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Can Humans Really Live on Mars?

Elon Musk turns his ambitions to the red planet

Elon Musk, the real life Tony Stark that has brought us self-driving electric cars and the futuristic Hyperloop transport concept; has big plans to save the human race from extinction. Back in late September Musk unveiled his plans for the Interplanetary Transport System, a massive fully reusable rocket designed to transport hundreds of people to Mars with the intention of setting up an entire city on the Martian surface.

What’s the big fuss?

Although this idea has been talked about for the last decade, the biggest shock of the presentation was how Musk believed that we could have our first settlers on the surface of Mars by 2025, with more colonists launching every 26 months as Earth and Mars align correctly. Musk also kept stressing that anybody was able to take the trip to Mars, no matter their profession, age or race; as long as they could cough up $200,000 for the ticket.

The trip would take around 3 months to get to Mars before finally landing on the red planet. On Mars replacement fuel would be extracted from the rock, allowing the ship to return back to Earth, while the passengers would use building supplies sent ahead of them to start building a settlement on the Martian surface.

The Problems

This sounds great in theory, however there are many problems that Musk did not mention in his presentation which will have to be dealt with before such an ambitious mission can begin.

Planetary protection is a concept developed in the 1970s that everything that humans send to other planets should be sterilised from bacteria, spores and the like with the intention of preventing other planets from being infected with life from Earth, potentially destroying any ecosystem they may have. NASA has been following this diligently since its inception, with missions such as the Curiosity rover having millions of dollars spent on clean rooms and sterilisation.
If we send hundreds of people to Mars, this entire concept will be ignored or broken. It is impossible to prevent such contamination as bacteria are vital for our physical well-being. Bacteria live in our gut and skin, protecting us from more harmful pathogens. This means simply touching a spacesuit could deliver millions of bacteria onto the surface of the planet. We as a species therefore need to decide whether we wish to continue following the planetary protection concept or ignore it and accept the risks in an attempt to make progress.

What happens when we get there?

There are many more practical problems, such as how we would generate breathable air and be protected from the UV rays from the sun, as well as health concerns associated with differences of gravity on Mars. Unfortunately Musk doesn’t seem to have a strong vision of what needs to be achieved before mass colonisation. The billionaire’s view was that it was his job simply to get humans to Mars and not to create some existing infrastructure prior to lift off.

The first few missions are likely to be dangerous, possibly ending in failure, so much that Musk has admitted that he has not considered taking the trip himself. Although there is still much more planning to be done and the small $200,000 fee, colonising the red planet is not a million miles

Image: Lasica/flickr

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