By Dave B.
Ok, here’s the deal. Nobody is going to arrive at Mars alive. At least not in the 2020s or 2030s and likely not before 2050, at the earliest, and that’s being extremely generous. If you hear otherwise, you’re being lied to. If you believe otherwise, you’re delusional. However, when sending humans to Mars becomes a realistic objective, there will be indications. Here are some of them.
Where’s the Money?
If and when governments or corporations decide that they actually want to go to Mars, you’ll hear serious conversations for years about ramping up budgets. For example, when you have had five or so years of heated public debates about doubling NASA’s budget, the U.S. government may be about 20 years away from landing a human on Mars.
How Long Can They Last?
The longest time any individual has spent continuously in orbit is about 14 months. A crewed, roundtrip mission to the Martian surface is likely to last between two to three years, minimum (assuming that you want the travelers to do more than brave an incredibly risky landing and then immediately leave). The fact is that we don’t know what that much time away from Earth will do to the human body and mind. So, when you see space missions lasting two to three years (given the time it takes to process medical and psychological data and then make certain that the results are replicable) we could be within a decade or two from landing someone on Mars.
Months in a Box (AKA Face Eating)
How would you like to live in a large garage for about nine months with no ability to go outside? Most people, probably wouldn't like it very much. How about with 5 of your closest friends who also can’t go outside? Odds are that you all have murdered each other before one months is up. Of course, astronauts undergo rigorous psychological testing, so they may last a few months before they begin eating/wearing each other’s faces, but the fact is that people can’t live in cramped quarters for too long without some debilitating psychological impairments. And that nine month figure I threw at you is only for the time to get to Mars. It doesn’t include the time spent on the planet (also living in a large garage) or the time to return to Earth (living in the first large garage again). So, when humanity begins to build a spacecraft with AT LEAST the interior volume of the International Space Station (a facility that we know is large enough that 6 or so inhabitants won’t murder each other in it) then you can be fairly certain that we may be serious about sending people to Mars. Of course, funding such a habitat could take years and billions of dollars…so let’s say that the mission could launch 10 years after its construction begins.
How Do We Land?
The heaviest thing that America has ever successfully landed on the Marian surface is the Curiosity rover, at about 900kg. NASA’s Orion capsule (which isn’t designed to land on Mars, but serves as a good proxy for a human-rated Mars lander because of its size) is nearly 10,400kg. That is an order of magnitude more massive than anything that any country has ever landed on the Red Planet. In other words, we currently lack the technology to land supplies, habitats, and vehicles on Mars, never mind people. When you see two or three missions to Mars that are landing payloads of 10,000+ kgs, we’re probably serious about putting people there.
You Can’t Take it (All) With You
The cost and technological complexity of sending even a small crew to Mars with all of the supplies that they will need for the journey there, while they are on the surface, and during their return, is prohibitive. That means that some significant portion of their supplies (such as water, oxygen, and the components for propellants) will have to be obtained/found/created in situ (at Mars and/or on the way there). Guess what we’ve never tried to do at scale before? You guessed it: we have made no significant attempts to supply water, air, and fuel from anywhere that isn’t Earth. There won’t be any people going to Mars until there is AT LEAST one large-scale attempt to harvest these resources on Mars. To the best of my knowledge, NASA isn’t planning for a mission like that any time soon, so let’s call it…10 years minimum before they get the budget, hardware, and technology to attempt it. Assuming that mission is successful, and all else being ready, we could see people ready to use that technology, on Mars, two or three years after the launch of the initial mission.
In conclusion, although there are millions of dreamers and idealists that don’t want to hear this, organizations like SpaceX, NASA, Mars One, and whoever the hell else says that they’ll be sending people to Mars in the 2020s or 2030s, are lying to you. I’m sure most of them believe what they say and may even make the attempt in the next two decades, but they’ll certainly be consigning their crews to horrific deaths. And I’ve been generous in this back-of-the-envelope analysis. It’s inconceivable that any combination of governments, corporations, and individuals will choose to devote the necessary resources to this endeavor over the next 50 years. Best case scenario, if the resources and focus of the world were marshalled tomorrow to achieve the goal of landing people on Mars, 2038 is likely the earliest possible date that it could be achieved with a better than 50% chance of success (defined as at least one crewmember surviving to return to Earth). Sorry to be the bearer of reality, but it is what it is.