September 18, 2015
Published in The Patriot Ledger September 19, 2015
It’s opening soon – “The Martian” starring Matt Damon. In the film, Damon plays the title character, but he’s not an alien. He’s a human astronaut stranded on Mars when the rest of his NASA crew evacuate the planet to return home, thinking Damon dead. He’s “The Martian” because he then has to find ways to survive alone on Mars.
It’s not that easy for humans to survive on Mars, a planet with no oxygen to breathe, no water to drink, and no food to eat. And it’s cold. Although midsummer days near the Martian equator can reach comfortable temperatures, winter nights can be more than a hundred degrees below zero. And Martian winters are long – it takes Mars nearly two Earth-years to orbit the sun. Does Damon survive? Have you ever seen a Hollywood movie?
This is an appropriate year for a movie about Mars, since this is the 50th anniversary of Mariner 4, NASA’s first successful mission to Mars - a flyby that provided us with our first pictures of the surface of another planet. (NASA’s Mariner 2 had flown by our closest planetary neighbor, Venus, a few years earlier, but it carried no cameras because a thick cloud cover obscures the surface of Venus.) Since Mariner 4, NASA has launched over twenty missions to Mars, most of them successful. Orbiters have provided detailed photos of the entire surface of the planet from above, and landers and rovers have provided a close-up look and detailed scientific data about several regions of the red planet.
Why so many NASA missions to Mars? Because it’s the most Earth-like of the other planets, the most likely to have evolved primitive cellular life in its early years (when we know that it had plenty of water), and the most likely for eventual manned missions and even colonization – making us a two-planet species less vulnerable to annihilation by asteroid impact or other disaster on Earth.
Most science-fiction novels about Mars are set in the very distant future. However, Andy Weir’s novel on which “The Martian” movie is based is set in the relatively near future, when manned missions to Mars may become a reality. But how near in the future?
In 2013, after consulting with NASA, President Obama said, “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.” But Obama was born in 1961, and might live into the 2050s. Will we have to wait that long for a manned landing on Mars?
Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon with Neil Armstrong back in 1969, is among those pushing “Mars to Stay” missions, one-way trips to the planet that will be easier technically and financially than round trips because there will be no need for a return launch – which will be more difficult on Mars than it was on the Moon, because Mars has more gravity. Aldrin has presented a detailed plan to start colonization of Mars by 2040.
Even more ambitious is the Mars One project originated by Bas Lansdorp, who currently plans the start of Mars colonization by 2027. Many question the feasibility of Mars One, including two MIT students who analyzed the project and recently debated publicly with Lansdorp. But finding people willing to go on a one-way trip to Mars will apparently not be a problem. When Mars One asked for volunteers, they received 200,000 applications, from which one hundred have been selected for training. And training will now be easier. By watching the new movie, the trainees can study the techniques employed by Matt Damon (spoiler alert!) to stay alive on Mars.