skip to primary navigation skip to content

SPRI Review 2001: Contributions to Research on Mars

Contributions to Research on Mars

Dr C.W.M. Swithinbank

The phone rang one day in May. A kindly voice asked if I would help NASA to plan voyages to the planet Mars. I protested that I had never been there, but the reply was that neither had they. Soon thereafter, an 88-page briefing document arrived. After completing this homework, I attended a fascinating workshop at the Johnson Space Center near Houston, Texas. Round the table were a dozen people from widely differing backgrounds: two astronauts, one geologist, three biologists, three glaciologists (I was the only non-American), four EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) specialists, and a few others who came and went according to the subject under discussion.

They said that they had invited me rather than a current Antarctican because I dated from an era when polar expeditions were beyond the reach of help or rescue, no matter how desperate their emergency, from a time when, if there was no alternative, a man took out his own appendix or a colleague's injured eye. The present generation, they suggested, might be too spoiled to appreciate the harsh implications of a 30-month mission to Mars from which there could be no escape.

Most of the participants were NASA employees or contractors. To make sure that we understood their problems, the first day was spent moving from one building to another to meet specialists: for space-suit development, habitat (housing) design, robotics, 'bioregenerative' life support, pressurised (and unpressurised) rovers, EVA training, rock drilling, rock-sample handling, and much more. By the end of the day, we were warned, we might be suffering from information overload.

We visited the Apollo control room, now silent as the Moon itself, although the drama of Apollo-11 was still projected on the wall. After being shown inside a grounded version of the giant International Space Station, we visited the control room where 'mission specialists' were monitoring the real thing. As we watched, a symbol projected on a giant wall-map silently arced it way across South America at 28,000 kph. My jaw felt like dropping at the miracle of it all.

I sat in the pilot's seat of the space shuttle (or a training version of it) holding a joystick much like that of the first aircraft I ever flew. We were hurried on because a couple of real astronauts were due there for training.

I longed to dive into the swimming pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (it was warm) where astronauts train on the jobs they will do during EVAs. Neutral buoyancy is not weightlessness, but it is the nearest that we can get to it on Earth. The pool is 62 m long, 31 m wide, and 12 m deep. In it they can sink an entire space-station module beside a shuttle cargo-bay, complete with its long arm to manoeuvre bits from one area to another. While the astronauts struggle under water in space-suits, ordinary SCUBA divers attend them in case they get into trouble.

To appreciate the difficulties of doing anything in an EVA suit, we were made to slide our hands into a pair of gloves in a vacuum chamber and then struggle to mate a nut and a bolt. The pressure difference made my arms, wrists, and fingers so stiff that I would have lost half my tools into deep space.

In the Planetary Materials Laboratory, they look after (and distribute samples from) 382 kg of Moon rocks collected by the Apollo astronauts, more than 4000 meteorites from Antarctica, and a dozen meteorites that are believed to have come from Mars. To avoid Earthly contamination, all specimens are kept in nitrogen-filled glove boxes under positive pressure. This, however, is not enough, and there are second- and third-line precautions. In order to visit this holy-of-holies we had to dress, top to toe, in sterile white garments, then stand in two successive airlock vacuum cleaners to remove any remaining dust.

The relevance of all this to Martian excursions is that NASA aims to take similar precautions to avoid 'forward' contamination by Earthly organisms and then, following a sojourn on Mars, to avoid carrying Martian organisms back to Earth. In a worst-case scenario, there might be pathogens to which the human immune system has no defence.

The NASA scientists I met were well aware of our parallel (but more tractable) problem of extracting samples from Lake Vostok in Antarctica. They knew that I had been involved in both ice drilling and radio echo sounding, so here was another subject of discussion. On Mars they plan to do both: drilling to search for water, and using ground-penetrating radar to determine the depth of permafrost.

Naturally, the search for water is a primary focus of the exploration of Mars. Its abundance and distribution (both as ground ice and groundwater) have important implications for understanding the geological, hydrological, and climatic evolution of the planet; the potential origin and continued survival of life there; and the accessibility of a critical in situ resource for sustaining human explorers.

After the tour, we spent two days huddled round a boardroom table discussing many things. Half a day at least was on personnel selection for a manned mission. Topics included should the crew be single sex or mixed (visions of a first-born true Martian danced through my mind), leadership types, cultural differences with an international crew, motivation, discipline, conflict resolution, working hours, training, food (carried from Earth or grown in greenhouses), zero-g adaptation (in transit), and what to do if someone dies. Then there was much about the practicalities of field work, a safe range of operation, and medical emergencies (a punctured suit or a broken leg).

One of the two astronauts was Shannon Lucid, a 55-year-old who had been on several Shuttle missions and spent longer in space than any other American. After a two-month crash course in Russian, she had spent six months in orbit with two Russians in the Mir space station. Her comrades could not speak English. After that experience, I suggested, she had plenty of views on personnel selection. Yes, she replied, she was now in charge of it.

As I write, Mars is closer to Earth (68,000,000 km) than it has been in a dozen years, so this time we have missed the boat. By the time NASA is ready, it could take six months to fly there and six months to return, together with a stay on the ground of 18 months. Depending on the relative positions of Earth and Mars, total mission times could be anywhere from 18 to 32 months.

Could some of us one day apply for jobs on Mars? We might almost feel at home. Temperatures outside the habitat could be much the same as they are in the middle of Antarctica, with a similar seasonal range. Wind-speeds may also be much the same, although a meteorologist will find that the atmospheric pressure hovers around 6 mb. Gravity will be such that we will step lightly, feeling a third of our Earth-weight. Each day will last 24.6 hours and each year will last 687 Earth days. Two-way telephone calls will be expensive: depending on the time of year, distances imply that a simple 'How are you?' could take 15 minutes to reach the planet and 15 minutes to be answered.

None of this will happen soon. As to volunteering, we are too old. But children, provided they have not reached the age of 10, may be eligible. The watchword is patience.