Planets

NASA: Mars Colony 'a Long Way Down the Road'

The first NASA astronauts to set foot on Mars will aim to establish a research-and-operations base, not a permanently inhabited colony.

The first NASA astronauts to set foot on Mars will aim to establish a research-and-operations base, not a permanently inhabited colony, agency officials say.

According to NASA's current plans, the Mars outpost - which NASA hopes to set up by the end of the 2030s - will serve as a hub that accommodates astronauts on a temporary basis, said Ben Bussey, the chief exploration scientist in NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

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A colony is "a long way down the road. No one's thinking of, on the NASA side, like a permanent human base," Bussey said Wednesday (March 16) during a presentation with the space agency's Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group. [Red Planet or Bust: 5 Crewed Mars Mission Ideas]

"The idea here is that you would have your exploration zone that you set up for the first crew," Bussey added. "And that crew would leave, and then you send another crew at the next good launch opportunity. So it isn't permanently occupied, but it is visited multiple times."

A permanently occupied Mars settlement may eventually grow out of NASA's crewed activities. But for several other organizations, a Red Planet colony is the explicit goal.

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One of these groups is SpaceX, the American spaceflight company founded in 2002 by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk. Musk has stressed many times over the years that he established SpaceX primarily to help make humanity a multiplanet species.

Musk envisions thousands of people living on the Red Planet in the not-too-distant future. The key to making this happen, he has said, is to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets, which could slash the cost of spaceflight by a factor of 100 or more.

So SpaceX has been conducting a series of increasingly ambitious reusable-rocket tests over the past few years. For example, the company has repeatedly attempted to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket back on Earth during launches.

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Most of these tries have been near misses. On multiple occasions, the rocket stage successfully hit the deck of its target "autonomous spaceport drone ship" in the ocean but ended up toppling over and exploding. But a Falcon 9 stage did land softly on terra firma at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station this past December - the first time this had ever been done during an orbital launch. (Blue Origin, the spaceflight company established by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, has also pulled off rocket landings, but so far, only during suborbital launches.)

The Netherlands-based nonprofit Mars One is also shooting for a Red Planet colony. The group aims to land four pioneers on Mars in 2027 and then send more settlers every two years thereafter. (There are no plans at the moment to bring anyone back to Earth.) Mars One aims to pay for these activities by staging a global media event around the colonization process.

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An artist's conception of a permanent Mars colony -- unfortunately, the idea of a permanent human presence on the Red Planet will likely remain science fiction for some time to come.

Scott Kelly is a NASA astronaut working for a year in space on the International Space Station. Does he have the stuff of "The Martian,"

the highly anticipated Matt Damon movie to be released on Oct. 2

, chronicling the life of a stranded astronaut on the surface of Mars? While Kelly certainly isn't on his own in space, much of the work he is doing would be useful for a trip to Mars. Here are some of the things the astronaut is working on that Mark Watney (Damon's character in "The Martian") would appreciate.

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The sun goes through an 11-year cycle of activity, and we are just past the peak of one of those cycles. The solar peak is a time when the sun unleashes more flares and coronal mass ejections (charged particles). When these particles hit the Earth's magnetic field, they can produce spectacular auroras.

But they also can give astronauts a higher dose of radiation.

The space station monitors radiation levels for astronauts close to Earth; in fact, one of the reasons Kelly was selected for this mission was he did not exceed the lifetime radiation levels allowed for astronauts. Radiation is expected to jump for those travelling outside of Earth's magnetic influence. Mars doesn't have much magnetic field to speak of, and the Curiosity mission is monitoring radiation levels on the surface to get more information for future human missions.

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Working in space is a harsh business. You're busy all the time, you're stuck in a small environment with several people, and your family and friends are far away. NASA keeps close tabs on its astronauts' psychological health through measures such as doctor calls with astronauts, and

having the astronauts keep journals

during their missions. This will especially be important for Mars, as astronauts will need to be even more self-sufficient due to the time delay in communications between planets. NASA has

an ongoing comm delays study

for astronauts doing simple tasks; these tasks and their effects on astronauts will be studied as the station work continues.

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Microgravity is hard on your body. NASA has its astronauts exercise for a couple of hours a day, which seems to help counteract bone loss for missions of six months. But what about a year, or longer? That's part of what Kelly's mission is supposed to answer. Bones aren't the only things to worry about, either. Muscles shrink, eye pressure increases, your sense of balance changes. Even your immune system may be affected, something that

NASA is also looking at

in detail. So while we think of astronauts as boldly doing spacewalks and experiments on station, understand that they are also part of the experiment. Their very health is being watched for the benefit of future space missions.

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While Watney develops a certain affection for potatoes, Kelly recently posted a picture of himself looking pretty pleased next to a floating pile of fruit. It turns out that little comforts do go a long way for astronaut morale, and any nutritionist would tell you that a varied diet of healthy foods is good for you -- not just the freeze-dried stuff the Apollo astronauts survived on during their missions. NASA has an experiment in place to see how well

astronauts are meeting nutritional requirements for their work on station

, and also for their long-term health.

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Astronauts are very tied to shipments from Earth right now in terms of eating ... but that is changing in a small way.

Thanks to an experiment called Veggie

, astronauts got to taste some food grown aboard the space station this summer. Lettuce, of course, does not an entire meal make. But as the movie Contact (1997) reminds us, it's through "small moves" that we learn about science. The hope is eventually this experiment will translate into a better way of harvesting crops beyond Earth. For Mars, we're even wondering how viable the soil could be to support plants.

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"#ILookLikeAnEngineer on @space_station. Also a scientist, medical officer, farmer & at times a plumber," Kelly wrote with this image in August. What's more, he has to do all those things in a small space. Since every pound hoisted to space costs money, astronauts are accustomed to working in claustrophobic quarters. But NASA, concerned about its astronauts' efficiency and happiness, also has an

experiment that is supposed to look at how best to construct a living space for astronauts

. That way, the habitats designed for Mars will be suitable for long-term living.

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During a recent Twitter chat, Kelly was asked if he wanted to go to Mars. He said yes, as long as he could return. Getting to Mars and back will take hundreds of days of transportation, let alone the time on the surface. The gravity on Mars is less than 40% what we experience here on Earth. And unless spacecraft design changes substantially, the astronauts will be in microgravity on the way there and back. NASA has an experiment to see

how well (or badly) astronauts work on the surface shortly after landing

, an experiment that Kelly is participating in. This will be important not only for returning to Earth, but seeing how well a crew can get adapted to Mars after being in microgravity for the transit.

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