A manned mission to Mars has been the subject of many science fiction movies, books, and television shows throughout the 20th and 21st century. Yet is this formally fiction idea turning into reality? Scientists and engineers since the 1950’s have been studying and planning ways to send a manned mission to Mars. In 2004 the U.S. administration announced a manned Mars mission as one of its milestones in a new Vision for Space Exploration. In 2010 a new bill was signed allowing for a manned Mars mission by the 2030s. No concrete plan has been decided upon, but this topic is being discussed between politicians, scientists, and space advocates.
Mars 500 was a multi-part isolation experiment in Moscow, Russia that simulated a 70 million mile flight to Mars. During each stage of the experiment the volunteer crew lived and worked in a mock spacecraft. The experiment began in 2007 with a 15 day stage that tested the technical equipment, facilities and operating procedures for the voyage. The second stage ran from March 31, 2009 when six volunteers lived in the isolated living compartment for 105 days, completing the experiment on July 14, 2009. The most recent and final stage of the experiment began June 3, 2010 when 6 volunteers began a 520-day simulated mission to Mars. The crew emerged from the mock space craft November 4, 2011.
The 520 day stage of the experiment was intended to determine how the human mind and body would handle a full-length mission to Mars. This stage included a simulation of a manned Mars landing, with three simulated Mars walks. For the 3 Russians, 2 Europeans, and Chinese man communication with the outside world was limited and conducted with a realistic time delay of up to 25 minutes. A realistically limited supply of on-board consumables was also provided. The experiment ended with all participants reportedly in good psychological and physical shape.
How different was this simulation experiment from a real life manned flight to Mars? Below is a list of differences that would occur between the actual mission and the simulated Mars 500 mission:
Radiation: People on the earth are protected from dangerous radiation particles that come from the Sun because they are deflected by the Earth’s magnetic shield. However, no such shield would exist for a crew travelling to Mars. The radiation would pose the highest health risk for the crew because these particles could increase the risk of cancer, nerve damage and digestive problems.
Weightlessness: The six volunteers in the Mars 500 experiment did not experience the weightlessness they would on an actual journey to Mars. At zero gravity muscles are more prone to deteriorate and cardio reflexes are weakened. The crew would not only have to adjust to the weightlessness but also adapt to the gravity of Mars with is one third that of the Earth’s.
Surface: While aboard the Mars 500 experiment the volunteers made a mock landing on the surface of Mars complete with space suits and a robot rover. The surface however they experienced would be quite different from that of Mars. The crew also did not experience sand storms that could really damage equipment.
Time: The crew of Mar 500 spent 520 days in the enclosed steel capsule, but a real mission to Mars would take almost double that time, about three years. Once there the crew would spend about 18 months on the planet’s surface to carry out research while Earth and Mars aligned sufficiently for the trip home.
Reality: The most obvious difference is that the Mars 500 experiment did not leave the surface of the earth. The crew in the capsule knew they were on Earth and could get out if they really needed to. If something goes wrong during a real mission to Mars there may be no turning back.
Even despite these differences, we are getting closer and closer to making a manned mission to Mars a reality.