WASHINGTON (CN) – Lawmakers saw red Wednesday – the red planet, that is – as they heard testimony from a panel of space exploration experts about the challenges and dangers facing human travelers destined for Mars in the next 15 to 20 years.
It’s a 300 million-mile journey from Earth to Mars, and according to testimony from Tony Bruno, CEO for the space launch company United Launch Alliance, the prospect is more than just dangerous or daunting.
Traveling to Mars could be one of the most – if not the most – significant scientific and technological undertakings the world has ever known, he said.
“Think of it like this,” Bruno told a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee Wednesday. “Getting to Mars is like hitting a hole-in-one at Pebble Beach in California while teeing off from Paris, while standing on a moving pickup truck…The orbital mechanics piece, alone, is very difficult.”
The complexity of getting off the ground and into orbit is compounded by concerns over major health problems for astronauts such as cancer, cataracts and more. But long-term radiation exposure is the number one threat, the panel agreed.
Travel to Mars exposes astronauts to four times the amount of radiation humans experience when working or living on the International Space Station, said Peggy Whitson. Whitson has traveled to the station three times and called herself a “fleet leader in radiation exposure.”
“And that exposure is with the protection of the earth’s magnetosphere,” she told the committee.
But that shouldn’t deter anyone from putting “boots on Mars,” she said. Technology created for the express purpose of protecting human bone mass in deep space is already underway on earth and at the International Space Station. She added that new drugs to slow or prevent radiation damage are also being tested and developed all the time.
Senators asked the panel why robots couldn’t substitute human explorers on Mars.
“You need the human element out there,” Dava Newman, a professor at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics, said. “With human capability, when we get to Mars, we will surpass what we’ve done for 50 years for rovers. I am a robotisist. I love robotics. But with humans, we can double or triple our range of exploration.”
A robot can’t handle sudden shifts in the Martian environment or unexpected obstacles with the same speed or mental dexterity as a human, she added.
“There’s no replacement for boots on the ground like Buzz Aldrin’s,” he said.
Chris Carberry, CEO for Explore Mars Inc., a nonprofit that consults with private and public partners about the prospective voyage also pointed out that the trip to Mars wouldn’t be a direct flight.
Returning to the moon may seem like an entirely separate issue, but according to Carberry, it is an integral step in beginning the journey to Mars.
Developing the technology to get there will take years to achieve and requires a unique testing ground. NASA and other partners must continue to outline how lunar travel can overlap with Mars travel, he said.
Before anyone steps foot on a spacecraft, sufficient space suits, life-support systems, and research systems all need to be in place – along with a more comprehensive understanding of how psychological pressure impacts astronauts during long, isolated journeys.
Returning to the moon and using it as a launch pad will help NASA and other researchers understand how to make these developments in real time. But just returning to the moon isn’t enough.
Given its climate and potentially habitable atmosphere, Mars, Carberry said, is the “best possible option when humans want to understand how to sustain life.”
Low earth orbit is being targeted as prime real estate for commercialization by private and public partners – and with good reason, said Tony Bruno.
What can be accomplished – or obtained – by developing low earth orbit in the pursuit of visiting Mars will be a game changer, he explained.
“Today we think about earth and the fixed resources we have in a world where there is ever more scarcity going forward. But there are 1,000 years of total global production of metals just in asteroids between here and the moon,” he said.
There are also more precious metals there than ever mined in the history of humankind.
“When it is practical and affordable to access those resources, we’re looking at a human future that is completely different from what we’ve seen before,” he said.
Though the senate committee is focused on getting “American boots” on the Red Planet first, the panel emphasized to lawmakers that the endeavor should be an international effort.
Not only would it offset the expense, it would also foster goodwill.
Wednesday’s hearing is the first of many to be held by the committee as plans develop.