The scientific knowledge and technologies needed to make human exploration of the Red Planet a reality are within our reach. We’ve heard about the great science that can be done with humans on Mars and we’ve heard about the technologies we need to make this happen.
But there’s something critical here and that’s the actual people that we’re trying to get to Mars. Why do we need people? Why can’t we do this with robots? Just think about the Opportunity rover.
It’s been on the surface now for over a decade, which is completely amazing, returning science that whole time. But in that time it’s gone a little over 26 miles.
So think about what a human brings to the equation: mobility, flexibility, creativity. I’m a field geologist, I go out and study volcanoes around the world and I really have this bias that it’s going to take a trained field geologist out there on the surface of Mars to really accomplish the science.
So our crews every day up on the International Space Station are working on how do we get that human health element? How do we get humans to stay healthy for that seven to eight month journey to Mars? And we know from our experience on the Space Station that we can do this but we are also well aware of the numerous health effects.
Well it turns out that with the current protocols that we’re using on the ISS with the astronauts, if they exercise about an hour and a half a day, most of them can return to Earth with about the same bone density and muscle strength as they left with Nutrition. A lot of how we stay healthy has to do with what we put into our bodies.
How do we ensure that astronauts on the journey to Mars can have fresh food? So just in the past year we’ve been running an experiment called Veggie where we grew lettuce on the Space Station. The astronauts ate it, they said it tasted fine.So we’re doing things to really push what we understand about plant biology, translate that into how plants behave in micro gravity – to really understand better how we can grow plants in space.Ocular health.
The astronauts have a syndrome where some astronauts come back with some visual impairment.So what is causing the ocular problems? We don’t know, we’re working on it everyday on the ISS. Radiation is obviously one of our key issues because once we get out of the Earth’s magnetic field, out in the vicinity of the moon on the way to Mars the astronauts are being subjected to both cosmic radiation and solar radiation.
So we’re trying to understand, why are some people better repairers of radiation damage at the cellular level, at the genetic level, than other people.
To a lot of us I think the ISS, we see those photos from the outside and we forget what an amazing laboratory it is from the inside and you can see from freezers where we keep samples, from the 3-D printer we have furnace where we do combustion experiments, incubators,microscopes and then of course we have the people who are actually doing the work, the astronauts.
So all of this is getting us to this point, of getting humans ready to go on that long journey to Mars.