Mars and the Right Stuff
Imagine you and your family (or some good friends if you don''t
have a family) on a trip in an RV that lasts nearly three years.
But there''s a problem; none of you can get out of the RV, even to
take a brief walk! Some time ago ago, I took our grandson to
the Liberty Science Museum here in New Jersey. The feature
attraction was the Liberty Bell. No, they hadn''t moved the bell
from Philadelphia, where someone recently took a whack at it.
This Liberty Bell was Virgil "Gus" Grissom''s space capsule for
America''s second suborbital, 15-minute space shot in 1961. On
splashdown, the capsule sank, but Grissom was plucked from the
water, only to die with two other astronauts in the 1967 fire on
the Apollo launch pad. The Liberty Bell rested on the ocean
floor for 38 years before it was lifted from the depths in 1999.
The location and retrieval of the Liberty Bell was no cinch. It
rested 15,000 feet below the ocean surface - 3,000 feet deeper
than the Titanic. Rough seas hampered the effort and the tether
connecting the recovery ship with the underwater submersible
was severed in an earlier recovery attempt. The Discovery
Channel financed the project under the command of an
experienced salvager, Curt Newport.
Why did the Liberty Bell sink? The answer is that the explosive
bolts, installed to blow the hatch in case of emergency, blew the
hatch off, causing water to enter the capsule. This made the
capsule too heavy for the helicopters to hold and they had to cut
it loose. There was speculation that Grissom may have blown
the hatch prematurely in a moment of panic, speculation that
Grissom denied. Unfortunately, the hatch itself is probably a
mile or so away from the location of the capsule and no plans for
its recovery are in the works. Perhaps it''s just as well that the
answer will never be known.
The question does bring up a point, however. How does NASA
know what kind of individual possesses the "right stuff" to be an
astronaut? For the Mercury program, of which the Liberty Bell
was a part, the feeling was that the candidates should be military
test pilots or the equivalent. The seven original Mercury
astronauts were chosen on that basis. When I saw the Liberty
Bell, about the size of a telephone booth, I thought how it must
feel when you''re coming down in such a small container with so
little to shield you from the fiery reentry.
It set me to thinking about how far we''ve come in the forty years
since the capsule sank. Today, space shuttle launches are pretty
routine, what with the building and equipping of the international
space station. And we did land on the moon a few times. Now
NASA is thinking seriously about a manned mission to Mars.
Although this is certainly a dream of any red blooded space
enthusiast, the challenges presented by such a mission make the
trips to the moon seem like child''s play.
Time is the key element that enters into just about every major
problem faced on a Mars mission. Because of the relative
positions of Earth and Mars in their respective orbits, there are
only certain optimum dates for launching the trips to and from
Mars. If you''re one of the lucky astronauts chosen for the trip,
you''re in for over an 8-month ride to Mars. Once there, like it or
not, you are trapped for a year and three months before you take
off on the trip back to Earth. Altogether, you spend 972 days (2
years and 8 months) away from home!
Obviously, for such a long trip, you have to have enough fuel for
launching and return of the spacecraft. You will also need a
nearly 3-year supply of food for you and your companions. You
might want to be able to do a little farming in space to cut down
on the weight of food. But you have to consider the other
ingredients necessary for farming and decide whether carrying a
full supply of food is a better alternative. And you''d better be
sure your diet is varied enough so you don''t go bananas having to
eat the same old things every day for almost three years. Water
is another key item and the recycling of your waste is going to be
Oxygen is required for breathing and recycling of the exhaled
carbon dioxide will be a must. At Rutgers, we''ve talked to a
fellow who is working on this problem. When Mars is reached,
you may have the equipment with you to produce oxygen and
perhaps other needed materials from the Martian soil. On Mars,
the atmosphere is much thinner than here on earth and you''d
better shield yourself from cosmic radiation that gets filtered out
by our atmosphere on Earth. Those supernovae put out a lot of
high-powered particles that can louse up DNA pretty badly.
You have many other technical problems to solve but hey, these
are just engineering problems and we''ve solved them for getting
to the moon; it''s not that big a deal! Just for the heck of it, let''s
assume that you''re right and that the mechanics and logistics of
getting to Mars have been solved. Now it''s all downhill, right?
Wrong! The really big problems rest with you and your human
companions on the trip. Before you go, you might want to read
an article by Michael E. Long in the January 2001 issue of
National Geographic. The article is titled "Surviving in Space".
The gist of this article is that the feasibility of a manned (and
womanned) Mars mission will ultimately depend on our human
frailties and limitations. Some of these frailties have come to
light with astronauts'' extended stays on the Russian space station
Mir. One that has received a lot of publicity is loss of bone
mass. Weightlessness causes a 1 to 2 percent a month loss of
bone mass that, over the period of a Mars trip, could result in
severe osteoporosis. The risk of fracture becomes a significant
problem. What if you take man''s first big step on Mars and
break your leg? It took more than 6 weeks to heal my broken
leg; are you sure yours will heal at all on Mars?
There are other drastic changes that occur. Your heart loses
muscle mass, you become anemic, your immune system is
compromised, your leg muscles atrophy and you find you can
only sleep six hours a day. You''ve probably read or heard about
the epidemic of sleep deprivation in the U.S. and warnings that
there are grave consequences for our health and safety. Is six
hours a day in space enough? Who knows?
We have always considered that astronauts are a special breed
having the right stuff. The recent tourist in space, Dennis Tito,
may have shattered this view a bit. However, except for the
occasional person who has $20 million to shell out for an 8-day
ride, I personally still feel it takes a special kind of individual to
ride that baby off the launch pad.
You might think that you would want to have for your
companions to Mars a crew in which all the astronauts were
made of the same right stuff. Your ideal crew would consist of a
bunch of test pilots, all with super technical and medical
backgrounds to handle any emergency. In other words they''d
have pretty much the same type of personalities and interests.
But now picture this nearly 3-year trip. You''re locked in with
these people for three years! Get the picture? These astronauts
are going to get awfully tired of each other, all of the same type
with the right stuff! Boring! It might be better if you have a
pretty varied bunch of people, perhaps a joker or two, and a
serious type who can anticipate trouble. Maybe someone with a
great voice to sing your favorite tunes?
Another point that you may not have thought of is that, contrary
to the trips in the shuttles or to the moon, on a trip to Mars the
earth will no longer be visible as this nice bluish sphere known
as home. It''s going to be very lonely out there! You''d better
have lots of tapes or CDs to link you to your home planet.
I just noticed in the May issue of National Geographic some
letters to the editor commenting on this article. One of the letters
is from Col. R. Mike Mullane, a former shuttle astronaut. He
doesn''t know of anyone who can check his libido at the launch
pad for three years! He wonders if only married couples should
be sent or would singles be better? He suggests that some kind
of reversible sterilization would be necessary since pregnancy is
absolutely not an option in space. He also suggests prophylactic
measures would have to be taken, such as removing any wisdom
teeth or appendixes harbored by the astronauts. His conclusion is
that it will not be the spacecraft operating at its limits but the
human occupants operating at their limits that will be decisive in
a Mars mission.
I''ve only touched on some of the problems considered in the
Geographic article and haven''t discussed some of the research
going on to pinpoint and solve these problems. But there is a
bright spot in all this. That bright spot is Valery Polyakov,
designated in the article as the King of Space Travel. I don''t
think anyone could disagree. Dr. Polyakov spent 437 days on
Mir! Definitely the record for extended stay in space. I must
admit that on occasion my wife has to prod me to get in my 3-
mile walk. Polyakov apparently is of stronger stuff, exercising
diligently for two hours every day in space. When he landed in
Kazakhstan he was helped out of his return vehicle but walked
off under his own power! Later, when he met John Glenn, he
asked Glenn if he wanted to fly to Mars. According to the
article, Glenn replied, "With you, Valery, anytime!" I think
we''ve found the guys for the job!
Allen F. Bortrum