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Space Travel Advisory: Nothing Ever Happens on Mars

Before you go to Mars, step out onto your front lawn. Maybe the air smells like Valentine’s Day, maybe it smells like Honda Civics or pine cones or seagulls. Take it in. Jump in the air and feel the quick, soft thud of grass and dirt beneath your feet. Plunge your hands into the soil and look at the green blades alive between your fingers. If you don’t want to be a tree-hugging hippie about it, at least roll up the newest copy of Us Weekly and kill a mosquito, or throw a coconut at a passing fixed gear bicycle. Just take this planet in.

None of this will likely ever exist on Mars. They say there’s plenty of carbon dioxide for plants to breathe, and sure, but the alkaline soil is full of rust and the mean temperature is -63° C. There’s also no ozone layer, so even in the places where it’s sometimes warmer, the ground is completely irradiated through about the first 15 centimeters. You’d have better luck terraforming Chernobyl if it was in Antarctica; at least you’d have some oxygen, which is kicked to the curb by Mars’ thin atmosphere and scant atmospheric pressure (which, along with the temperatures, disallows liquid water on the surface). The planet’s small magnetic field is also completely out of whack, so compasses as we know them won’t work. All this is to say that on Mars, you will be lost, irradiated, asphyxiating, and freezing to death, all at once, and then the largest dust storms in the Solar System will wipe out whatever’s left of you.

marsatmo 267x300 Space Travel Advisory: Nothing Ever Happens on MarsMaking Mars even one-tenth as livable as the North Pole or the Sahara Desert will be such an expensive, lengthy, and delicate undertaking that the astronauts who attempt it may never return home to Earth. Therefore, this seems to be the plan.

Because of the tremendous expense of transporting a human crew to  and from Mars, the most recent NASA project has scrapped the return voyage. Even sending an unmanned vessel into space costs about $ 12,000 a pound, most of which is spent in the first few hundred miles, and given the countless tons of supplies will be needed to convey, safely land, and indefinitely sustain a human being on Mars, NASA already figures it’s cheaper to send them more stuff through space than figure out how to get them back.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama are both huge fans of Mars, and even with a Congress full of small-government types rooting out what they consider to be wasteful spending, this program will likely proceed through private funding even if its limited government support goes kaput.

The Hundred-Year Starship project headed by NASA Ames Research Center director Pete Worden is currently trying to drum up $ 10 billion to send a person to Mars and leave them there. Google’s Larry Page is a potential investor; a few more like him and you’ll see this solo Mars mission go down in the next twenty-odd years.
Using nuclear power, they already figure they can get a person to Mars in about four months. To be fair, this is no longer space tourism; it’s colonization, and the person might be lucky enough to be joined by other colonists over time if they can stay alive and prove it’s worth the trouble. Otherwise, with their achievement still evolving into legend, the first person on Mars will have the loneliest death in the universe, amidst a frigid hell of rust-colored fire.

Next time you pass by an elementary school, be extra careful; the person who’s going to do this first is probably already alive today and is right now between five and ten years old. Stop for the dreamy little kid in the crosswalk, walking apart from the rest. Watch as they cross, head up, eyes aimed past the birds and trees, staring into the sky that will never bring them home.

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