Man on Mars: Don’t hold your breath

“The Martian,” starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on the red planet, is a hot movie – but landing a human on Mars is decades away.
“The Martian,” starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on the red planet, is a hot movie – but landing a human on Mars is decades away. 20th Century Fox via AP

At a movie theater near you, NASA has made it to Mars. “The Martian” stars Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on the red planet, almost surely doomed, but surviving on his ingenuity, STEM education and goofy sense of humor.

For America’s civilian space agency, humans-to-Mars is an aspiration bordering on an obsession. “#JourneytoMars” is the agency’s inescapable Twitter hashtag. Trying to fight its way out of a period of strategic uncertainty and chaos, NASA has aggressively branded its programs as being part of “an unprecedented human journey to Mars,” as NASA administrator Charles Bolden put it in a speech in June.

But the bold talk glosses over technical and political realities. NASA’s flat budget won't pay for a Mars mission. At the moment, NASA can’t even get an astronaut to the International Space Station without buying a seat on a Russian rocket. A new NASA space capsule that was conceived in 2005 likely won't be ready until 2023, according to NASA’s latest estimate, and it’s built for 21-day missions, not for trips to Mars.

NASA is looking at a Mars mission in the 2030s at the earliest.

“We’re setting expectations for something that is decades away. The public has a short attention span,” said Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA under President Barack Obama.

Doug Cooke, a former NASA associate administrator for exploration, thinks NASA needs to spell out intermediate steps to Mars. There’s one obvious stopping point between the third and fourth rocks from the sun: The moon. Cooke says it could be a proving ground for off-world living.

“There needs to be more of a plan for actually getting there,” Cooke said. “You can’t have a flat-line budget indefinitely and think you’re going to put all of this together by 2030.”

Money and distance

Mars is far away, inhospitable, and due to the orbital dynamics of Earth and Mars, any mission to the red planet’s surface would take at least two years round-trip (a fly-by, without landing, theoretically could be done in about 500 days). The technical challenges are significant, but NASA’s engineering prowess is legendary, and this may be a case where the impossible simply takes longer. The most serious challenge may be budgetary.

When President George H. W. Bush proposed a human mission to Mars in 1989 as part of a massive new push in outer space, sticker shock sank the plan. Estimates put the cost in the range of $400 billion.

The consensus among space policy analysts is that a NASA mission to Mars with astronauts would require a political mandate that currently does not exist. This is not the 1960s, when the agency’s budget spiked in a race to beat the Soviet Union to the surface of the moon. Today there is limited geopolitical competition in human spaceflight.

Going to Mars raises a suite of technical challenges. NASA engineers need to figure out how to land heavy payloads on Mars. They also have to devise systems to protect astronauts from radiation in outer space.

NASA can point to progress in understanding how to keep astronauts alive on Mars by letting them live off the land. Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, said the next Mars rover, scheduled for launch in 2020, will have instruments that can extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. Already, the Curiosity rover has found nitrates in the soil that would be handy for an astronaut needing fertilizer in a greenhouse.

And then there’s the water: Mars, Green said, has more moisture in the soil than previously believed, and more humidity in the air. It’s possible the ephemeral, salty water suggested by a much-hyped study recently announced comes from fresh-water ice or aquifers below the surface, he said.

Green, a consultant on the movie “The Martian,” said Matt Damon’s character could have taken advantage of that water.

Grunsfeld, the science official, thinks the next big step for NASA might involve an effort to detect Martian life. This is a more delicate matter than most people realize: If there is life there – and that’s a huge if – it could be contaminated by microbes aboard NASA’s non-sterilized spacecraft and rovers. An experiment might inadvertently discover stowaway Earth-life rather than genuine Martian life.

Grunsfeld has an idea: Drive a rover to the edge of a crater that features the kind of intriguing, dark-streaked gullies suggestive of periodic flows of liquid water. “Carry along a little rocket launcher that has a sterilized bucket that you shoot on a wire. Drag the bucket up, collect this wet soil, and analyze it from a distance with a chemical laser,” he said.

“I’m just brainstorming,” Grunsfeld added.

It’s not clear that the U.S. government will ever decide that a human mission to Mars is worth the cost, and Mars may wind up visited first by private-sector dreamers. SpaceX founder Elon Musk talks often of colonizing Mars, and near his desk in his SpaceX headquarters in California is a painting of Mars terraformed into a blue planet.

Musk’s standard line is that he’d like to die on Mars ... just not on impact.