Future Tense

The Race to Mars and Back: A Future Tense Event Recap

Kate Greene, Josh Hopkins, Tara Ruttley, and Phil Plait discuss how humans might travel to Mars.

Photo by Kirsten Holtz/New America

President Obama has called for Americans to enter orbit around Mars by “the mid-2030s.” To make that happen will require a lot of scientific and technological research, international cooperation, and some very fit, low-drama astronauts. (In other words, so much for that Mars reality show.) On April 9, experts discussed the challenges and opportunities at an event in Washington, D.C., held by Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University. (The event was underwritten by Lockheed Martin.)

“How you get there is going to define a lot of what we’re going to talk about,” noted Phil Plait, author of Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog. Plait moderated “A Day in Deep Space: Technology, Research, and the Human Condition,” a conversation that took a broad look at the most significant factors—such as the type of spacecraft and the fuel it uses—that would impact a group of astronauts headed for Mars.

One of the biggest questions about “How you get there” is: Will there be artificial gravity, or will astronauts be weightless? Each has its drawbacks. Tara Ruttley, an associate International Space Station program scientist, said, “Whatever the vehicle is to get us to Mars, I feel pretty strongly [that] there’s going to be microgravity involved.” Josh Hopkins, a space exploration architect at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., pointed out that artificial gravity is a lot like artificial turf and artificial sweetener—not quite the real thing, a substitute whose unknown effects could add in extra uncertainties to the process of space exploration. We know that spending an extended amount of time in microgravity environments changes everything from your bones to your immune system. But, as the panelists agreed, artificial gravity may be a case where the known dangers are preferable to the unknown ones.

So how do we get to Mars? Practice, practice, practice, of course. Hopkins suggested a six-month trip to lunar orbit or a 12-month excursion to an asteroid before undertaking the journey to the Red Planet. “The way we’re really going to know the answer to these questions is to do it,” he affirmed. “That’s when we’re really going to understand … what it’s like to be so far away you can’t really see the Earth anymore.”

For those of us who are secretly a little disappointed that a reality show won’t take place on Mars, some of the most compelling discussions involved the relationships among those who would be carrying out the missions. Hopkins noted the round trip could take up to two and a half years—six to nine months each way to get there and back, with 18 months on the planet itself. “How [do] you keep the crew happy and healthy and productive when they’re locked in a tin can for a long period of time?” asked Plait. Boredom could disrupt motivation and derail the mission, said Kate Greene, a science journalist who was embedded for four months on the NASA-funded HI-SEAS project.

The HI-SEAS project involves six people living in a geodesic dome in Hawaii for four months to simulate life on a Martian habitat, and one of the primary lessons of her experience, Greene observed, was the danger of monotony. “No astronaut wants to admit to being bored in space,” she said. “It’s a privilege to go and you might not go again if you said it was a boring experience.” Yet during her time in the dome, Greene was struck by the monotony that gripped her at times, despite her excitement about the project. Keeping astronauts’ motivation high and their attention sharp must be a strategic priority for any mission, said Ruttley. “You want the crew to feel like they’re focused on … something, not just hanging around all day waiting.”

Selecting a crew isn’t just about making sure everyone is contributing to the mission. There are more fundamental questions, too. Women consume fewer calories and occupy less space, said Greene, so perhaps an all-female crew would be more efficient. (She discussed that idea in a Slate piece in October 2014.) One problem with that notion, said Ruttley, is that—like artificial gravity—we have much less statistically significant information on how space travel impacts women: Only 57 of the more than 500 people who have been in space have been women. In addition to gender, age could also be a selection factor— Hopkins pointed out that research shows “older people tend to be less susceptible to cancer induced by radiation,” which is important because of cosmic radiation.

While some experts are focused on how we get to Mars, others—like Adam Chodorow, a professor at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law—are interested in what we do once we arrive. Chodorow’s remarks explored … taxes in space. That may seem like a dull departure from conversations about space missions, but taxation on Mars is a much livelier topic than you might expect. Quoting the beloved and recently departed Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock on Star Trek, Chodorow pointed out: “We’re supposed to live long and prosper [in space].” And from his perspective, “as long as we’re talking about prospering, we’re talking about taxes.” (For more, read Chodorow’s Future Tense piece on Martian colonists and taxes.)

Chodorow’s comments anticipated themes that emerged in the final panel discussion, which was devoted to space law, bureaucracy, and entrepreneurship. The United States has “kind of owned space for a long time,” said Richard DalBello of Virgin Galactic, a commercial space company that, among other things, is investing in space tourism. “We’ve had a good 20–30 years where we were just completely dominant in space.” But that is changing.

Moderator Patric Verrone, a former writer/producer for the late, beyond-great Futurama, asked: “Let’s assume we’re close to actually going out there to Mars. … Once we get out there, what law governs?” The answer, for Henry Hertzfeld of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, is that several treaties already spell out appropriate behavior in space. However, DalBello noted, those international agreements were implemented before serious efforts to do business in space began. In 1967, when the Outer Space Treaty was signed, no one was thinking about commercialization. Regulations that were “built for operation in and near Earth are being applied in ways that are uneven,” he said. For instance, he said, he thinks that it “doesn’t make sense” that a person or company can’t “own” an asteroid.

Changing the rules to open space up to commerce isn’t just a matter of passing new laws in the United States, of course. It will require international cooperation—and that may be the trickiest part. “The cultural differences of how different societies handle space” could hinder a space economy, said Jeffrey Manber, the managing director of the space-services firm NanoRacks. Poor understanding between international partners “slows us down as much as red tape.”

Plait summed up the day nicely: “Going to Mars means doing a hell of a lot more than going to Mars.”

You can watch the full event on New America’s website.