I’m a little confused by the recent urgings by some rather prominent individuals to go to the planet Mars. Any human efforts to explore or colonize the planet Mars, would do well to learn from lessons and experience gained by first achieving a viable base, and then colony on the Moon.
Where human survival is concerned, there are a lot of similarities to the Moon and Mars:
- Space Suits: Astronauts will need to wear a suit when outside at all times; these suits will need to be durable, and repairable.
- Dust: Astronauts will need to thoroughly clean off all dust before reentering habitats.
- Low-Gravity: Both bodies have a lower gravity; humans have zero experience doing construction in a low-gravity, dusty environment.
- Radiation: Both bodies receive direct solar radiation, and cosmic rays at their surfaces; any habitats will need to be well shielded. The photos at the top and bottom of this article show a lunar and Mars habitat covered with regolith as shielding. There have been articles online and in popular magazines about living in caves or lava tubes on the Moon and Mars. Mars-bound spacecraft will also need to be heavily shielded against cosmic rays.
- Contamination: Spacecraft and landers are built in clean-room environments to minimize bacterial stow-aways. Humans beings have a vast flora of microorganisms living within and on their bodies; it will be exceedingly difficult to prevent microbes from escaping from a human colony. Any search for life on Mars must be concluded, before humans arrive on the scene.
Before we go to either the Moon or Mars, it would make sense to find out about seismic activity on those bodies. When the Apollo lunar seismometers were operating in the early 1970’s, they detected some pretty surprisingly large and long-lasting Moonquakes.
Mars is thought to be much less seismically active than the Moon or Earth, but we currently have little actual data about seismic activity on Mars; It would be unfortunate to find out that your colony site is occasionally seismically active, after having landed there.
The InSight spacecraft, scheduled to land on Mars in 2016, has a seismometer and other instruments that will probe beneath Mars’ surface.
The Moon also has some other advantages over Mars:
- Much closer
- Fast communications.
- Much shorter turn-around time for trips; this is also critical in case of emergencies.
The goal of going to Mars is not to die… I would argue that we need to first prove we can build and maintain a viable colony on our Moon. We will certainly learn lessons there, that we will then take with us to Mars.
It is also highly likely that we will develop new technologies to overcome issues that the lunar colonists will encounter. We’ll be taking those to Mars with us too.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, or any other entities.