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What Would a Mars Base Be Like?

This image depicts what a base on Mars could look like. Image Credit: NASA

Mars is the planet most like Earth in our Solar System. Aside from its lack of air and generally chilly temperatures, it isn’t too unfriendly a place for life. In fact, it may even have had life of its own three to four billion years ago, when it was a warmer and wetter place. It’s also not too far away—the second nearest planet, after Venus—coming to within 55 million kilometers of Earth on occasions.

For these reasons and more, Mars is the most logical place, after and possibly including the Moon, to build a permanently-occupied base. Back in the 1960s, amid the excitement of Apollo, Mars seemed like a natural next step and there was talk of humans landing there within another decade. Since then the public and political will to push on with manned space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit has dwindled. Yet Mars still beckons and it may be that commercial space vehicles will be the first to ferry people there and help establish a permanent outpost.

Getting to the Red Planet, however, is a vast step beyond the Moon. On average, it’s about a hundred times further away, so that the journey time, instead of a mere three days to the Moon in the case of Apollo, would be more like eight months at a minimum, depending on the trajectory chosen to get there. Allowing for some time on the surface for establishing a beach-head to be used by future missions, the whole return trip could hardly occupy less than about a year a half.

Over the years, NASA has produced a large amount of imagery and proposals about a potential crewed Martian base. Image Credit: NASA

Setting aside the technical problems of getting a crewed, and therefore large, spacecraft to Mars and back safely, the physiological and psychological human factors involved are formidable. No one has travelled that far from home, for so long, in such close confinement, without any possibility of rescue if something goes wrong, so there will be uncertainties about the mental well-being of the crew. More worryingly, long-duration stays aboard space stations have revealed serious consequences of many months spent in microgravity, including bone demineralization loss of muscle mass, and cardiovascular deconditioning. Added to these is the risk of radiation exposure if a large solar flare occurs en route. A shielded radiation shelter and, possibly, a rotating section of the spacecraft to generate artificial gravity, may be essential requirements to ensure the health and survival of the crew. All of which will add greatly to the mass of the habitable part of the spacecraft and therefore of propulsion demands.

NASA has no firm plans for a crewed mission to Mars, and would certainly be in no position to attempt one before the 2030s. Other nations, most notably China, may arrive there first. But the most likely scenario at present is that humans will begin to establish a presence on the fourth planet from the Sun courtesy of private enterprise. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has already expressed his desire to retire on Mars and to ferry others there, at $500,000 per ticket, using a massive fully-reusable launch vehicle. The key to ultimate success of a Mars colony will be self-sufficiency, using local materials and resources, and a regular affordable transit system between the two planets.

15 comments to What Would a Mars Base Be Like?

  • Karol

    After tens of millions of “no-strings-attached” start-up taxpayer dollars, and extensive work by NASA engineers to solve fuel slosh and staging problems that led to the failure of two of his vehicles, the “Muskssiah” now wants to lead his disciples to the Martian promised land. Someone should tell the Prince of PayPal that there is an enormous difference between running a space taxi to deliver toothpaste and tampons to an already manned space station in low Earth orbit and delivering a crew, alive, to the surface of Mars. “Commercial space” means “create return on investment”, free enterprise capitalism where the entrepreneur takes the risks and receives the rewards, and “profit for investors”. Maybe you know what investors are Elon, they are those Wall Street financial analysts and investment advisers who cringe, shake their heads, and walk away when they hear about making big money by going to Mars. But then, if you hold a big political fund-raiser for a successful candidate with access to very deep taxpayer pockets, you can plan to build warp drive and retire on Vulan with Mr. Spock.

    • Ferris Valyn

      Karol – Tell me, where is your plan for a million people on Mars? Or for that matter, NASA’s?

      I won’t claim that Elon’s will work. But any plan that doesn’t include large scale space settlement in the next 30-40 years is a waste of time.

      And yes, that is what I want – 1 million on Mars, 2 million on the Moon, and 3 million in space by 2050.

      Anything less should be unacceptable.

  • Among other “problems,” imagine eating food that is months old. Or the dust problem. When you look at the Apollo pictures, the moon walkers were covered with dust. Radiation shielding, crew mental health – and on and on. Surmountable problems? Yes. But the technological advances in the next twenty years must also include some kind of rapid propulsion system that greatly shortens transit times to and from Mars. We will eventually land there.

    • Karol

      Tom, you’ve probably already heard of it, but on the outside chance that you haven’t, physicist Franklin Chang-Diaz, a seven shuttle mission veteran and Astronaut Hall of Fame inductee has created the Ad Astra Rocket Company to develop Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) propulsion which would dramatically reduce the travel time to Mars. I think you’d find his work very interesting. You’re right Tom, we (humans) will eventually land there. Under what flag(s) is yet to be determined. Best wishes.

      • Karol: just read the article in AW&ST. Very interesting and promising. Let’s hope this comes to fruition. We need to cut travel time to address those other problems. Thanks.

  • Les

    Too bad that SpaceX didn’t have you at the helm. Can’t imagine the great things that might have been accomplished by such a keen analytical mind.

  • Ares

    The problem of muscle and bone wasting in microgravity has been more or less solved with the ARED training device. One astronaut GAINED weight on the ISS. Also bed rest studies have shown that a system called the lower body negative pressure system counteracts almost ALL of the ill effects of weightlessness. Nutrition is still a big deal, but look at MREs. They last for up to 5 YEARS. Also it is a relatively simple technology to grow some spinach in on the voyage to supplement the vitamins and minerals necessary for the adequate health (physical and mental) of the astronauts. It’s possible to get there via chemical, but you can take about twice the payload with NTRs. We, as a nation, can do this in the next ten years! Let go of your massive ship preconceptions.

  • We are having a very interesting forum. Let’s continue the discussion and let’s not allow the possibility of another nation or group of nations supplanting our leadership in space.

  • Karol

    If the VASIMR propulsion of Chang-Diaz was operational (overcoming the temperature problems with plasma) a trip to Mars could be made, theoretically, in about 39 days. Problems of extended exposure to radiation, and physical/psychological problems that could occur during sustained microgravity interplanetary spaceflight would be greatly reduced. I don’t believe that Curiosity has found dangerous levels of radiation on the Martian surface, but even if there was, perhaps natural shielding, i.e. burrowing underground for long-term habitats, could be explored. In any event, methinks I smell some fascinating engineering challenges. I only wish that astronaut/physicist Franklin Chang-Diaz had won the last 500 million dollar Powerball lottery! :-)

  • Karol: excellent points. An 80-day travel time plus whatever surface layover period is much more realistic and within current physiological capabilities. Chang-Diaz should be the mission director/manager.

  • Karol

    Tom: Clearly you, I, and most of the readers of AmericaSpace enjoy the challenge of an engineering problem. Everyone cheered along with the Curiosity mission control team when a beautiful piece of engineering genius soft-landed a SUV-sized rover on the surface of an alien world over 40 million miles away. We know that UMDH probably shouldn’t be used as mouthwash, an ablative surface doesn’t involve a cosmetic skin peel, and that gravity does more than just make once perky things sag. We’re comfortable when X = ___ . A manned Mars mission poses some marvelous engineering challenges, but of equal consequence are very real non-engineering challenges. Any hope for a viable manned Mars program depends upon long term, stable planning supported by solid, dependable funding. NASA needs to be removed from the fickle winds of politics as much as possible. NASA needs fundamental structural change so that all involved can concentrate on solving engineering, not administrative and funding, problems. Like the FBI, NASA needs to be above the political fray, otherwise great achievements in the voyage to Mars may be cast upon the scrap heap to provide funding for a more vote-getting project. Need I say more than Apollo 18, 19, and 20? I fear that no manned Mars mission will survive planning on a four year election cycle basis. I hope that after all of the “fiscal cliff” silliness (not to be confused with the “Election 2012″ silliness) is finally over, some consideration will be given to a bill like the one introduced in the last days of the pre-election house session that provided a degree of funding and managerial autonomy to NASA. You and I can solve engineering challenges Tom because they make sense and have a logical solution. Political challenges on the other hand . . . .

  • Karol: Your points are so well articulated and true! Yes, the political challenges keep us from achieving what we truly can achieve. Only when there was a sense of urgency did we commit to the moon landing program and money was “no object” – then defaulted to the shuttle experience. I agree – leave NASA alone (or at least allow a very high degree of autonomy) and let NASA do what it knows how to do best. We have a moral imperative as a country to demonstrate leadership in space exploration (as I have consistently stated) and the ultimate cost of a Mars mission (with the scientific and technological benefits) is chump change.

  • Karol: Your points are so well articulated and true! Yes, the political challenges keep us from achieving what we truly can achieve. Only when there was a sense of urgency did we commit to the moon landing program and money was “no object” – then we defaulted to the shuttle experience. I agree – leave NASA alone (or at least allow a very high degree of autonomy) and let NASA do what it knows how to do best. We have a moral imperative as a country to demonstrate leadership in space exploration (as I have consistently stated) and the ultimate cost of a Mars mission (with the scientific and technological benefits) is chump change.

  • [...] and a regular affordable transit system between the two planets.  Originally featured in America Space  written by Dave [...]