Podcast: The Detail

When we go to Mars

The prospect of going to the Red Planet is possibly a step closer with the US President's State of the Nation speech, in which he promises we will land there. 

The chances of anything coming from Mars - according to the 1978 Jeff Wayne musical War of the Worlds - are a million to one.

But what if it’s the other way around, and we go there?

Even in the age of iPhones, self-driving cars, and Rocket Lab sending probes into space from Mahia Peninsula, the idea of humans setting foot on the Red Planet feels vaguely ludicrous, possible only in fictional worlds with light-speed spaceships and the Kessel Run.

But space.com journalist Chelsea Gohd says we’re a lot closer than people think.

"Within the next 50-to-100 years, it's certainly feasible at least - it's not science fiction anymore."

Gohd has written a feature about a bio-engineer and a fashion designer seeking to solve an unusual problem: what do you do with someone who dies in space?  

The fact that such questions are being asked - and answered - demonstrates how close the possibility is.

Astronomer Dr Ian Griffin says it's difficult to put an exact time on, but his best guess is some time in the next 40 years or so.

"There's a lot of work going on - particularly in the private sector with [Elon Musk's company] SpaceX ... but also, NASA is starting to build rockets which can leave the earth’s orbit.

"In theory ... it's certainly on the horizon. Though there are some technical challenges to overcome."

So, given we're talking about topics as morbid as death rituals - how about some of the more obvious logistical questions about how human settlement of Mars might work?

Questions like ... can you grow food on Mars?

Chelsea Gohd says yes - with a big caveat.

"Theoretically, yes.

"In the International Space Station they have a little experiment called Veggie where they grow vegetables.

"Totally grown in space, they eat them, they're experimenting with all different types of foods.

"Whether or not they're able to actually plant anything in the ground, they should definitely be able to grow things in contained experiments such as Veggie."

What about territorial authority? Does anyone OWN Mars at this point?

In short - no, says Griffin.

"Under the Outer Space Treaty of the United Nations, countries aren't allowed to own planets.

"Or course, on Mars, territory's a bit of a misnomer - there's no water, so the planet is just one landmass.

"I would imagine that if there are different countries sending different missions to Mars I imagine you might end up having some kind of division that way, but to be honest ... to get to Mars will take contributions from lots of different countries to get there, so I think it'll be something akin to a planetary government, maybe - a bit like in Star Trek!”

And what about the biggest question of all: even if we can settle Mars – should we?

“We all know colonisation’s had an impact to this day in this country, and we’re still dealing with that”, says Griffin.

“Or course, Mars doesn’t have hyper-advanced civilisations, but there is an ethical question.

“Personally, I think it’s worth doing simply for overcoming the technical challenges: we’re going to learn a hell of a lot. Going to Mars, exploring it, understanding it … is going to tell us more about where we come from, and whether life is common elsewhere in the universe.

“They’re fundamental questions, and to my mind that’s the reason for going to Mars: to explore it, and to understand it, and not necessarily to live there.

“The ultimate goal is one of the great philosophical questions of humanity: is there life out there other than us? And while Mars might have very simple life, it might help us understand the chances of there being more advanced life elsewhere in the solar system.”

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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