One of our great modern adventurers once said, “It’s a dangerous business going out of your door. You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” The name of that explorer was none other than Bilbo Baggins, and he is someone who knows a thing or two about dangerous and far-off expeditions. In fact, to a hobbit who is standing at the door of his comfortable and well furnished hole in the ground, a journey to the Lonely Mountain must seem as impossible as a trip to another planet.
2015 marks 50 years since humans have been exploring the red planet, Mars. Mariner 4 was the first human made craft to successfully approach the planet on July 15, 1965, giving humans our first real view of the Martian surface. Since that day we have been sending probes, satellites, and rovers, but we have yet to set our big hairy feet on the planet’s surface. This is the dream of space exploration, the golden ring that NASA and others are reaching for. Our precious. However, to achieve it we need to embark on a journey unlike we have ever undertaken. We will face goblins and spiders, there will be peril and discovery. Yet we cannot turn away, because the riches we will find will be greater than any dragon treasure or magic ring.
Riddles in the Dark
There are many questions we must answer if we hope to get humans to Mars, and not the least of them has to do with the distance. Any communication between Earth and Mars could face a delay of up to 40 minutes and that means if our astronauts run into trouble anywhere between home and that far off land there will be no eagles there to catch them. Self-sufficiency and training is going to be key. Right now the plans for sending humans to Mars calls for a six person mission. Each crew member will not only need to have a specialty, such as mechanical engineering, flight training, Elven archery, or medical training, but also a good amount of cross training as well, because if you only have one doctor and he/she falls to the Balrog what do you do then? Additionally, the distance means that the crew does not have the ability to resupply. Any journey between Earth and the red planet could take anywhere between 150 to 300 days, depending on how the orbits of Mars and Earth line up. Astronauts will need to take all the water, air, and food they need to survive with them. It is true that we can recycle water from human waste and oxygen from the air we exhale, but the return is not 100%.
Of course, bringing all this extra oxygen, water, and food adds extra weight, and we’re not even talking about hobbit-meals with the option for second breakfast. At the bare minimum, NASA estimates that a crewed mission to Mars would need to lift twice the mass of the International Space Station, about 1.76 million pounds (800 metric tons.) Even worse a need for back ups and secondary expendables like air filters and spare parts also adds more weight. These are the types of things that, if broken, the astronauts would not be able to repair on their own, and are mission – if not survival- critical.
Then of course there are the more intangible dangers, the subtle Sauron-esque black magics of the universe. Environmental hazards, isolation-based psychological issues, and possible long-term health problems. Mars is a lot like Mordor except instead of orcs and the Dead Marshes, you would probably be more worried about things like freezing to death or getting microwaved. In fact, the planet has an average temperature of about -75 degree Fahrenheit (-60 degree Centigrade) which is colder than the average temperatures in northern Russia. There is also very little protection offered from solar activity. Mars does not have a magnetic field like Earth and the atmosphere is too thin to breathe, let alone absorb UV radiation. Even the gravity can be a problem, being only 38% of Earth normal. When humans are exposed to weak gravity for too long our muscles and bones degenerate, growing weaker and atrophied. Astronauts on the space station exercise constantly to combat the effects, and even then they still come back and go through months of physical rehabilitation, so you can imagine what an extended trip to and stay on the red planet might do to the humans who undertake it. Combine all that with the isolation, possibly claustrophobic travel/living conditions, and constant danger and our astronauts are going to be have to made of mental mithril just to make it through one mission, which could last up to two years.
Barrels Out of Bonds
The good news is that, much like Biblo, we can handle the journey, even if we don’t realize it yet. Any adventure starts with putting one foot in front of the other and we have already been doing that for more than fifty years. Everything we have learned from the Apollo missions, the Mars probes, the International Space Station, and more are being applied to vanquishing these trolls. New technologies are being developed every day, nano-tech materials that are harder and lighter than anything we currently have, new power and engine solutions, and even renewable food sources. Some of our best and brightest are already close to making breakthroughs in several of these fields, and most top thinkers believe that we will have the solutions by the time we are ready to finally face down the dragon that is the red planet.
That is not to say we have been sitting around and waiting. We already have a lot of the answers we are looking for. First of all, no Mars mission will happen in one blast-off, which means that the weight can be distributed over several rocket launches and trips to Mars. Equipment will be sent ahead of the manned crew capsule and will be waiting for the astronauts upon their arrival. We even have techniques for possibly extracting air and rocket fuel from the Martian environment for the return journey. That means we can send a return rocket to the Martian surface and let it collect fuel and confirm remotely that it is working and safe before we ever even send any humans into space.
Secondly, NASA has also been testing the Orion capsule and the SLS rocket, both of which are on track to get humans to Mars by the 2030’s. The Orion capsule will hold a crew of six people but will need to work in conjunction with a larger trans-planetary vessel. The Orion is little more than a modern version of the Apollo capsule and it will be too cramped for six people to spend four or five months making the journey to Mars. After all, even Bilbo had more personal space with thirteen dwarves and Ian McKellen always hanging around on his journey. So a larger ship with room to move about and some personal space could go a long way to helping our brave adventures keep fit both physically and menatally. That vessel is still begin designed.
Over the Hill Under the Hill
Human beings have been obsessed with the red planet for as long as we have had the capability to look up into the sky. Mars has always held a special place in our legends and stories, and that is odd when you think about it. Mars is not the closest planet to our own, that is Venus. It is not particularly large either, at least as planetary bodies go. Yet, we have had an obsession with it for at least 120 years, when Percival Lowell first believed that he discovered the canals of an extraterrestrial civilization. Much like Thorin Oakenshield and his Lonely Mountain there is something compelling us to go, as if it was our destiny all along, but we still need to find the will to undertake this incredible endeavor.
Gandalf pushed Biblo Baggins into his journey because he knew he was ready. The hobbit was more than comfortable to stay at home and live out a peaceful, if uninteresting life, among the creature comforts of the Shire. Like Bilbo we too could stay on Earth, biding out time with iPhones and blackberry tarts with slabs of butter, or we can accept the calling that has been set before us. Gandalf recognized something special in the small hobbit, and though we may not have a wandering gray wizard to give us a kick in the right direction, this is an adventure we know we must undertake. We can feel its pull as keenly as Bilbo did.
Chalk it up to curiosity, stupidity, or the human need to explore, but Mars is the next logical step, and not just for NASA but all of us. We went to the moon with Apollo, to prove that one country was better than another. Now we need to go to Mars to prove that humanity is better than what we once were. The goal of any journey is the destination, but the experiences along the way are what change us. There will be challenges and hardships, triumphs and cheers, but if we choose not to take the road laid out before us we will regret it. The Bilbo Baggins that returned to the Shire was not the same one who left it. Like the hobbit, humanity will emerge from this great endeavor bolder, wiser, and with a new understanding about what we are capable of accomplishing. Watching members of our own species set foot on an alien world and shift the red sands of Mars will remind us of how small we really are and the amazing things we can achieve together.
On the Doorstep
We are going to Mars. NASA has the plans laid out, and have been underway with preparations for years. In our lifetimes we will see a human being touch the surface of another planet. There are still a lot of questions about budget and technology, but those can be resolved. Our science, our understanding of the universe, and even our drive have never been higher. The journey will not be an easy one, but the best ones never are. We do not yet have all the answers to escape the goblins and slay the dragons that lay ahead, but we will learn. Whether it be a magic glowing sword, or an answer for artificial gravity we will discover new solutions for whatever stands in our way, and we will be better for it.
We are not saying that humanity will change all at once, but it will happen. We have already come so far from the world that once sent three men to the moon, that one small step for man. It would be easy to rest there, to not push on. We have already reached Rivendale, a milestone in our greater journey, a place we could stop and say look what we have already done. Yet, we must once again set out into a cold world full of danger and possibility. Mars is the destination, and even that is just another step in some greater journey. Humanity will expand our reach to another planet and beyond, because that is where the road is leading and it is one we must follow:
The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And [we all] must follow, if [we] can.