Like many boomers who grew up during the early days of human space flight in the 60s and 70s, I am a bit of a space geek. While channel surfing during my ‘take it easy because you just had eye surgery’ day home I discovered the Science Channel and a whole series of programs about future human flights to Mars. There is actually a lot of research going on right now in preparation for extended extraterrestrial travel in search of life on other worlds and I am fascinated by some of the detailed planning required to take such a journey.
The lag time in voice communication, for example, is only seconds for a lunar trip, so people on those missions remain connected to the home planet in a way similar to travelling from America to Australia … distant but attached. The communication delay to Mars is seven minutes in each direction. You know that lag time you see on network television when the anchor in New York asks the reporter in London a question and it takes several seconds for the reporter to acknowledge and then answer the question? On the Mars mission … “Good morning, how are you today?” Fourteen minutes later: “Fine. And you?” A mildly funny example, but imagine how critical that becomes in an emergency.
Lunar missions were and still are complicated but it only takes about three days to get from Earth to the Moon and astronauts on Moon missions never really lose sight of Earth. Travel from Earth to Mars takes six months to a year each way, depending on orbit cycles of each planet; they are at their closest point every 26 months. So an entire Mars mission would likely last nearly three years. And astronauts would lose sight of Earth in a week or two.
Three other complex factors involved in manned flight to Mars:
Supplies: they have to take enough food, water, repair stuff, scientific equipment for experiments, medicine, etc. for three years. Oh, and fuel to come back.
The vehicle: big enough to carry all that stuff plus five to seven humans, but small enough to make the trip. I think they said the people space is similar to a small camper trailer.
Space environment: temperature extremes and radiation in space and on Mars are impossible to live in so the spacecraft and space suits have to be made of special material that protects the travelers. In other words, those astronauts will spend the entire mission either in the ‘camper trailer’ or in their space suits when outside of the vehicle for limited amounts of time.
Those three factors add up to the part that fascinates me the most about a mission to mars: the psychological aspects of that trip. Try to imagine yourself on that journey ... a long time away from the norms of Earth, time away from family and friends, seven co-workers crammed into a relatively small space for three years, physically and visually disconnected from Earth with a 14-minute communication delay.
The current planning for manned Mars travel includes experiments involving small groups of people living in close proximity for extended periods of time. The mix of personalities and fields of expertise required in the selection of a crew is diverse … pilots, scientists, etc. … and they have to have the psychological makeup to face the reality of sharing that space and time completely disconnected from Earth for three YEARS. Individuals within groups connect in different ways and there is often a hierarchy involved, especially in a situation which requires leaders. Somebody in that group of seven has to be in charge, or at least responsible for various parts of the mission. Officials back on Earth are also in charge but there’s that fourteen minute delay. Interpersonal dynamics play a much more significant role when you’re talking about seven people on a three year road trip in a camper trailer they can’t walk out of.
Add this to the psychological mix: both males and females on the crew. That aspect of the psychological planning fascinates me even more, in part because it crosses over to the biological side of men and women. Sure, they are all professionals with a mission, but they are also human, with human psychological and physical needs. And this is all being studied too.
The obvious questions and concerns: will there be any physical attraction between the men and women? Will that lead to sex? If so, where? There isn’t much privacy in a camper trailer, especially one that is monitored 24/7 by hundreds of people back on earth. If there is sex on Mars, will there be jealousy? Does every member of the crew have to be single? Should the crew be only all male or all female? Even that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. Would physical hookups actually serve a positive scientific purpose to be studied during a long mission like that one?
I am sure the line of thought in the last two paragraphs didn’t occur to me in the early days of space flight; I was too young. It probably didn’t occur to NASA either; crews were always all male. But those real-life aspects of lengthy space travel have to be addressed and it’s good that those things are thought through in great and minute detail. Hopefully there will actually be a mission to Mars one day. And if I’m in the press corps interviewing the returning travelers, you KNOW what my first question will be.