Why a manned mission to Mars is highly unlikely

From the recent movie "The Martian". Image credit: 20th Century Fox. Please click on the image for full-size version (opens in new tab / window).

From the recent movie “The Martian”. Image credit: 20th Century Fox. Please click on the image for full-size version (opens in new tab / window).

The discovery of flowing water on Mars, along with the theatrical release of the movie “The Martian“, caused a wave of renewed enthusiasm and hope for a manned mission to the red planet. But I think this discovery is actually more likely to put paid to any prospect of manned exploration of the planet.

On 28 September 2015, NASA confirmed what had been known among scientists for about forty years now, i.e. that liquid water flows on Mars. The surface of the red planet’s north pole contains ice made up of water by 70% and with a total volume of 1.6 cubic kilometers, with about the same volume being contained in the south pole. To give you a little perspective, Greenland’s ice cap contains 2.8 cubic kilometers of ice.

So no, that’s not really news, not by a long shot. Many researchers believe that the northern plains of Mars were covered by an ocean whose depth was some hundred meters, perhaps the same size as the arctic ocean. The findings of the various rovers sent by the US to Mars, and especially the abundance of deuterium, tend to support the hypothesis that, in its ancient years, Mars had water in abundance. Of course, the existence of liquid water on today’s Mars makes it more likely for some indigenous form(s) of life to exist on the planet. The probes that have explored the planet so far (and still explore it) have proven it is not exactly as hostile to life as we once thought.

All right, then. Now, the proven existence of water, the increased likelihood of the existence of life on Mars, and the increased interest, due to NASA’s internet-centred PR and the hype of “The Martian” could be considered by some as strong enough factors to bring the United States’ comatose manned space programme back to life, and possibly be the catalyst for the long- and oft-proposed manned mission to the red planet. Well… Not exactly, and I’ll explain why.

Vague promises, but, when money talks, bullshit walks

Already, in the summer of 2014, we had the National Research Council’s report “Pathways to Exploration – Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration“, which was a carefully considered, “balanced” report, neither outright stating that the United States shall be henceforth earthbound, nor announcing any ambitious, daring plans. After all, given that the United States, in step with the rest of the world, prefers to waste taxpayers’ money on bailing out irresponsible, profligant, outright criminal banksters instead of paving the road to a future, it makes far greater sense for the American manned spaceflight programme to remain in a vegetative state, setting vague targets, conveniently placed somewhere in the distant future, with an horizon of more than two decades. So, both Washington and NASA are happy: NASA’s bureaucracy survives, and Washington gets to sort-of maintain some kind of sense of national pride for the plebes; and, to top it all off, no government runs the risk to have to commit to something that will be done during its tenure.

The logo of the Constellation Programme, which has been killed off by US President Barack Obama.

The logo of the Constellation Programme, which has been killed off by US President Barack Obama (click on image for larger version – opens in new tab / window).

The Obama administration killed off the Constellation programme, which aimed for a return to the Moon by 2020, and the Space Shuttle. Since then, the US manned space programme is, as I said earlier, in a coma. NASA follows the “flexible path”, i.e. the development of technologies that might be useful for missions to a nearby asteroid or for missions whose destination lies in the vicinity of the Moon, but everything is written so that no American government will ever have to commit to any expenditure. This was confirmed on 8 October 2015, with the release of the report titled “NASA’s Journey to Mars – Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration“. All this “creative ambiguity” is because Washington is completely averse to the idea of spending the billions of dollars manned missions to the Moon, or to Mars, would require. Of course, they have already wasted a trillion dollars on the jalopy known as the F-35 Lightning II, and they keep on allowing the 1% to effectively not pay taxes, but these things are easier to sell to the voters, as jingoism and the idea that the rich deserve more than other human beings sound more “natural” to the plebes.

Of course, even Baldrick from Blackadder the Third can understand that, without a significant increase in NASA’s budget, the space agency is doomed to linger in our planet’s orbit, even when  (or, I should say, if) the Orion is finally built. The harsh, bitter truth is that a manned mission to Mars will cost more than what the entire International Space Station has cost so far; its realisation shall require years, if not decades, of hard, committed, continuous, dedicated work, while the risk of both failure and – yes – casualties is significant.

And this is where the public sentiment comes into play. How willing is the American (first and foremost) public to accept the idea that they could spend a few hundred billions of dollars on a project that might be riddled with problems and cost lives, and whose benefits are not easily understandable by the average taxpayer?  Yes, I mentioned that the US has already spent a trillion on a turd that can’t fly, can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t hold its own in a dogfight (the F-35) and whose software is riddled with bugs and horrible security holes, but hey, Faux News’ talking heads can easily tell the plebes it will eventually “kill bad guys”, and this is a benefit that everyone considers tangible. On the other hand, the scientific benefits and other from a manned space mission are not as “immediate”. Yes, I know the American and international public loves space, but in an anodyne, lazy way, i.e. with Facebook “likes” and following space exploration-related accounts on Twitter.

Let’s be blunt: A manned space programme is far from becoming reality, especially in our times that are saddled with geopolitical and financial instability. A manned spaceflight to Mars requires a very well-specified plan regarding the kind of rockets, spacecraft etc. will be needed. And it also requires an awful lot of money, to the tune of $400 billion, and I think this is a conservative estimate. Those who can read between the lines understand that NASA pretends it can send humans to Mars with its current budget. But with current funds, adjusting for inflation, the summer 2014 report concluded that, until 2040, NASA will get only $100 billion for Mars-related work. That’s peanuts.

So, what do we make of “The Martian”? Well, it was an OK movie, which certainly helped get the hopes of the Mars-loving community up. But, every two or three years we see the same movie in re-runs. The existence of water on Mars is announced, then we are reassured that manned missions to Mars are just around the corner, just wait and see – a rinse and repeat process for a crowd with a goldfish memory.

These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. The blue color seen upslope of the dark streaks are thought not to be related to their formation, but instead are from the presence of the mineral pyroxene. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (Infrared-Red-Blue/Green(IRB)) false color image (ESP_030570_1440) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5. Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. The blue color seen upslope of the dark streaks are thought not to be related to their formation, but instead are from the presence of the mineral pyroxene. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (Infrared-Red-Blue/Green(IRB)) false color image (ESP_030570_1440) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5.
Image and caption credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona. Please click on the image for the full-size version (opens in new tab / window).

But… There’s water on Mars!

So? Ah, yes, I know. There’s water, so astronauts who will settle on Mars will be able to exploit it (drink it, wash themselves with it, and so on). Sorry to rain on your parade, ladies and gentlemen, but this water is essentially brine, so, before it becomes usable, heavy investment in processing equipment will be required. Furthermore, there is a lot more water in the polar regions, and it is far more readily accessible – and its existence has been known for forty years now. So, what’s changed?

And also, and more importantly, why aren’t we asking why the discovery of abundant water on the Moon’s poles hasn’t resulted to new manned missions to our satellite, which is literally in our backyard, unlike Mars?

Some opine that the discovery of liquid water on Mars is going to make NASA send humans to the red planet faster, because the existence of martian microorganisms becomes plausible. I have news: The exact likelihood for martian life will actually be a factor against manned missions to Mars. No, I’m putting it too mildly. To be more precise, it will be a very heavy tombstone for the idea of manned missions to Mars.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. It will not explore the areas where liquid water has been found, as it is not considered to be sufficiently sterilised, and so it might contaminate them with terran microbes. Image credit: NASA. Please click on the picture for a larger version (opens in new tab / window).

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. It will not explore the areas where liquid water has been found, as it is not considered to be sufficiently sterilised, and so it might contaminate them with terran microbes. Image credit: NASA. Please click on the picture for a larger version (opens in new tab / window).

But why? The reason is simple. In recent years, there is a prevalent mentality according to which future settlers on Mars (and other extraterrestrial worlds) will be a threat to indigenous life, because of the microorganisms (microbes, bacteria, everything) they will bring there. Even the Curiosity rover will not go where there is water, because it is not considered sufficiently sterilised, and thus could contaminate these areas with terran microbes. Of course, there is truth to this claim: Smallpox, chickenpox, measles, cholera, typhus, influenza, tuberculosis, diphtheria, brought to America by European settlers, killed a multitude of indigenous people, who had no antibodies for them. Before Cortes invaded Mexico, the area had 25 to 30 million people; infectious diseases spread through contact with the Spanish conquerors reduced the indigenous population to 3 million people. And it’s true that animals (such as our beloved house cats) brought to new places by European colonists hunted various species to extinction.

So, in recent years, Mars is increasingly seen as a “pristine environment” that must not be violated by humans, even if there is no life in it – a “look, but don’t touch” mantra. If this mentality becomes official policy, then no astronaut shall set foot on Mars: If any astronauts are sent to Mars, they will remain in its orbit, remotely controlling rovers and other devices that will explore the area, and that will be all. This mentality will be tremendously convenient to Washington, as it will not have to spend the money to colonise Mars, and it is less likely to have to explain to a selectively risk-averse public opinion why some astronauts perished in accidents that could happen in an inherently high-risk work (of course, embarrassing and avoidable hypoxia in F-22 Raptors is far more acceptable).

But here is my objection: In the aforementioned cases of ecological and even human destruction due to microbes and diseases carried by humans from other parts of our planet, or due to animals brought by colonists, we had a destruction of complex, well-developed ecosystems and societies, all consisting of multicellular organisms, vertebrates and humans. On Mars, even the discovery of living beings might be more difficult than one might think, and it is highly unlikely that these organisms will be of significant complexity, and are therefore more likely to be able to put up with a potential threat of terran origin. But also, if we are to terraform Mars and make it inhabitable for humans, would that not entail a degree of replacing martian life with terran?

Delusions and conclusions

On the other hand, NASA not only pretends it can send humans to Mars on its current budget, it also thinks that “The Martian” will excite public opinion enough to make lots of money start flowing its way. For decades now, NASA thinks that, if it is to attract generous government funding for its more ambitious plans and projects, it needs to stimulate enthusiastic public support. So, it has deified public relations, to the point where they have even planned to screen “The Martian” at the White House.

And in all this, NASA keeps making utterly vague plans about “flexible paths”. Add Elon Musk’s SpaceX fantasies about martian colonisation and the shameless Mars One scam, and you have the most recent manifestations of the martian obsession: Drafting out ambitious-sounding (if lifted off from prior work) plans, accompanied by impressive illustrations, and all of them coming to nought. The horizon for all manned missions to Mars is always placed conveniently way deep into the future. If we want to stop fooling ourselves, we must finally admit that, forty yeas ago, manned missions to Mars were far more realistic and plausible than they are today.

And here lies a problem with the space community in general: It wants to have its cake and eat it, just like the vast majority of people out there. If you believe its cloudcuckoolander “analysts”, you’ll believe that space conquest is ante portas, space tourist trips will commence next month, the United States will build bases on Mars within the next five years, and a lot more. All this shows a deep ignorance of the history of space programmes, social dynamics, and the simple, mundane, depressive, but very real, erm, reality. The supporters of NASA’s “initiative” keep babbling about how it will lead to a vague “conquest of the solar system”, in a very conveniently unknown, indefinite, distant future, through a “flexible path”. This is, of course, the exact same kind of bullshit you’ll hear at overhyped TEDx talks and pitch decks for start-ups trying to peddle tired, boring ideas as “disruptive innovations”.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s another, even bigger, problem. There’s a lack of will to try and risk in order to achieve anything significant in space (and not only in space, but anywhere else); perhaps this has to do with the money-worshiping neoliberal mentality, where the short-term profit of the shareholder and the “investor” (read: gambler) is everything, and everything else can sod off, but I don’t think it should be attributed only to this factor. We must also note a perverted obsession with obliterating risk, with making a world that will be 10000000% “safe”.

Even our sensitivity with environmental protection has become perverse: while we keep on trashing our own planet, pretending climate change isn’t real or acting like “ecologically-conscious” hipsters, deluding ourselves that 3-tonne SUVs can become “environmentally friendly” simply by adding an electric motor or by powering them with fuel cells, we consider the hostile, barren planets of our solar system “pristine environments” – and this stance is gaining traction worryingly fast. So, according to this pseudo-ecological mentality, humans must not set foot on the Moon or on Mars, for they will disturb the eternal peace of atmosphereless quarries that are roasted under heavy radiation or freeze a hundred or so degrees below zero. And if some sort of traces of some Precambrian-grade primitive life forms are discovered on Mars, that’s when we’ll kiss the manned space exploration idea goodbye.

Of course, unmanned space exploration with probes, rovers and such will continue. Nothing wrong with that; it’s cost-effective and useful. But a side effect of the successes of the unmanned probes is that they have inadvertently undermined the image and the prestige of manned space programmes. We already have so many impressive martian vistas – it only makes sense that a considerable percentage of the general public is under the impression that we’ve already been to Mars. And, given the widespread paranoia and the popularity of conspiracy theories, another part of the populace believes firmly that everything that was done in the past was fake or, at the very least, pointless. To such a public opinion, it will be rather hard to “sell” the idea of a resumption of manned space missions.

Now, let’s have a look at a table of selected proposals for manned missions of Mars; the table is not exhaustive, but the proposals included therein are representative examples of what has been put forward so far, including the ones with the shortest timeframe and the ones with the longest. These proposals concern only the American space programme; the Soviet (Russian)  proposals have similar timeframes. As you can see, plans for manned missions to Mars are in a perpetual groundhog day, and that’s how they’ll stay, given the current budgets and mindsets.

Some characteristic proposals for US manned missions to Mars. Please click on the image for the full-size version (opens in new tab / window).

Some characteristic proposals for US manned missions to Mars. Please click on the image for the full-size version (opens in new tab / window).

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