The idea is still in the talking stage, but there's a chance that by the middle of this century, NASA will put humans on Mars - and leave them there.
The project for human colonization of the Red Planet is called the Hundred Year Starship, and the space agency has already received $1.6 million in seed funding to begin research into it, Britain's Daily Mail reports.
The source of the $1.6 million has not been revealed. NASA itself is chipping in $100,000 to fund the Ames Research Center team's initial work, which is being co-sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
NASA Ames Research Center Director Pete Worden publicly disclosed the project's existence in a talk that was part of an event called "Long Conversation," a six-hour roundtable idea exchange that took place Oct. 16 at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum.
"The human space program is now really aimed at settling other worlds. Twenty years ago you had to whisper that in dark bars and get fired," Worden said. He also added that NASA hopes to "inveigle some billionaires into setting up a Hundred Year Starship fund."
Among those billionaires Worden is inveigling is Google co-founder Larry Page. The two talked recently about the mission's price tag, which Worden estimated at around $10 billion. According to Worden, "His response was, 'Can you get it down to $1 billion or $2 billion?' So now we're starting to get a little argument over price."
Environmental, political and ethical hurdles still stand in way of Mars mission
Depending on Mars' position in its orbit around the sun, the distance between it and Earth varies from 34 million to 250 million miles. NASA's last unmanned Mars mission, the Phoenix lander mission of 2007, took nine months to reach the planet; scientists say that nuclear-powered rockets could make the trip in four months.
Recent research has shown that a one-way mission to Mars is technologically feasible and would cost less than a round-trip voyage. The astronauts who would volunteer to be left on the planet would receive supplies from Earth periodically but would be expected to become self-sufficient as soon as they could.
Of all the other planets in the solar system, only Mars is believed to have sufficient quantities of water to sustain life. But even with the water, doing so would still be difficult. The planet is forbiddingly cold, with temperatures well below freezing in places, and its atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, which would mean oxygen supplies would have to be furnished.
Worden suggested in his talk that things like synthetic biology and alterations to the human genome could be explored ahead of the mission as ways to make the project humanly feasible. He also said he believed that the first stop for the manned mission should be one of Mars' moons, where scientists could conduct telerobotic explorations of possible landing sites. Worden said that NASA could put people on Mars' moons by 2030.
A project of this scope and ambition, however, would also likely require political cooperation and some changes in the way people think. Writing in the Journal of Cosmology, scientists Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies argue that putting humans on Mars "would require not only major international cooperation, but a return to the exploration spirit and risk-taking ethos of the great period of Earth exploration, from Columbus to Amundsen, but which has nowadays been replaced with a culture of safety and political correctness."
Advocates would certainly have to address the ethical concerns of those who would claim that the mission is simply abandoning the astronauts to their fate, or worse still, sacrificing them. By the time Columbus began his voyage, enough was known about the Earth to have made rescue in case something went wrong possible, and our understanding of long distance space flight is not at that point yet. Still, Columbus set sail knowing that his voyage of exploration could cost the lives of himself and his crew. What he found on his voyage to the Americas enriched Western civilization, and a human mission to Mars as the first step towards permanent colonization could yield similar bounty.
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