Viewed through a telescope on a clear night, the planet Mars glows a soft, dullish red. It seems foreign and strange, but familiar, too: like Earth, Mars has polar ice caps, clouds drifting in its thin atmosphere (even snow), and changing seasons. Its day is just 40 minutes longer than our own. And even though it’s now a freeze-dried wasteland, a growing body of evidence suggests Mars was once wet and warm, and might have harboured life around the same time life sprung up here. Human explorers are bound to set foot on Mars one day. And it might be sooner than most of us think.
But our neighbouring planet, fourth from the sun, is also unimaginably remote: at its closest point in orbit to Earth, which happens only once every 26 months or so, Mars is still about 200 times farther away than the moon. At best, it would take a manned spacecraft roughly six months to reach it. By comparison, “the moon is three days away,” says Bret Drake, who leads mission planning and analysis for the Constellation Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “You can go any time, and if things go wrong, you can return any time.” Once a spaceship left Earth’s orbit for Mars, there’d be no turning back.
On the surface, astronauts might have to contend with everything from swirling dust storms to blasts of radiation from powerful cosmic rays. Their research would be a scientific bonanza, teaching us about our solar system, about the genesis of life on Earth and maybe even whether life exists on Mars, or ever did. Observing how the crew’s bodies change in reduced Martian gravity could tell us if it’s really possible to survive for years on end in space. They’d have to wait over a year until the planets lined up to come back, making it a 2½ year trip, all told. If something went seriously wrong, there’d be little to no hope of rescue.
Teams of scientists and specialists from around the world are already working on projects that tackle some of the biggest challenges of a Mars mission, changing the way we think about space travel, about human endurance and about how we might live someday beyond the bonds of Earth. At the Kennedy Space Center in April, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a historic speech on space exploration. “We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history,” he said. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”
Space-age luminaries like Buzz Aldrin—who, along with Neil Armstrong, was the first human to set foot on the moon, in 1969—call it our next frontier. “Mars is the only other place that approaches conditions here,” Aldrin, 80, told Maclean’s. “It’s much closer to Earth than Venus or Mercury,” the only other rocky planets in our solar system. Unlike other destinations, “you can imagine astronauts on the surface of Mars, moving and working,” says Richard Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “I truly believe the Mars astronauts are alive today,” says Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk. “They’re probably in elementary school right now.”
In June, six men entered a sealed isolation chamber in the outskirts of Moscow, to remain there for 520 days. The Mars500 study, a joint effort of the European Space Agency and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems, is an attempt to recreate the mental and physical stresses of long-duration space travel, and the effects of extreme isolation. (These lessons also come in handy on Earth: NASA is lending its expertise to help 33 Chilean miners now trapped below ground, expected to be there for up to four months until rescuers can reach them.)
On their simulated mission to Mars, the men—three Russians, two Europeans and one Chinese—only have personal contact with each other. A 20-minute delay is built into communications with the control centre, the same length of time it takes for messages to travel one way between Mars and Earth. The habitat’s main living quarters, where each man has his own tiny bunk, is just 3.6 by 20 m.
In one diary entry in July, French engineer Romain Charles wrote about spending his 32nd birthday in isolation. On his last visit home, “I received some presents for my first birthday in the modules, for [Christmas] and also for my next birthday in 2011,” he writes. “Now here I am with a lot of gifts just under my bed and nothing to stop me from opening them.” Entering the living room, he found his crewmate, Italian-Colombian engineer Diego Urbina. As a surprise, Charles recounts, Urbina had taken a photo of an astronaut, “changed his face to mine and the flag for the French one,” and asked all the crew to sign it. “He knew that since I was nine or 10 years old I wanted to go to space and he made this dream come true in a way.”
Like the Mars500 group, the first team to go to Mars might have four to six members, Drake says, and a complementary set of skills: a commander, an engineer, a geologist and a doctor is a likely mix. They’d almost certainly be multinational and include both men and women. And we can only hope they get along as well as the Mars500 team apparently does. “It’s going to be a very isolated spacecraft, away from family and friends,” says Thirsk, who spent six months aboard the International Space Station last year, becoming the first Canadian to fly a long-duration mission there. Thirsk could often speak to his family back home, a luxury they won’t have.
If there’s friction among the crew, reaching a mediator might not be possible either. Even when psychologists are available, astronauts “often try to hide emotional problems, out of fear they’ll be grounded,” Mary Roach writes in her new book, Packing for Mars, and stressed-out astronauts have been known to vent their frustrations at mission control. Conflict resolution software, in which “the computer acts as a therapist,” might be helpful, says Dr. Jeffrey Sutton, director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. It would give astronauts the chance to play out conflicts—hypothetical or real—and explore outcomes with a machine, instead of on a crewmate.
When Thirsk was on the ISS, he spent long moments gazing down at Earth. “I was amazed by its beauty,” he says. “The oceans are blue, but they’re 100 shades of blue. You see incredible patterns in the desert: 100 shades of brown, gold and red. It’s so heartwarming to see such a beautiful planet, and all the signs of life down there.” This is common among astronauts, who tend to say that seeing Earth is the greatest benefit of their time in space, says Dr. Nick Kanas, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco and an expert in astronaut psychology. It can be calming and restorative, he says, imparting “a sense of history, of a lack of boundaries, and of the beauty of Earth as a homeland.”
Astronauts going to Mars won’t have that benefit. They’ll be the first humans to see their home planet fade away, until it disappears into the blackness of space. (As they zoom toward Mars through permanent sunlight, they won’t even see any stars, Roach reports, just black.) “Nobody in the history of our existence has ever perceived Earth as an insignificant dot. We’ve either seen it as a beautiful ball, or we’re standing on it,” Kanas says. Nobody knows what the impact of “Earth out-of-view phenomenon” will be. “It might be nothing,” he says, “but it might be profound.”