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The Challenges of Interplanetary Travel 

Updated May 6, 2022
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The Challenges of Interplanetary Travel  essay

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To ensure the survival of humanity, humans will have to leave Earth. It’s inevitable. Population is increasing exponentially, and global warming is nearly out of hand, so it won’t be long before this blue rock no longer has the means to sustain people. A large number of people believe the best option for humans is to go to Mars as soon as possible. However, that’s no easy feat. Interplanetary spaceflight has many challenges that must be overcome before leaving. It’s important to understand the destination, the effects of long-term space travel on humans, the means by which humans will get to Mars, and the ways people will survive there. Luckily, some of this knowledge already exists.

Mars is a desert planet 140 million miles away, which looks red to human eyes due to the rust in the regolith (Martian dirt). It’s about half the size of Earth, with a thin atmosphere that is unbreathable, being made almost entirely of carbon dioxide. The temperature on Mars varies greatly, ranging from 70 to -225 degrees Fahrenheit (Depth). This means astronauts will need a heated, pressurized spacesuit to walk on the Martian surface. However, Mars may not have been so inhospitable in the past.

There is significant evidence suggesting that long ago, Mars was covered with oceans and liquid water. Today that’s not the case, but water ice is still prevalent in the ground and on the ice caps (Depth).

Knowing as much as possible about Mars before astronauts are sent there is crucial. However, it is equally important to know the effect that long-duration space travel has on humans. It’s a long trip from here to Mars.

While floating weightlessly in space sounds fun, extended periods of time in zero gravity has many more negative effects on the human body than positive ones. Muscles have been designed by evolution to constantly fight Earth’s gravity. In a weightless environment, all muscles, including the heart, will rapidly decondition because muscles don’t have to exert nearly as much force to perform their designed functions. In addition, astronauts lose about one hundredth of their bone density each month for a similar reason (lack of exertion). To combat this, astronauts have to exercise vigorously while in space (Human), but this brings up an issue.

Taking exercise equipment along for the ride requires more fuel and takes up cargo space that could be used for other items. The excess weight increases the overall cost of the mission. Unfortunately, that’s not where the difficulties end.

Funding a Mars mission is a daunting task. To put things in perspective, the Apollo program — the program that put men on the moon — cost around $24 billion in 1972 dollars ($144 billion in 2019) (Project). The program was so expensive that it was prematurely terminated because it was too much money from the United States’ annual budget (Genta and Bignami XI). It’s reasonable to assume that going to Mars will be much more costly because of the greater amount of fuel, food, and materials needed for the longer-duration mission. NASA may have to join forces with private companies such as SpaceX to accumulate financial means.

The word “radiation” probably provokes an image of nuclear power plants or nuclear explosions, such as the aftermath of Chernobyl and Nagasaki, in most of our minds. However, the type of radiation astronauts deal with in space is much different. Cosmic rays, or cosmic radiation, is mostly absorbed by the magnetic field and ozone layer here on Earth. In interplanetary space, humans will be bombarded with this cosmic rays. Cosmic rays have the potential to cause radiation sickness and cancer (Human).

Astronauts have also been known to develop serious vision problems in space. Again, without gravity, the human body doesn’t function correctly. Bodily fluids tend to accumulate in the head in space. This fluid then presses on the eyes, deforming them and causing vision impairment (Human). Because astronauts need to perform detail-oriented tasks in life-threatening scenarios, any vision problem is a serious threat to a mission.

On Mars, a year’s supply of water and food will likely be too heavy to bring along for the ride. The first Martian inhabitants will have to find ways to produce their own food and water. This likely means that astronauts will have to plant crops in the regolith. Experiments will need to be conducted to find areas on Mars that have cultivatable resources. Such resources might include iron ores, organic materials, and clay. Satellites and rovers are currently scanning the Martian surface for these materials. It has been theorized that inhabitants of Mars might discover precious resources that could be exported to Earth for a profit (Taylor), allowing for a self-sustaining colony on Mars.

One company that has profited in space ventures is SpaceX. SpaceX thinks they have the issue of getting to Mars figured out. Unlike NASA, SpaceX is a private rocket company; they make money by putting satellites for other companies in orbit around Earth (Company). Their main goal, however, is to ultimately colonize Mars, and they’re making astounding progress already. SpaceX has plans to make a heavy-lift rocket system known as Starship and Superheavy. It’s fully reusable — meaning after it gets to space, the booster will detach and make a propulsive landing on Earth for reuse (This helps massively with funding). It’s also quite large — it has a diameter of nine meters and will be able to hold one hundred people (Mars).

With a rocket of this magnitude, it’s no surprise that funding is an issue. SpaceX plans to redirect all of their funds from their current commercial rockets toward Starship and Superheavy after it is put into use (Mars). Despite this, Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, still believes his company can put humans on Mars by 2024 (Achenbach).

Although NASA is also working on plans for a mission to Mars, progress has slowed drastically. A change in objective was made after the Trump administration ordered that NASA should work toward developing a moon base before sending people to Mars. Progress hit a complete standstill after the partial government shutdown (Harwood). Only now are NASA employees beginning to resume work.

Clearly, there are many challenges that must be overcome before humans leave for Mars. Fortunately, many people agree there are already ways to overcome them. Understanding Mars, inventing the rocketry needed to get there, enduring long-term space travel, and surviving on Mars are among the challenges. Luckily, due to human ingenuity, the survival of humanity will be ensured.

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