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Column: It's A Long Way To A 'real' Mars Landing

This story was written by Justyn Dillingham, Arizona Daily Wildcat


Since the Mars Lander successfully touched down on alien soil a month ago, our minds have once again been stirred by an old daydream.

Last week, the House of Representatives voted 409-15 to increase funding for NASA, with an extra $1 billion allocated for a new program aimed at sending astronauts on long voyages. While President Bush opposed the allocation, he has long been an advocate of a manned Mars expedition, and John McCain recently announced his willingness to increase NASA funds for such a goal. Last November, NASA itself announced that its goal was to put a man on Mars by 2037.

All this optimistic chatter seems to have spread the general impression that taking a trip to Mars is no more difficult than sending a probe to Mars. Perhaps we've been lulled into a stupor by years of science fiction movies and television shows, which take the eventual colonization of the galaxy by humans for granted.

The fact is, a manned mission to Mars would be the single hardest thing humans -- any humans -- have ever attempted.

Nothing in our history even begins to compare. Columbus himself, setting forth across a vast ocean toward what he believed would be the Indies, did not face a more daunting task than would a would-be explorer of the Red Planet.

A manned mission to Mars would require the United States to pour an avalanche of funds into NASA, far more than we ever spent on the Apollo moon landings. The technical difficulties facing such a mission are that forbidding.

For starters, the moon was only 240,000 miles away and took three days to reach. Mars is 47 million miles away. That's at least four months of space travel. As of now, the longest "voyages" any astronaut has ever made have all been in low Earth orbit, not traveling through what Christopher Hitchens has aptly called "the whirling, howling wilderness of outer space, with its red giants and white dwarfs and black holes."

Outer space is filled with deadly radiation -- radiation that would bombard every cell in an astronaut's body. The astronauts who traveled to the Moon weren't hurt by radiation because their time of exposure was so short. No one knows what would happen to a human being who is subjected to the kind of random, unpredictable radiation that zips through outer space for four months straight, and there's virtually no way to reliably test it on Earth.

Still, the problems of getting to Mars pale beside the problems the explorers would face once they successfully landed there. Mars might seem pleasantly hospitable next to scorching Mercury, poisonous Venus, or the terrifying, bottomless storms that whip across the surface-less faces of Saturn or Jupiter, but it's still cold, barren and devoid of helpful resources.

Mars's atmosphere is too thin to be breathable, so the explorers would have to bring a source of oxygen along -- one that would last up to 18 months, which is about how long it would take for Earth to pass close enough to Mars for a return voyage to commence. There's a slight possibility that we might be able to thaw some of the ice on Mars, but barring that, the astronauts would need to bring an 18-month supply of food and drinking water -- as well as water for bathing.

As one scientist recently told the New York Times, traveling to other worlds means "trying to live in an environment that humans were not meant to live in." That's putting it mildly. Since Mars's gravity is far weaker than Earth's, an astronaut's muscles would deteriorate over his or her 18-month stay.

Finally, the astronauts would have to launch their ship off the Martian surface and return home. Keep in mind that we haven't even reached the stage where we can relaunch a probe like the Mrs Lander and return it to Earth.

Imagine for a minute that all these obstacles could be overcome. Who would volunteer for such a mission? Who would willingly abandon the world we know for up to three years to travel through absolute silence and darkness for months, only to be greeted by a dead world?

Many astronauts have admitted feeling a sense of loneliness on a long mission; how would even the bravest astronaut feel when embarking on a mission knowing that if something went wrong, there would be absolutely no possibility of rescue?

None of this is to say that we shouldn't go to Mars. But let's not undersell it. If we ever do set foot on Martian soil, it wouldn't be a stunt, or even a leap forward for science. It would be the most impressive thing we've ever done. In our decidedly unimaginative times, it's certainly nice to daydream about.

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