NASA lacks the “right stuff” to deal with the dangers involved in sending humans to Mars and bringing them back - alive -- according to the space agency's own Office of Inspector General (IG).
In his 48-page report, NASA inspector general Paul K. Martin stated that NASA “faces significant challenges” in protecting Mars mission crews, and that it is being too “optimistic” in projecting its timetable for responding to the risks. As a result, Mars-bound humans “may have to accept a higher level of risk than those who fly International Space Station missions.”
Now planned for the 2030s, NASA's first human mission to Mars will be fraught with new dangers such as deep space radiation, increased cancer risk, impaired vision, negative effects of extended space travel on human behavior and performance.
Reality check: By the 2030s, there will still be no warp drives, transporters, replicators or other “Star Trek” wonders to help our Mars-bound astronauts get there faster and stay alive longer. In fact, as IG Martin notes, they might even run out of food.
Running out of Food?
Yes, even basic nutrition could become a big problem, according to the report, because:
- A mission to Mars and back will take at least 3 years, but the current maximum shelf life for NASA's prepackaged foods is only 1.5 years.
- The vehicle carrying astronauts to Mars and back will probably be far smaller than the International Space Station, providing significantly less room for food storage.
- Periodic resupply missions carrying more food, like those currently serving the Space Station, will not be possible.
- Finally, NASA scientists do not know how deep space radiation will affect the quality, shelf life and nutritional value of food.
While NASA is investigating resupply alternatives, including actually growing food in the Mars spacecraft, the IG stated, “Despite 35 years of experience with space flight and research in this area, NASA food scientists continue to face challenges from crew member weight loss, dehydration, and reduced appetite that can result in nutrient deficiencies both during and post mission.”
Dangers and Costs of Dealing with Them Not Known
While NASA has developed ways to deal with most of the risks of travel in low Earth orbit, many of the added risks associated with long duration space travel - like trips to Mars and back -- are not yet fully understood.
In addition, taxpayers, IG Martin also found that NASA cannot accurately project the true costs of creating ways to deal with the Mars mission risks. In fact, the ability of NASA to pay for a manned Mars mission, safe or not, is questionable given its shrinking share of the annual federal budget, which Congress has shown no signs of enlarging any time soon.
“NASA has taken positive steps to address the human health and performance risks inherent in space travel,” Martin wrote, adding, “Long duration missions will likely expose crews to health and human performance risks for which NASA has limited effective countermeasures.… Accordingly, the astronauts chosen to make at least the initial forays into deep space may have to accept a higher level of risk than those who fly International Space Station missions.”
A 'Culture of Silos' Dragging NASA Down
In his report, IG Martin contends that NASA's scientists and engineers are held back by their tendency to work in what he called a “culture of silos,” in which technical teams work and collaborate only with specialists within their own areas of expertise. In other words, not enough research data is being shared.
“We found multiple examples of work taking place on health and human performance risks that suffered from such communication silos,” Martin wrote.
According to the report, NASA's has so far failed to give its astronaut life safety community a designated representative to work with the engineering, safety, and mission planning communities to ensure that issues of astronaut health and physical performance are fully and properly considered.
IG Found Some Progress, But…
IG Martin did find that NASA had been taking some steps to lessen the risks of the Mars mission including a new Mars rover, set for launch in 2020, that will be able to extract and collect oxygen from thin Martian atmosphere and ways to grow food in the almost sterile Martian soil.
African-American scientist and inventor Emmett Chappelle was integral in the first missions to Mars, developing a method of removing soil from the planet during the Viking program.
However, Martin concluded that NASA must speed up its work on astronaut safety in order to meet its established manned Mars mission goals and timetables.