaptable. It can ‘learn’ how to control movements in microgravity despite the altered sensory inputs. But again, it’s unclear what the upper limits are.”

The effects of living in partial gravity compared to microgravity may not be as severe, she said, but in either case, different sensory inputs are going into the brain, as they’re not loaded by weight in the way they’re used to. This can result in a poor sense of balance and compromised motor functions.

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The Advisability In Space Programs Of Living On Mars. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 27, 2022, from
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