The concept of Mars as the next most habitable planet has sparked an urge to investigate that has led to the discussion of sending a crew to Mars very shortly. As fantastical as it may seem, the idea has been thoroughly analysed to the extent where successful execution is possible but not without major setbacks and limitations. These risks that the crew will face begs the questions among many as to why we should endanger their lives when we can send robots to perform their job. This essay will explore the challenges of reaching Mars whilst discussing whether robots or humans are more adept for such a mission.
Challenges in a Mars expedition
The mission to Mars is no easy feat and is not without its challenges. The considerations and their execution along with potential drawbacks are discussed below.
Building technology to get astronauts to space
Currently, many space agencies rely upon spacecraft and rockets to get astronauts into space. However, with the thought of revolutionizing space travel combined with the lucrative rewards that it would accrue, if successful and implemented, encouraged many private spaceflight companies to invest in building a system that would launch humans and cargo efficiently with fewer risks. An example is Rocket Lab’s recent invention, “Rosie the Robot”. The machine relies on processing the carbon composite components of a launch vehicle making the vehicle launch-ready. This way one launch vehicle is produced every 12 hours as opposed to hundreds of hours with the traditional process. More so, Rocket Lab applies 3D printing to create components for launch vehicle engines that take 24 hours as opposed to weeks when using traditional methods.
Although this technological advancement accelerates the progress of sending a crewed mission to Mars, the costs associated with it make it very near impossible. NASA recently has been experiencing budget cuts that are having an impact on designing spacecraft for long-distance flights. The Mars One Mission alone is estimating that the cost of taking four people to Mars is around US$6 billion and subsequent missions at US$4 billion. These costs include the technological hardware that will be implemented plus operational costs. NASA’s annual budget of approximately US$20 billion budget must include the Mars mission preparation, launching research satellites and running the International Space Station.
More so, the funding required to develop systems and technology on the surface of Mars is estimated to cost anywhere from $100 billion to $1 trillion. One potential strategy to overcome this appears to be creating a global campaign and international partnerships.
Building a bigger spacecraft or splitting it into smaller compartments
A voyage to Mars will undoubtedly require a spacecraft that can carry multiple people with supplies to last a three-year round trip and cargo items that have to be deposited on Mars.
An alternative to creating a giant spacecraft is to potentially develop multiple small compartments that can be assembled after being launched separately into orbit.
Although space travel is physically dangerous, the mental stress endured in an eight-month journey is of equivalent if not more dangerous. The claustrophobic environment, especially if travelling in small compartments that is a sealed-up container floating through space with others, means that there is very little room to move. This lack of individuality and “personal space” can add to the mental stress and create unnecessary conflict. This leads to the next point where astronauts cannot afford to get angry and hold a grudge with one another since they must communicate with each other, react quickly and work as a team to ensure a safe and successful mission. Astronauts must also endure the weakening and wasting muscles due to no gravity in space and even weaker gravity on Mars combined with the fluid bulging up in the skull into the back of the eyeball causing vision changes. Additionally, they must have the training to deal with any major medical emergencies.
Ensuring a safe landing
After reaching Mars’ orbit, the crew needs to land safely. Although prior missions used the thermal effects like friction and parachutes to decelerate, this mission cannot rely on those effects to decelerate due to the heaviness of the craft. One progress towards that concept is by implementing supersonic retro-propulsion which consists of firing engines while landing to slow the speed down significantly.
The Mars mission is estimating a total cost of $US220 billion through 2037. But what is not included in this figure is the lunar landing costs. An independent report stated that NASA is planning to use the three-stage lunar lander approach. Alongside the ascent and descent modules, this approach will have the addition of a transfer stage which would relocate the lander stages from the Lunar Gateway (Figure 1) to a lower orbit hence reducing the fuel they need to carry which makes the spacecraft lighter thus easier to land. The Lunar Gateway has yet to be fully developed but will be a small spaceship orbiting the moon that will provide a laboratory for research, a residence for astronauts and more.
But the development of these landers and refueling systems come at a cost which is approximately US$8 billion and an additional cost of $US12 billion for propellants, cargo and the launches required to transport the landers to Mars.
Avoiding Cosmic Radiation
There are two types of radiation that astronauts will be exposed to. These are solar flares, that we have protection for, and galactic cosmic radiation that is not protected for yet. This radiation is prevalent in free space than anywhere else. One suggestion to avoid this is to minimize the time spent in free space since technology has measured that radiation is much lower on Mars than in free space.
Unfortunately, galactic cosmic radiation is something that is immensely difficult to shield against. The energy in these radiations are capable of ripping through material made of metal, plastics and water. What is worse is that the specific materials can create a higher radiation environment for the crew than other materials.
Habitat on Mars
NASA, with the help of architects from AI SpaceFactory, has developed a model that will use dirt from Mars’ surface to create houses i.e. “Marshas” (Figure 2). Water, power and oxygen will be available after extraction from ice underground, sun and the atmosphere respectively. But, they will have to recycle waste and use the planets rock and dust to craft tools to establish housing, launchpads and roads. Mars’ surface contains metals such as magnesium, iron and aluminum that they can sinter (the process of heating and compressing material with sand) to create paving tiles. For greater rigidity, they can employ slip casting. This is a pottery-making technique that involves transferring a liquid mixture of water and clay into a plaster mould to set. Then after dumping any extra material, they remove the object for firing in a kiln.
Although the cost of building these houses are relatively low compared to other ideas and plans, issues that need to be overcome will always be present. Contaminates from space could affect air quality leading to adverse outcomes if not detected, potential microbes from space carry the risk mutating, spreading then infecting astronauts and any help from Earth is unfeasible. More significantly, the potentially uncomfortable environment combined with performing repetitive and tedious tasks for a long time can lead to high levels of stress hence compromising optimal performance. This can have a chain effect on all members leading to devastating outcomes.
Robots or Humans for Mars?
The debate between any scientists, astronauts, entrepreneurs and physicists regarding whether humans or robots should be sent to Mars has been a controversial yet undecided one. Robots and humans offer qualities that their counterpart lacks leading to the suggestion that perhaps both must be implemented cohesively for future astronomical endeavours.
What robots lack that humans don’t is fine dexterity. The necessity of installing and maintaining complex machinery and instruments in space to perform required explorations and tests demands flexibility and judgement. Unfortunately, robots are not yet capable, or likely to make more mistakes than their human counterparts, when addressing these issues. More so, very sensitive instruments and machines are not able to handle robotic deployments thus increasing the chance of introducing errors or damage (Bartels, 2018; Slakey & Spudis, 2008).
The necessity of humans becomes more obvious when complex machines and equipment break down. This allows any data that was produced to be retained. Take for example Skylab had its thermal heat shield decimated and a solar panel was lost. The other panel was restrained by ties that would not release until astronauts removed the ties to install a new thermal shield and panel that saved the mission but more importantly the entire Skylab program (Slakey & Spudis, 2008).
[bookmark: _Hlk30502867]This brings us to the next point of reconnaissance. Orbiters are capable of providing general information regarding topography, atmosphere and magnetic fields of a planet and rovers can roam the planet to test the physical and chemical properties of dirt and rocks and even collect samples to return to Earth for further analyses. Yet, what happens when the rovers discover something extraordinary? Unfortunately, once designed and on the planet, they cannot be redesigned to assess the new phenomena. This would require scientists i.e. humans who would adopt new methods to observe and explore the phenomena (Bartels, 2018; Slakey & Spudis, 2008).
But even if humans could design a robot that was capable of further assessment, latency is an issue. A signal from Earth to the robot to execute a command can take as long as fourty-minutes forcing the operator to focus on physical manipulation rather than exploration (Mann, 2012).
The human body, unfortunately, has too many intricacies that inhibit its survival in space for an extended period of time. In only two months, astronauts develop vision problems the point where the eye damage can be permanent. Additionally, human bodies require constant oxygen, food and water meaning an additional cost to exploration is incurred in the form of extra engineering. Although all crew members must be medically trained prior to the trip, which adds to the cost, they are limited to resources available to provide appropriate medical attention (Phillips, 2018; Colwell & Britt, 2014).
Certain advancements in robotics suggest that robots can and are being designed in a manner such that they can react to the changing space environment by updating and installing the latest robot software (Sandberg, 2019).
Take for example, the Mars 2020 rover that will be launched between July 17 – August 5, 2020 and land February 18, 2021 (Figure 2). Its mission will be to drill down into the core to collect samples of rocks and soils with the potential possibility of returning these samples to Earth. On top of gathering information, the rover can test technologies that would address the limitations, as discussed above, of human expeditions to Mars. These tests include producing oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere, improving techniques for landing and relaying information about weather and any other environmental hazards for future astronauts on Mars (Mars 2020 Rover, 2020).
The significant distance Mars is from Earth and the time it takes to travel there puts astronauts at a significant risk of exposure to radiation. This is alongside bone loss and muscle atrophy which reduces the chance of completing the mission successfully but more importantly puts their lives at significant risk.
So, which is better?
Comparing whether robots or humans are more suited for Mars exploration is analogous to comparing apples and oranges. Both parties are mutually independent but require one another for optimal performance. Robotic exploration is necessary to scout the land to deliver critical information to minimise harm and risk to humans. Without them, exploration of the moon would be virtually impossible since astronauts would not know where to land or have hardware to land. Humans then finish off the exploration by performing necessary tests and relaying information to Earth. But more importantly, the need for a human touch in space as opposed to viewing through a screen from the eyes of a robot is fundamental for further astronomy exploration and must never be replaced (Colwell & Britt, 2014).
In conclusion, the expedition to Mars will be a significant advancement, not only for astronomy, but for the human race entirely. Whilst achieving such a feat will undoubtedly endanger the lives of the crew since one cannot predict space and its many capabilities, NASA and the many companies behind them importantly stated that such a mission will only carry on should they deem complete safety for the crew. Once achieved, the next question will simply be “what planet after Mars?”
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