The Apollo Program is an example of a tremendous engineering accomplishment which although had a known but hushed political motive, yet was successful in ushering in a new era of optimism for space exploration. The program itself is a big part of history which managed to grab its place on the mind of many people around the world. Almost everyone is aware that humans went to the moon in the 1960s and the first man to set foot was Neil Armstrong. But as amazing as the mission is, it kind of overshadows the Mars-focused missions which happened in the same decade, in fact, the first successful flyby mission took place four years prior to the moon landings. It is unfair considering the fact that, even though moon-based missions are extremely hard, missions to Mars require a lot more considerations. Even the launch itself has to happen on specific launch windows which are at an interval of 780 days from each other and these windows exist to ensure that the distance between Earth and Mars is shortest and therefore the journey will be quicker and more efficient. Orbital Mechanics is hard !. In fact, space exploration is really hard, and Mars-based missions profoundly contribute to the reputation of space exploration being an epitome of a Herculean task. So, why do we even bother going to Mars?
A good point to remember is that roughly sixty percent of spacecraft made for Mars-based exploration programs failed before completing their missions, in fact, it is actually until recent times that Mars-based missions have a high probability of success. However, the technology used is getting better and more countries/entities are thus carrying out their own missions. In fact, as of December 2020 spacecraft related to eight different missions are operating on Mars and three more missions are on route to begin, Such technological burgeon upon Mars is unboxing more and more information related to Mars and making it even more plausible for even larger-scale projects, perhaps colonization.
If you are a space geek, you don’t really need an introduction to Elon Musk or SpaceX. In fact, the company is planning on sending crewed missions to Mars by the mid-2020s, while as ambitious as the plan is, it is certainly possible to send people to Mars but the problem is what happens after that. The first crew will be subjected to intense radiation and weather, low gravity, lack of oxygen which again raises the question that, is colonizing Mars even worth it? Yes, and let’s dig deeper into the reasons
As mentioned earlier, the rate of success for missions specifically aimed at Mars has improved significantly over the years. More and more new instruments are being added as the objective becomes more grand and challenging, which means eventually as the colonization process carries out in the full swing, the spacecraft design will get better and more efficient, perhaps a new form of space propulsion (most probably ion propulsion) will become mainstream. So many things can happen, but the progress can also be in the form of spinoff technology because throughout the years NASA has been responsible for a variety of such technologies like invisible braces, memory foam, artificial heart, etc. With Mars-based missions, technologies both beyond and within the space sector can be invented.
Another way it can contribute is through Astrobiology. Even though the field is at its early stages, research on Mars will make the topic, even more, flourished, Sure, there are rovers to carry out the task but the human contribution will make it more efficient. Perhaps, it will even answer some of the questions regarding life on other planets, theories regarding Panspermia, or just how to survive on another planet. Mars, although is in the habitable zone of the solar system, is really deadly and a big challenge is not to die. Therefore these missions will help to generate certain ways to thrive like cave-dwelling or biodome or agricultural techniques like hydroponics (since Martian soil is toxic due to the presence of perchlorate ). These techniques can also be applied on Earth for remote places, where inhabitation and the act of vegetation are especially difficult. But even the journey itself is quite beneficial to science. The longest an individual has been in space is 437 days but the single journey to Mars can be widely within the range of 150-300 days and then there is also the time spent on Mars and the return trip. All of which is certain to take a toll mentally and physically, the information acquired can help to enhance the medical industry even further.
But these missions can also help the space-based economy to accelerate and create more jobs. Ever since the widespread use of satellites, the space industry has thrived and Mars-based missions will create more advantages for the exploration programs and once the colony is set up, asteroid mining for resources will be a matter of time.
However, the most important reason should be the sake of survival and the desire for exploration that is deeply embedded within. Global warming is a growing issue and there have been five mass extinction events ever since life has formed on Earth, we won’t be the exception. At some point, Earth will become uninhabitable and it will be required to move somewhere else and starting this expedition with perhaps the most livable planet on the solar system after Earth is a good beginning.
Definitely, this is going to be tough. Mars does not even have a proper atmosphere. So, after the initial phase of colonization and sustainability, the process of terraforming will be required and this can be a starting point for exploration to other bodies on the solar system and perhaps lead to a breakthrough on multiple technologies which can not only contribute to human ingenuity and knowledge but also to life on Earth in many different ways. So the question should be, why not go to Mars?
-Nehal Mahmud Khan
Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology(AUST)