Why We Aren’t On Mars (Yet)

I wonder if we’ll ever be able to grow black beans on Mars.

Mars, HAB units, Mars UndergroundThis afternoon – during the girls (and Cochise’s) nap time I shelled a basket of black beans.  The yield was about a half of a zip-lock sandwich baggie of dried beans.  A little disappointing, but under the weather conditions we’ve had… eh, better than nothing at all, and there are many more bean plants to harvest yet.  I’ll probably get a jar full to tuck away for winter soup making.  While shelling these I watched a YouTube video called Mars Underground.

I was hoping it was a Sci-Fi movie.  It started off like a sci-fi movie, then turned documentary.  Then it started sounding like one of those conspiracy flicks and I expected them to say “We don’t need to go to Mars, Martians are already here and in control of our Government.”  And I was prepared to believe it because that’s one of the better excuses for the US government’s insane behavior.  

What it turned out to be is an accounting of America’s “Plan” to get to Mars.  The reason I thought it was fiction at first was because NASA was laying out some pretty ambitious plans to put humans on Mars even before they had made it to the moon.  Then they started talking about Project Mars.  I remembered a little about that.

The film interviews a number of people, but mostly focuses on aerospace engineer and author, Dr. Robert Zubrin who was excited by the launch of Sputnik when he was a kid, decided he wanted to be involved in space exploration and got himself a good education heavy on science and engineering.  He landed a job with Martin Marieta (now Lockheed Martin) and set about making his dream come true.

The Grand Plan for Mars

About that time NASA started talking about a grand plan to get to Mars.  But it involved building a base on the moon and a space station in lunar orbit where ships would be assembled that would go to Mars.  Lots of folks got excited.  But when they presented Congress with the 455 billion dollar price tag (making it the second most expensive project ever; just behind World War II) Congress had a coronary and kicked the plan under the table.

Mars Direct ERVZubrin and his team reviewed the now defunct plan and were amazed at the immense complexity of the monstrosity.  Not only was it outrageously expensive, it would take many decades to complete.  Not a viable plan in the modern world of politics where any single plan can have funding withdrawn at a moment’s notice by a change in leadership.  They came up with a plan that used off-the-shelf hardware and would put men on Mars in 10 years or less… and cost 1/10th what NASAs plan would.  They called it Mars Direct.

Dr. Zubrin was sent off to fly around the country to pitch the plan to NASA.  They loved it.  Or, the engineers did.  When it got to the hierarchy, they snubbed it.  Why?  Because the Mars Direct plan snubbed their pet projects like the ISS.  One of the reasons the NASA plan was so outrageous was that it needed to include everyone’s pet project to get their support.  So the NASA bosses kicked Mars Direct under the table.

Dr. Zubrin goes on at some length about how current (2008-2011) administration is “drawing dragons on the map” to scare people away from wanting to leave L.E.O., saying “It’s just too dangerous out there.  We’re not ready.”  Zubrin is probably underplaying it, NASA is probably over playing it.  The truth is in there somewhere.  I’ve done a recent article on the dangers of deep space travel. It is dangerous.  But so are a lot of things.  And I’ve done one of a Dutch firm that has picked up the baton and is well on the way to putting people on Mars.  The Dutch firm as a very high chance of actually doing it for two reasons:  1) They are not involving ANY government nor asking for any public funds.  It’s all done as a private enterprise.  2) They’re not coming back.

Not having to provide for a return trip slashes the cost by 2/3rds.  They’re not astronauts, they’re colonists.  Anyone who signs up goes to stay.  I wonder if Zubrin will be among them.

Mars: the New World

Dr. Zubrin draws a lot of comparisons between the push for Mars and the original discovery and settling of North America.  Sailing the oceans at that time was very dangerous and fraught with unknowns: dragons on the map.  Conditions aboard the ships of the day were harsh, many died.  But they came anyway.  Gutting the American space program after the Apollo missions was a little like Christopher Columbus coming back from his first voyage with good news and gifts only to have Queen Isabella say, “No, I’ve changed my mind… burn the ships.”

Mars, terraformThe movie ends by going back into sci-fi mode and predicting that Mars can be made habitable again (they claim it was Earth-like 2-4 billion years ago) through terraforming: using elements in the soil to produce huge amounts of CO2 that would be released into the atmosphere to deliberately cause a greenhouse effect, holding the sun’s heat in, warming the planet, allowing the permafrost to melt and offer up liquid water, adding water vapor to the atmospheric mix (maybe even clouds), then get plants going to strengthen the whole process… and so on.

The one glaring error I see in this dream is that Mars has a very weak magnetosphere.

One of the things that make Earth particularly well suited to life is that it has a large, robust magnetosphere: a di-pole magnetic bubble that surrounds the planet to deflect and absorb cosmic/solar radiation.  It is thought that this is generated by the planet’s liquid core not spinning quite as fast as the crust, two iron-rich bodies, one turning within the another acts like an electrical generator.

Perhaps Mars has cooled to the point that it is almost solid.  Whatever the reason, the magnetosphere it generates now is so small that its boundaries are inside what a normal atmospheric shell would be for a planet that size (about half the size of Earth).  The result is that solar winds ripped away the atmosphere as the magnetosphere shrunk in diameter.  Before a proper atmosphere could be restored, the magnetosphere would have to be kick-started.  Not a simple task.

So it may be that any permanent settlers will just have to deal with an atmospheric pressure roughly equivalent to Earths – at an altitude of 35 miles.  The Viking probes measured Mars’ atmosphere at between 7 and 10 millibars, depending on weather; roughly 1/100th that of Earth at sea level.

One solution may be to find and convert caves rather than to try to build large structures on the surface.  Several novels I’ve read had settlers roofing over craters or building “lean-to” structures against cliffs.  Since the Martian soil does contain the components needed to make many metals as well as glass, this is not too far-fetched.

But first, we have to get there.

What do you think: will Humanity settle Mars?  What will life there be like?  And will it be a separate political entity or a colony of some government?


  1. Windows to the Universe
  2. Encyclopedia of Planetary Sciences
  3. YouTube video
  4. The Physics Factbook

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4 thoughts on “Why We Aren’t On Mars (Yet)”

  1. Martian control would explain a lot. That made me laugh.

    NASA’s plans are amazingly ambitious. It’s interesting stuff.

    1. Thanks Mary.

      Unfortunately the bureaucrats have gutted NASA’s budget and NASA appears to be turning the task of developing space over to private enterprise. Which might be a good thing; it worked for air travel almost a century ago.

  2. I think private enterprise has the best chance of pulling it off – for the reasons you’ve already given. As I read your fascinating essay, I recalled a short story I read where the first people to Mars were the New Zealanders, who made us of bits and bobs in an interesting way. The pilot was a woman. Wish I could remember what it was called. I’m sure you would have loved it.

    As for living on Mars – huge problems. I think they might have to genetically modify humans to make that happen. I read a SF like that, too. Heinlein? Maybe?

    1. Agreed: private enterprise will find a way to make it economically feasible. And I hold that the best way to survive on Mars will be to go underground: use caves at first, then excavate. Let the soil shield the colonists from the harshness. I’m sure I’d enjoy that New Zealanders to Mars story. If the title ever comes to you, please send it along; I’ll look for it. Thanks for joining in Greta!

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