Illustration: Jeffrey Liu

Illustration: Jeffrey Liu

Since primeval times, humans have been fascinated with space. And perhaps no celestial body has received as much attention as has Mars, owing to its many similarities with and proximity to Earth. Our dream to go to Mars predates our first foray into space, and today many organizations, including NASA, are working to turn this dream into a reality. Although NASA plans to establish a human base on Mars as part of its long-term goal of making humans an interplanetary species, this endeavour faces a number of financial and technical challenges that make it nearly impossible.

Though the prospect of sending humans to Mars is undoubtedly exciting, it is one that would require the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars. This greatly exceeds NASA’s funds—its 2016 budget was just $19.3 billion [1]. The project will require a budget of approximately $100 billion over a span of thirty to forty years, and the numbers are likely to increase; after all, the International Space Station (ISS) was supposed to be a  $10 billion, decade-long expenditure, but it ultimately cost ten times as much. [1] With these figures, NASA is unlikely to receive sufficient funding. Although the US Senate recently approved $5.5 billion for space exploration for 2017, the Mars mission may be scrapped in the future under a different administration, as funding for such projects is fickle in nature. For instance, upon entering office, President Obama cancelled the Constellation program, a program that would take the agency to the moon and eventually Mars, owing to the budget, which would be $230 billion over 20 years [2]. However, by utilizing recent technological advancements such as self-driving cars, 3D printing, and partnerships with private corporations, a panel of experts in the scientific community has estimated that a lunar base may be established by 2022 with a relatively paltry $10 billion [3].

In addition to monetary concerns, there are a number of technological challenges associated with establishing a Martian base that are yet to be solved. Technology required for settlement on other planets would be far more effectively tested on the moon, as it takes a few days to get there compared to the 9 months it takes to get to Mars [4]. According to NASA’s official plan, some of the major obstacles to the manned mission are transportation and proper landing on the surface of Mars. The spacecraft would have to carry 20 to 30 megatons of payloads to support the crew, which would mark the longest transportation of such mass in spaceflight history. NASA has yet to develop the technology required to accommodate such large volumes. But it’s not just getting to Mars that is going to be difficult, but also getting onto Mars. Even the most advanced sky crane placed less than 1 megatons of payload onto Mars. Creating a system capable of unloading payloads 20-30 times larger will require “a completely new approach,” according to NASA. Clearly, the technology required to get to Mars is far from ready. [5]

A manned Mars mission would not serve much practical purpose. According to NASA, part of the rationale for the Mars mission is the investigation of the existence of other lifeforms [3]. NASA and other space agencies have already sent space probes to investigate microbial life in Mars. Sending human beings would be redundant when the same tasks can be achieved more effectively with robots.

Instead of focusing its resources on going to Mars, NASA should work on building a lunar base, as it would better serve their plans of interplanetary expansion. While NASA might not currently be able to establish a colony on Mars, a lunar base would be the perfect launching pad to test technologies required to colonize Mars [4]. NASA would also be more likely to receive the $10 billion required for this project, and if successful, this could increase the chances of the Mars mission receiving sufficient funding.

Going to the moon would not be a deviation from NASA’s long-term goal of establishing a colony on Mars; rather, by using the moon as a stepping stone, NASA will be able to increase the likelihood of establishing our footprint on Mars and beyond. [3]  






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