4 Reasons News Stories About Martian Missions Are Just Hype
So you're thinking about going to Mars? You're certainly not alone -- we've been talking about going there since the first men landed on the Moon and the whole world shouted "Again!" It would solve so many of our problems: overpopulation, resource scarcity, your buddy's incessant demands to know where the green women at, etc. Hell, if Matthew McConaughey can do it, you better believe you can too. Why don't we do this thing already?
So many reasons!
We Still Don't Know How to Land on Mars
So, first problem, and it's kind of a big one: we can't actually land on Mars. "Sure we can," we hear you say, with the bluster of someone who gets their science news from a comedy website. "We've got rovers and shit down there!" Yeah, but landing a small robot isn't the same as landing a bunch of humans and a bunch of gear to make sure the humans don't die. Basically, the problem is that the atmosphere on Mars is way too thin to inflate the parachutes we would need to safely land anything heavier than Wall-E. That's why NASA has been doing so many parachute tests -- you know, like this one:
Or this one:
And there's more footage here. What this means is that anyone leaving on a mission to Mars right now would have to be cool with the possibility of traveling across the solar system just to end up splattered on some rocks, which we're pretty sure was the plot of the movie Red Planet.
Meanwhile, the Mars One guys (the ones who wanna shoot a reality show on Mars) think they can avoid becoming ground sausage by using jets to slow them down instead of parachutes, but that would require a lot of fuel. Fuel has weight, and you don't have to be a physicist/TV producer to know that heavier things require more power to move. So the more fuel they need, the more, uh, fuel they need. Infinity fuel may be a difficult resource to scrounge up. Plus, if we keep making the ship bigger to carry more fuel and adding more fuel to move the bigger ship, we'd eventually end up with a Death Star.
Fine, a Borg Cube, then.
And only now do we get to the point where we worry about Mars' troublesome lack of water and oxygen, which we're guessing the astronauts would get kind of nostalgic for pretty quickly. There may be a way to replicate water if we happen to find some there, which seems like kind of a big "if," and they're planning to send a rover up to convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to oxygen -- in 2020. That might be a problem, because ...
We Have a Short Window of Opportunity to Get There
Remember the Simpsons episode where Maggie is on the Swing-a-Majig and keeps trying to go for the off button with every swing? Imagine Mars is that off button and Maggie is us, but instead of every second, the opportunity happens every 15 years.
Or roughly the number of seasons since The Simpsons jumped the shark.
You see, our solar system does this weird thing where it revolves around the sun, which means the planets are constantly shifting around and realigning themselves, like a cosmic version of Game of Thrones (don't bother trademarking that phrase, because we just did). What this means for us is that sometimes Mars is over here, and other times it's way the fuck over there. In order to take the most efficient route (that is, an even kind of plausible one), we have to wait until the Moon is in whatever house it's in when Earth aligns with Mars. The last time this happened was in 2003. You figured out the infinity fuel problem, so we know you're a smart cookie who can add 2003 and 15 together and come up with a figure that is, holy shit, only four years from now.
In other words, all of these missions to Mars you've seen popping on the news lately only have until the next World Cup to figure out how to solve the complex problems we outlined earlier (including the "how to breathe once we get there" one). Otherwise, we'll have to wait until 2033, assuming the excitement from all the intervening World Cups hasn't killed us by then.
Or the stadium construction.
And, sure enough, there's a dude named Dennis Tito (described as a businessman and "private space traveler," a position to which we should all be actively aspiring) who plans to launch a mission on Jan. 5, 2018. Hope he doesn't mind not even starting to produce oxygen for two more years.
He also must somehow be the richest man alive despite being relatively unknown and also named Tito, because ...
The Only Business Model for It Is Ridiculous
This sense of urgency for getting to Mars is hampered by a pretty huge roadblock -- specifically, a $400 billion one. That's the price tag of a mission to Mars estimated in 1989, so you know it's probably more like $847 asstillions in now-dollars. And how do these missions plan to get that money? Well, the one business model we know about involves a little technique economists call "whoring yourself."
Mars One is a privately funded project, which means no sweet government grants, so their proposed plan includes things like corporate sponsorship (maybe instead of protein pills, the astronauts only eat M&Ms) and "involvement with high-net-worth individuals."
"Uh, Kanye, you need an actual suit."
"Nah, I'll just breathe greatness."
And then, of course, there's the "Jersey Shore on Mars" thing. Mars One somewhat adorably has a chart showing how much money was made from broadcasting the Olympics to prove that people would watch a broadcast of a manned Mars mission -- which isn't really necessary, because of course they would. We'll be the first to admit we'd watch someone floss for two hours if he happened to be on another planet ... but, realistically, we might not even get that. As Mars One founder Bas Lansdorp himself points out, there's nothing really stopping people from fucking with the cameras to give themselves some privacy as soon as they're too far for the company to do anything about it. So, like, two minutes after launch.
By which we mean: no, you probably won't get to watch someone masturbate on Mars. Unless they want you to.
But it probably looks like this.
Something tells us it's going to be tricky to find people who are both scientific geniuses and attention-seeking lunatics. Oh, and they'll have to be suicidal maniacs, too, because ...
It Could Totally Work, if You Don't Mind Going Blind and Dying of Cancer
It's important to remember that astronauts aren't just intellectual powerhouses but physical ones too, and there's a very good reason for that: going into space tears up your body in all kinds of fun and unexpected ways. One way that we're only just starting to understand is that it messes with your vision. In 2012, it was found that up to 60 percent of astronauts experienced a loss of eyesight after manned missions, and the problem is worse the longer they're up there.
"Wait, I thought I saw a hole there. Cancel the leap thing."
This happens because the change in gravity is exerting much less force upon your body than what it's used to, which is the same reason your muscles go all soft and wobbly if you don't use them for a long time. It's like that, but in your see-holes. Of course, it could be worse -- you could die. Or, you will die, if you're in space for too long.
It turns out that going to Mars is a lot like going to Chernobyl to live in a CAT scan. That's only kind of a joke: just to get there, a person would be exposed to 15 times the annual radiation limit for someone working in a nuclear power plant, the equivalent of 24 CAT scans. It's a little better upon landing, provided you touch down on the correct side, where some of the harmful radiation is blocked. That blockage, however, has been noted to be "shoddy and inconsistent." Sounds like exactly the kind of place we should be sending our best and brightest.
So that's all there is to it! All we have to do is make several decades' worth of advancement in life-support technology, figure out how to land without killing ourselves, time it exactly right, come up with all of the money, and then try really hard not to go blind or die. Strap on your space boots, motherfuckers, we're going for a ride!
For further space oddities, read 8 Real NASA Projects Straight Out of Science Fiction. And check out 5 Recent Blockbusters That Prove Movies Hate Science to see how Hollywood screws up, even when they're allowed to pull the rules out their ass.