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Roommates on Mars - The New Yorker

Roommates on Mars The New Yorker


A century after the Belgica’s return, a NASA research consultant named Jack Stuster began examining the records of the trip to glean lessons for another kind of expedition: a three-year journey to Mars and back. “Future space expeditions will resemble sea voyages much more than test flights, which have served as the models for all previous space missions,” Stuster wrote in a book, “Bold Endeavors,” which was published in 1996 and quickly became a classic in the space program. A California anthropologist, Stuster had helped design U.S. space stations by studying crew productivity in cases of prolonged isolation and confinement: Antarctic research stations, submarines, the Skylab station. The study of stress in space had never been a big priority at NASA—or of much interest to the stoic astronauts, who worried that psychologists would uncover some hairline crack that might exclude them from future missions. (Russia, by contrast, became the early leader in the field, after being forced to abort several missions because of crew problems.) But in the nineteen-nineties, with planning for the International Space Station nearly complete, NASA scientists turned their attention to journeys deeper into space, and they found questions that had no answers. “That kind of challenging mission was way out of our comfortable low-earth-orbit neighborhood,” Lauren Leveton, the lead scientist of NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance program, said. Astronauts would be a hundred million miles from home, no longer in close contact with mission control. Staring into the night for eight monotonous months, how would they keep their focus? How would they avoid rancor or debilitating melancholy?

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In movies like Avatar and Interstellar the humans have to go into deep space sleep.

Usually in a liquid, for some reason.

Robots make more sense than humans.

Yet the U.S. is actually somewhat closer to a Mars mission than it’s ever been. NASA is testing a new capsule and a new heavy-lift rocket. A robotic rover planned for 2020 will test technology for extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. As John Logsdon, an emeritus professor at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, pointed out, “We’ve never cut hardware before.” A few weeks ago, Logsdon helped to convene a Washington, D.C., conference of scientists, industry representatives, and NASA staff which presented a “minimalist” plan, calling for a thirty-month human orbital mission to Mars in 2033, followed by a landing in 2039. It could be done, according to an advocacy group called the Planetary Society, at the current NASA funding level of eighteen billion dollars a year, growing with inflation—provided that funding is shifted to Mars from the International Space Station in the twenty-twenties.

But, even in the best case, a human mission will be dauntingly expensive and dangerous—and once the astronauts sail past the moon they won’t even be able to talk to mission control in real time. Why not program robots to handle the whole job? Chris Kraft, NASA’s retired but still legendary cigar-clenching flight director, argued in a recent interview that the long delay in communication between Earth and Mars makes a human mission impractical. “As an operator, damned if I like that. If I’m on the moon, I’ve got a three-second turnaround. Everything I go to do on Mars I’ve got to prepare to do in an automatic mode. That’s not very smart. Pretty much everything we need to do on Mars can be done robotically.”

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