NASA’s former chief scientist on going to Mars

By Robin Pomeroy | 28 October 2022
World Economic Forum

(Credit: NASA / JPL / USGS)

Nikolai Khlystov: Let’s go to Mars, of course, much further away. Can you maybe share a little bit some of the difficulties you alluded to some of them already when we’re talking about the Moon, cosmic radiation. But it’s just the distance, it’s the communication. What are some of the other challenges for us to actually not just go perhaps to the Martian orbit, but actually to land there?

Ellen Stofan: Mars is a whole lot. And so some people look at that and say, oh, it’s too hard, we can’t do it. And I again go back let’s go back to Apollo. You know, we didn’t know how to make a spacesuit. We didn’t even know how to keep astronauts alive.

First of all, it’s a long way there. It’s about eight months to a year transit time to get there. You’re going to stay for at least a couple of months and then you’ve got a transit time back of about eight months to a year. So we’re talking probably minimum 2 to 3 year mission. That’s a long time difference. You’re going to be in zero gravity. You’re going to be in low Mars gravity. That’s hard on the human body. So we’re still doing work to make sure we understand how to get humans ready for that. Practising on the Moon will be important for that. Landing on Mars is really complicated, and you see the kind of really complex systems that NASA used to land the Perseverance Rover. The amount of mass we need to land on the surface is about five times. To land these really big rovers on Mars is really complicated, really big amount of mass. Unlike the Moon, Mars has an atmosphere, but it actually helps the spacecraft heat up, but doesn’t really slow you down because it’s a very, very thin atmosphere. Mars is a much more kind of familiar place to us because it’s a planet with an atmosphere. But landing on that surface is just really tough. You need something called supersonic retro propulsion, which is something that Elon Musk and SpaceX have worked on. Again, you’re going to heat up that craft coming in and you have to slow it down really rapidly. Huge technological challenge.

Then there’s that one-way light time to Mars. It takes about 20 minutes to get a signal to Mars from the Earth. That’s just distance and speed of light. And so if you said, Houston, we have a problem, it’s going to be 40 minutes to an hour before you hear back. So what does that say? We need computing, we need Artificial Intelligence. We need assistance for the astronauts because frankly, after eight months in space, your reaction times have slowed. And so you’re going to need computing support to help you make decisions. Those are just a few of the technological challenges, let alone living on the surface of Mars, growing food, which we’re practising, on the surface of Mars. So incredible technologies. They’re learning to use Mars, pulling oxygen out of the Mars atmosphere, for potentially rocket fuel or using Mars water to manufacture rocket fuel on the surface. So you can make things on the surface of Mars and bring less with you. We call that in-situ resource utilisation. That’s a big technological challenge that we’re also going to do some practising on the Moon for.

Nikolai Khlystov: What are some of the reasons beyond the science, in your view, for us to actually go there in person? You’ve you’ve mentioned that it feels a little bit more like our own home planet. What does that mean for us as humans if we actually step foot on Mars and maybe a little bit later on, they actually decide to stay there?

Ellen Stofan: You know, I just think it’s this incredible inspiration. And I do want to make it clear, you know, sometimes you read in the press issues around people saying, well, if the Earth gets really bad, we’ll go live on Mars. No, Mars is really tough. It’s irradiated by cosmic radiation and solar radiation because it doesn’t have a magnetic field that protects you from space radiation like the Earth does. There’s chemicals in the soil that are toxic to humans. Mars is really tough and we certainly need a scientific base there with humans, but we’re not going to move large-scale numbers of humans to Mars, it’s just a step too far.

I’m really looking forward to the day when we have bases of humans on Mars doing science, looking for evidence of past life. And I do think, again, if you look back to Apollo, look what humanity can achieve when we put our minds to it. And what I love about this journey, Mars, is it’s very unlike the journey to the Moon that Apollo did, because all of a sudden you’re not going to have just one space agency leading it, you’re having space agencies from all around the world cooperating to get to Mars. You have people that look like all of us who are going to be the crews that go, not just two or three white men, and you’re going to have real international cooperation and also public-private partnerships that I think make this very different, very exciting, very inspirational. And I think that idea of having all of us go to the Moon or to Mars together is really going to inspire the next generation of technologists, of people who help us make this planet more sustainable.

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