If Elon Musk and the CBC can’t get us there, no one can

Cover | by Gregory Beatty

Being the practical sort, when we settled on Mars as this year’s destination for our I’d Rather Be holiday feature, my thoughts turned naturally to the logistics of how we would travel to the Red Planet and, once there, survive.

First, the easy part — getting to Mars. That’s a joke. Nothing about getting to Mars is easy. Humans have visited the Moon and survived for months on end in low-Earth orbit, but Mars is a whole different ballgame. Every 26 months, our orbits sync up so the distance separating Earth and Mars is “only” between 56-95 million kilometres, compared to 400 million kilometres at maximum separation. So that’s the available launch window.

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk is gung-ho to send a SpaceX crew to Mars by the mid-2020s. In September, he even held a press conference to outline his plan. Before Donald Trump became president-elect, NASA had the goal of launching a crewed (not crude) mission to Mars in the early 2030s.

If you take Trump at his anti-science word, he wants to return America to the glory days of the 1950s. That will extend NASA’s timeline into the 22nd century. So we’ll have to rely on Musk.

Fortunately, we’ve got an in with him, as his mom was born in Regina. So we should be okay to hitch a ride come launch time.

I wouldn’t count on Musk hitting his mid-2020s deadline, though. Because surviving in space is incredibly hard. Shielded by Earth’s ozone layer and magnetic field, the sun’s a life-giving force. But in outer space, cosmic rays are LETHAL. Then there are other issues — like prolonged weightlessness, which messes with your bone and muscle mass; storing enough food, water and fuel to survive the nine-month journey; coping with the stress of being cooped up in a small ship; and a whole lot more.

Our record when it comes to Mars missions isn’t exactly stellar (ha!) either. Dating back to the USSR’s Mars 1M No. 1 spacecraft in 1960, over half of the 50-plus probes/landers we’ve dispatched to the Red Planet have failed. Just this October, in fact, the European Space Agency and Russia pooped the bed with ExoMars. The probe reached Mars okay, but due to faulty instrumentation, the Schiaparelli lander only fired its boosters for three seconds instead of 30 while descending in the ultra-thin atmosphere and ended up crashing into the surface at 300 km/h.

The Essentials

Assuming we don’t go splat like that, we then face the challenge of pulling a Matt Damon (in The Martian sense) and eking out an existence on Mars. Fortunately, I caught a recent primer on CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks outlining the top five things Prairie Dog staff and writers will need to survive on the Red Planet. In an Oct. 22 episode, host Bob MacDonald interviewed two scientists who teach an online course in Martian survival. Together, Bob and his guests had the info we needed.

(And people complain about their tax dollars going to our public broadcaster. Sheesh).

Water is numero uno. While geological evidence shows Mars once had liquid water, because of its frigid temps (planetary mean of -63 C) and low atmospheric pressure, it no longer does. Both poles have water ice, though, and subsurface ice deposits have also been detected.

To get the water, we’ll first have to extract, melt and purify it. To do that, we’ll need energy. Sunlight at Mars is only 43 per cent as strong as on Earth, but according to Q&Q, solar power is still viable. Unfortunately, Mars has hellacious dust storms that often blot out the Sun. Quirks & Quarks recommended small-scale nuclear as a primary energy source.

Nuclear isn’t the greenest option, admittedly, but without energy we won’t be able to generate the third thing we need to survive: oxygen. Mars’ atmosphere is 96 per cent carbon dioxide, so it’s no help. Instead, our best bet is to use electrolysis to split water into its constituent parts: hydrogen and oxygen.

Shelter is the fourth biggie. In addition to being insanely cold, Mars lacks an ozone layer and global magnetic field. So during daytime, the planet is baked by solar radiation. It also has those mega dust storms, so Q&Q proposed living underground (don’t laugh, in the early 2000s NASA funded a Caves of Mars project to evaluate the idea, and its Odyssey orbiter has detected probable cave entrances at Arsia Mons — a dormant shield volcano).

That leaves us with one more essential: beer and pizza. Bad news: Martian dairy farms aren’t feasible, so pizza is out, and I don’t have the space on this page to get into the science of brewing beer on other planets. That said, Mars is covered with loose gravel that’s packed with minerals such as magnesium and potassium, and over time it could possibly be transformed into soil. But early on, hydroponics would be our best bet to grow fruits and veggies for food. And algae would apparently be a primo protein source.

Once all that’s taken care of, we can sit back and enjoy our Martian vacay, just like on the cover. So wish us luck!

Greg Beatty doesn’t live on Mars, he just hatched there. To listen to the Oct. 22 Quirks & Quarks episode that informed parts of this story, visit www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks.