Space Matter: Getting to Mars

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Space Matter: Getting to Mars

Space Matter is a weekly column that delves into space science and the mechanics of spaceflight. From the latest discoveries in the universe around us to the fits and starts of rocket test flights, you’ll find analysis, discussion, and an eternal optimism about space and launching ourselves into the cosmos.


We’ve been talking quite a bit about going to Mars, but why? Let’s say you agree with the basic idea that we need to get back out into space (if you don’t, why are you reading a column called Space Matter?) but you don’t quite know why we keep focusing on Mars. Why not Venus? After all, when it’s closest to Earth in its orbit, it’s nearer to us than Mars ever is. And why don’t we go back to the moon while we’re at it?

The short answer for Venus is that the atmosphere is toxic. Yes, the Martian atmosphere is thin and not breathable, and generally when you’re not on Earth, you’re best operating under the assumption that everything out there is actively trying to kill you—but Venus would actually do its best to kill you. Think of the entire planet’s atmosphere as acid soup. What’s more, the atmospheric pressure of Venus is much, much higher than Earth. There’s a reason we don’t know a lot about what’s under its cloud cover—landers are crushed within just a few hours because of surface pressure. Humans would not fare well, even in spacesuits, especially considering all the trapped heat making Venus the hottest planet in the solar system—hotter even than Mercury, which is much closer to the sun.

1. venus_1.jpg Photo courtesy of NASA/NSSDC Photo Gallery

And the moon? We will go back to the moon, for certain. If we’re going to have a permanent presence on Mars, we’ll likely establish some sort of permanent presence on the moon as well. It’s easier to get to Mars from the moon; we don’t have to deal with the extraordinary efforts it takes simply to escape our planet’s atmosphere. The moon is on our list, but we’ve been there before. It’s good to set our ambitions on something new.


So, Mars. It’s the logical choice. Now, how do we get there?

NASA is developing the SLS (Space Launch System), and when it’s finished, it will be the world’s most powerful rocket. SLS is specifically being designed to take us deeper into space than we’ve ever been. The rocket will be multipurpose; it can take us into low Earth orbit, but adding an additional stage (the Exploration Upper Stage) will take us to the moon and beyond.

2. sls on launch pad_1.jpg Photo courtesy of NASA/MSFC

Private companies such as SpaceX are also working on their own methods to get to Mars. Elon Musk has outlined his plans to get SpaceX to Mars, and to arrive there first. In fact, he wants to start building a colony on the red planet, and Musk is planning on using the profits from his satellite Internet business to do it.

The idea is this: Musk estimates he can get 1 million people (paying about $200,000 each) to Mars within 100 years. Rather than one giant colony ship, there would be years of constant launches, sending up small ships full of people and supplies that will rendezvous in orbit. Once all the launches are complete, the fleet will set course for Mars.

But Boeing has made headlines by saying they’ll, in fact, beat SpaceX to Mars. “I’m convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket,” Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s CEO, has said. Is this the beginning of a new space race, but instead of between the United States and Russia, between two private companies jockeying for position as our primary spaceship provider?

Most likely not. Boeing is actually the contractor that is building NASA’s SLS, so what Muilenburg most likely meant is that he’s putting bets on NASA arriving at Mars before SpaceX. When they do, they’ll get there on a Boeing-built rocket.

But the question does remain: Will NASA or SpaceX (or an entirely different private company) get to Mars first? If NASA gets there, we know what to expect: exploration, science, an emphasis on international cooperation. But if a private company beats them to it?

3. mars curiosity_1.jpg Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


If SpaceX arrives first, can they claim Mars as their own?

Short answer: No. Longer answer: The Outer Space Treaty, signed into law in 1967, says the following: “The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.” This means that any claim SpaceX might make on Mars would have to be approved by the United States. That’s just not going to happen. If SpaceX beats NASA to Mars, they’ll own their spaceships and everything they bring with them. They will not own the land their colony sits on, nor will they have a basis to make a claim for the entire planet. If they try, no one’s going to actually listen to them, which is required for a claim to have any effect.

It’s going to take a lot of concerted effort to get to Mars, and likely the only way it will happen is by NASA and private companies working together. We’re so close; the technology is almost there, we just need to figure out how to make it all work.

Top image: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Swapna Krishna is a freelance writer, editor, and giant space/sci-fi geek.