Life on Mars sounds exciting. It’s sort of the ultimate getaway. Chicks did it (if you make it back). Plus, when the earth destroying asteroid hits (and it’s due), you could conveniently be somewhere else. Why sign me up for the Mars One Project, I am ready.
Whoa …, wait a minute before you sign on the dotted line. You just might want to think about how to get there and what risks you might encounter. The first risk, of course, involves what the dark elves call “scary engineering.” While the last couple of missions to land rovers went fairly smoothly, there were a whole series of missions before those that missed their target or crash landed or god knows what happened when the signal went dark. But dying a horrible death in deep space as you run out of air (because some engineer messed up the calculations) is not the biggest risk you face. Nor is crash landing onto the red planet itself a huge risk. NASA is mostly hiring people from the top half of their class, so the “scary engineering” risks should be small. The biggest risk you face is radiation.
Radiation on a good day merely causes cancer. On a bad day it causes your cells to shrivel up and die. Think of it as sort of the opposite of Viagra. On the way there, you will face two kinds of radiation. The first is Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) and there isn’t much you can do about this kind which accounts for about 95% of the radiation exposure. The second kind is Solar Energetic Particles or SEP. GCR comes from deep space. SEP Comes from solar flares and the like. You can build a solar protection room to protect against SEP radiation. BUT if you are outside when the solar flares hit, you are in deep doo doo. You simply don’t have much warning time and there is nothing you can do. Space repair missions are very much short straw decisions.
Between radiation on Mars and radiation in space, trip radiation is easily your biggest exposure. You will get about 360 Millisieverts (mSv’s) during a 180 day trip (one way). We know this because of the RAD equipment that was placed on the Curiosity rover on its trip to Mars. The same rover also told us that you will get about .67 mSv per day while on Mars. This is far more radiation than you get on earth because Mars has a thinner atmosphere and no magnetic field like we have on earth.
Ok so to sum up, going to Mars and hanging out for a while at the Ray Bradbury Bar and Grill and then coming back will get you about 1000 mSvs of radiation. Your risk of a fatal cancer at that level has just jumped to about 5%. Is it worth it to be super famous? There would be plenty who say yes. But with a little bad luck with the SEP radiation and /or any number of conceivable mishaps, you could go well beyond 1000 mSvs. Instant death and slow death are definitely on the menu at the ole RBB&G for the careless and the stupid.
What about the other risks. Well W.C. Fields once complained “I remember the time I was stranded in the Afghanistanian desert … forced to live on food and water for a week.” Obviously his problem was lack of alcohol, but on Mars food and water might be a bit dicey. Taking what you need from earth is expensive, so growing your own might be the only way to go. Curiosity confirmed that water is everywhere with ice blown by the fierce winds spread uniformly over the surface of Mars. A mining operation for water would probably yield decent results almost anywhere. If you have water, growing your own food could also be done with lights underground. Note: A great read for survival on Mars is The Martian by Andy Weir. Check it out.
So what does NAA conclude about humans becoming Martians … well without better radiation shielding or without faster propulsion technologies (which reduces radiation on the journey), settling Mars is right on the edge of what is doable. Is it worth it … oh yeah. It’s just off the chart exciting. Plus, if you do it the Mars One way (which is a one way ticket), you would cut your radiation exposure on the trip in half. It is actually one of the big plusses of their approach.
The NAA way is to send artificial people to Mars as a sort of guest worker program. They could build the settlements, set up the food growing systems, start the water mining operations, build/set up the solar panels and serve as impervious explorers of the red planet. They might even be able to begin the process of making copies of themselves from materials found locally so that the job of terraforming Mars would have an ample workforce. Humans could then go later as part of a “bucket list” for humanity. Ultimately, NAA believes that the “real” Martians will be creatures designed for their new home like humans were designed for theirs. This philosophy of designing life for the environment will almost certainly be the model for life throughout the Solar system. Technologically, we are almost as close to being able to build designer life as we are to building a settlement on Mars with humans. It will be fun to see who, in the end, becomes the stranger in a strange land.