So You Want to Go to Mars?


Kieron Murphy

Weather conditions in Florida forced the Space Shuttle Atlantis to land in California today. The orbiter touched down a little before 1 pm Pacific Time at Edwards Air Force Base, bringing a conclusion to the nearly 14-day mission of the STS-117 crew, who installed vital solar arrays to the International Space Station (ISS) and performed a number of impromptu repair chores when electrical and mechanical glitches cropped up during the flight (see "Gremlins Annoy International Space Station").

Joining the Atlantis crew on its return was Flight Engineer Sunita Williams (CMDR-USN), who set a record for long-duration single spaceflight for a woman, with a tour of 195 days in orbit, mostly spent on the ISS performing experiments.

The six and a half month journey by Williams--and other long-endurance astronauts and cosmonauts--spotlights a key element in the planning by the American and Russian space agencies to conceptualize pieces to the puzzle of how humans might one day travel to other planets, namely, How long can people withstand the rigors of long-term spaceflight?

A preliminary outline of a crewed mission to Mars estimates that astronauts and cosmonauts would have to endure somewhere between 200 to 300 "days" on each leg of the roundtrip to the Red Planet. That would place the space travel by Williams and her long-duration cohorts close to the conditions that future Mars crews may experience. That really is the legacy of space pioneers such as Williams.

Not waiting for the technology of tomorrow to arrive, the European Space Agency (ESA) this week has jumped into the process of preparing humans for such daunting missions by issuing a call for candidates to participate in what it calls Mars500, an earthbound project designed to replicate the spaceflight experience (sans the weightlessness) of a journey to and from Mars.

According to an Associated Press account yesterday, the open call has attracted over 2000 volunteers to attempt to qualify for the 12 positions available. The dozen chosen will then spend up to 520 days in "extreme isolation and confinement." The experiment will emphasize psychological factors, including stress resistance. The goal is to test how humans hold up under such simulated duress, the AP reported.

While ESA's Mars500 project is only accepting Europeans and Canadians to participate alongside a number of Russian colleagues, the outlook for Americans to become potential future Mars-bound travelers may be dimming soon. An item in the online technology community site Slashdot relates that the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, and Science has stripped all funding this year for research into future human missions to our near planetary neighbor. A document approved by the committee includes language that states: "NASA has too much on its plate already, and the President is welcome to include adequate funding for the Human Mars Initiative in a budget amendment or subsequent year funding requests."

The Slashdot source states that the Mars Society, a group pushing for just such funding, has already issued an appeal to the public to get the House subcommittee's decision reversed.

So if you're an American, or you don't end up qualifying for the big Mars500 sleepover, or you're just a space junkie with a zest for all things Martian, you may want to contact a few members of the U.S. Congress to see what they can do about getting some funds restored to NASA's planning activities for the eventual historic first trip to another planet. Tell them Suni Williams inspired you.

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