Mars or Bust

Can a planned trip to Mars deal with the problem of isolation?

Posted Mar 18, 2013

Wanted:  man and woman for a historic voyage to Mars and back.   Married couple preferred.

When millionaire space pioneer Dennis Tito makes plans, they are definitely big ones.   The 72-year old Tito has already made history by becoming the first commercial space tourist in 2001 when he paid the Russian government $20 million for a trip to the International Space Station.   Now he has unveiled an even more grandiose scheme by announcing a planned trip to Mars in 2018 when planetary alignment is favourable.    “We have not sent humans beyond the moon in more than 40 years,” Mr Tito said in a press conference announcing the planned mission.    “I’ve been waiting, and a lot of people my age, have been waiting. And I think it’s time to put an end to that lapse."

As a former rocket scientist who became a millionaire through his Wilshire Associates investment company,  Tito certainly has the qualifications needed to push his idea for a privately funded Mars mission forward.  He insists that the technology is already in place for a 501-day mission allowing two astronauts to fly within 100 miles of the Martian surface and return safely back to Earth.   Despite the technological hurdles to be overcome, Tito and his associates consider the psychological and physiological challenges to be the greatest barrier to success.  Potential candidates are expected to face a barrage of physical and psychological testing to see if they can handle the isolation.  Not to mention the dangers of long-term zero-gravity conditions and likelihood of radiation exposure.   Given the fertility risks involved, the couple to be chosen will likely be middle-aged and have already had children.

While prolonged expeditions were considered routine during the early days of naval exploration, the dangers involved were often overlooked.    During the first voyage of the U.S.S. Beagle on a three-year mission exploring the coast of South America, the Beagle’s captain, Pringle Stokes, committed suicide because of the isolation.    Stokes’ death bothered the Beagle’s next captain, Robert Fitzroy, enough to take special precautions considering his own family history of suicide (his uncle cut his throat a few years before).  Since the Beagle was set to go on a new voyage that would take years to complete, Fitzroy decided to bring a trained naturalist along who could keep him sane by being a companion. 

The young naturalist he chose, Charles Darwin, would eventually transform modern biology with his theory of evolution.  Mind you, that didn’t work out so well for Fitzroy,  who cut his own throat a few years later (he hated the idea of being partially responsible for Darwin’s theory due to being an arch-creationist).   Still, the principle of using companionship to avoid the psychological problems associated with long periods of isolation seems sound enough. 

Years later, Joshua Slocum would make history by sailing around the world solo and the book he published in 1900 described the frequent hallucinations he experienced because of the isolation.   Whether having a companion along might have saved his life during another solo voyage in 1909 is something that we’ll likely never know considering he and his ship vanished without a trace.

So, would sending a man and a woman on a long voyage to Mars make scientific sense?   There are certainly a wide range of unanswered questions about the effects of zero gravity on human physiology over very long periods of time.    The current record is held by Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov who spent 437 days and 18 hours aboard the Mir space station from January 8, 1994 to March 22, 1995.  In combination with other spaceflights,  Polyakov spent more than 678 days in zero gravity total before retiring from the space program.  Despite his extended recovery, there were no signs of lasting ill-effects.

Sending a married couple could add even more scientific information about long space flight, particularly the question of sex in zero gravity which, amazingly enough, has never been studied before (officially, at least).    There is even an earthly precedent  with the historic round-the-world non-stop flight by Dick Rutan and Jenna Yaeger who were in a serious relationship at the time.   Then again, that relationship fell apart not long after the nine-day flight was completed, something else Tito’s Martian astronauts might want to consider.

Ultimately, Dennis Tito’s planned mission represents a major challenge in an era when real challenges seem increasingly rare where manned spaceflight is concerned.   With the scrapping of the U.S. Space Shuttle project and the eventual winding down of the International Space Station, the rise of commercial space flight may be just what we all need to reclaim the dream of space travel and move forward at last.

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