We want to send people to Mars eventually, and while that will be a historic and exciting journey, it could also be tragic and terrifying, and we also have to deal with the potential pitfalls and dangers of such an adventure. The intention behind this is to allow space exploration enthusiasts to look at the full picture of such a venture. The good the bad and the ugly.
Real-life human space exploration has done a good job of taking cues from science fiction, and as we prepare to send humans to Mars in the coming years, we should look to a sci-fi franchise that captured the hearts of millions. This franchise is The Martian, with the book and movie being absolute triumphs for depicting the full power of the human spirit as the protagonist, Dr. Mark Watney, endured countless roadblocks and setbacks as he overcame planet-sized adversity just to get home. But as touching as The Martian was, this still begs the question: Would Mark have survived in real life? The answer is….
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Let us first consider why Mark it may not have survived and we describe two reasons: Mechanical damage and radiation sickness. A critical juncture in his journey was when his habitat vent literally burst, destroying his crops and depressurizing the habitat. While the cause behind this was not mentioned in the film, the book describes the cause of the explosion as being from overuse. Mark said himself that his mission was only planned for 30 days, but for redundancy they had ~60 days of food. NASA excels at redundancy. However, one must consider that all mechanical components have a lifetime and at some point, they literally break down or stop working altogether. Now, if his airlock went out due to overuse, then could his other mechanical parts in the habitat have done the same at some point? Most notably, the oxygenator, water reclaimer, and atmosphere regulator, all of which were responsible for keeping him alive. If someone fails and can’t fix it, they’re dead. Also, a tiny hole in that plastic sheet he used to seal the lock would kill him instantly.
The next reason is radiation sickness, as Mark was in a surface habitat for 18 months on a planet with no magnetic field or ozone layer to protect him from the cosmic rays that hit him every day. It was never stated if his habitat was sufficient to provide sufficient shielding from this radiation, but assuming it is not, his health may have begun to decline after a while, which could have been exacerbated by his weight loss by during his journey. We think its mechanical components may have failed before this happened, but we digress.
Now, let’s consider why Mark could have survived, and we only need one reason, which we have already mentioned: redundancy. NASA is built on redundancy. They have backup plans for their backup plans and they keep going. A great example of this is the Apollo 13 mission, which saw three astronauts stranded in space after their oxygen tank exploded on the way to the Moon, and in the end, they circled the Moon once and returned home. While the film depicts complete chaos in mission control and astronauts yelling at each other in space, this literally never happened, which can be found in the archived recordings. Everyone remained calm, cool and focused because they had things under control thanks to redundancy. They knew what to do and how to do it. Before we send humans to Mars, it is very likely that NASA has plans for worst-case scenarios, including the possibility of someone being stranded on the Red Planet.
Before we send humans to Mars, we need to consider all the possibilities. The good the bad and the ugly. We must remember that while going to Mars will be both historic and exciting, it can also be tragic and terrifying. Would Mark have survived on Mars? It can. But as we continue to plant our flag a little further into the world, let’s take our cue from this great franchise to mitigate the potential risks and pitfalls of sending humans to Mars.
As always, keep doing science and keep looking up!
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