Earlier this week, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden spoke at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington DC. And he caused a bit of a stir when he said, “We today are Earth-reliant. We are dependent on being on this planet.... Only multi-planet species survive for long periods of time.”
But before we panic and demand that every workplace be equipped with a space elevator directly to the red planet, let’s be honest about why we haven't already sent people to Mars — and why there's no way it's going to happen any time soon.
For starters, getting into space is difficult. That's because getting into and staying in space is about going extremely fast. An object in orbit is, quite literally, flying so fast that it continuously overshoots the Earth on its way to crashing into the surface — Earth is big and gravity is doing its thing, so you have to haul ass to keep missing the entire planet. The International Space Station has to travel about four-and-three-quarter miles every second to outrun the gravity yanking on it.
There is a whole bunch of math that explains why going that fast is such a pain, but the short version is that you need to convert a huge amount of fuel into movement extremely quickly. Normally when a lot of something combustible is converted into another form of energy, it’s called an explosion. When the explosion is aimed in a certain direction and has people in cumbersome clothing strapped in on top, it's called a space launch.
Getting the machinery fine-tuned and adjusted so that the fuel explodes as fast as it needs to — but absolutely no faster than that — requires insanely high levels of precision. That costs big money. Getting 1 lb. of anything — astronaut, satellite, fuel, water, socks, Bieber — into space costs between $1,000 and $10,000.
Now let's say you figure all that out and actually make it to space. Well, space then tries very hard to kill you in many different ways, all of the time. Between the vacuum, radiation, micrometeorites, thermal swings, risk of drowning, and everything else, it's an extraordinarily inhospitable environment. Prolonged weightlessness causes bones to slowly dissolve, muscles to atrophy, and other things to happen to the human body that bear an uncanny resemblance to rapid aging. Meanwhile, high-energy cosmic rays and other radiation take their toll on DNA and chromosomes. Even short-term exposure can incapacitate or kill outright; in the longer-term, cancers crop up. Space is a mean-spirited bastard that’s relentless and without remorse.
Yes, the US builds space telescopes and whatnot basically for the fun of it, but the cost and scope of those programs pale in comparison to a manned Mars mission.
And Mars is a hell of a long way off. If you were going to Mars on an average commercial airplane flight — no, it’s not realistic, but shut up with the physics for a second — the flight would be more than 12 years long.
All of that said, we could go to Mars if we really wanted to. While humanity doesn’t have all the technological answers this instant, we could solve the problems by putting our minds to it, just as we did in the 60s when we landed men on the moon. A trip to Mars would be unbelievably dangerous and extremely uncomfortable, and probably result in unhealthy levels of radiation exposure. But with some time to develop the technologies, it’d be doable.
But here’s a dirty little secret. We've basically been at the, "Okay, let's do it!" point for a few decades. In the late 1960s, before anyone had set foot on the moon, NASA was already starting to speculate about sending people to Mars. NASA has basically been ready to start putting a plan into action to arrive on Mars in the 1980s.
And that's because the technology needed to keep people and equipment operating in that nasty-ass environment is expensive. And getting it into space is expensive.
Right now NASA accounts for about one half of 1 percent of discretionary spending, which is the non-entitlement spending the government does every year. Sure, it’s a large amount of money — a little less than $18 billion — but it's not breaking the bank. Most of the fears about how much NASA spends really come down to uncertainty about the benefits.
In trying to understand how the hell anything gets done by a government, one model states that three things need to come together: problems, solutions, and politics. There are all kinds of problems looking for solutions and vice versa. But even when a problem and solution are paired, the politics might mean nothing ever gets done. Bolden has a solution — going to Mars — and in his speech, he was pairing it with the problem of the extinction of the human race. But that doesn't solve the politics (read: money) problem.
(And yes, the US builds space telescopes and whatnot basically for the fun of it, but the cost and scope and ambition of those programs pale in comparison to a manned Mars mission. Also, there are plenty of people who bitch about the money spent on those projects.)
If space aliens suddenly appeared, vaporized Connecticut, and told us we need to get astronauts bopping around on the Martian surface in 20 years or else, then yeah, no problem. Completely manageable. But without the threat of a catastrophic event like alien annihilation — or a renewed Space Race — we're going to end up discovering that putting astronauts on Mars is hard. But not as hard as getting people to agree to put astronauts on Mars.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
Photo via Wikimedia Commons