Sending Humans to Mars: How Will We Do it? | Nat Geo Live

Why are we so fascinated with Mars? There's this visceral connection that we have. It's been a constant steady light in the night sky for us. You and I can go outside tonight on a clear night, look towards the southwestern sky, and see a bright orange star, the Red Planet. (audience applauding) Looking at Mars, it's also of interest because it is within what we call the Habitable Zone around the sun. And so we're going to be exploring tonight a little bit more. I'd like to ask our guests here, our experts on a little bit about that. And let's get into the challenges and what it really takes to get to Mars. – Mars is incredibly difficult to get onto, because you have to go through the atmosphere.

And the atmosphere is not your friend, because it swells up because of dust. When there's a lot of dust in the atmosphere, it shrinks. There are lateral winds, although the atmosphere is thin. But it is a scientific bonanza once you're on the surface. It has ancient rivers and ancient lakes, hydrothermal systems. All the evidence is there, the geologic evidence. It's from the first half of geologic time. So early in geologic time, Mars was warm and wet, and the international exploration of Mars robotically is all focused on if it was habitable and whether or not life got started and evolved and is still there. – That's amazing. So let's look at some of the technology. Let's talk about this character here. He's making a lot of buzz in the media, right? Elon Musk, he's the head of SpaceX, and his true love and passion is space exploration. And his vision is to send humans to Mars. So NASA isn't really alone.

They have partnerships. Is that… – Right. – [Andrew] Really going to be integral now? – Yes, so NASA historically has partnered with people, has consulted and contracted with organizations all over the country. And so as we're looking into this next phase, this going to Mars, there are still going to have to be these partnerships. As you say, Elon Musk is one, but there are others that are going to help us do the important work of figuring out what, exactly, the best technology is. But it is definitely something that we're going to have to do together. – It's not an easy thing. – No. – Right, so take a look at this. – [Male] T-minus four minutes. – [Peter] We've reached a tipping point. Thousands of years from now, whatever we become, whoever we are, we'll look back at these next few decades as the moment in time that we are moving off this planet as a multi-planetary species. – [Male] BC and DC verify F9 and Dragon R at startup. – [Male 2] F9 is in startup. – And SpaceX stands as nothing less than a massive game changer.

– [Male 3] Stage One, Stage Two present for flight. – [Stephen] Elon Musk says the only reason that I founded this company is to get human beings to Mars. – [Male 4] LC, LD go for launch. – The key to making Mars economical is the reusability of rockets. – [Male5] T-minus one minute. – I just don't think there's any way to have a self-sustaining Mars space without reusability. Getting the cost down is really fundamental. If wooden sailing ships in the old days were not reusable, I don't think the United States would exist. – [Male 5] T-minus 30 seconds. – And if they nail this ability to land a rocket any way they want on Earth, then they can nail doing it on Mars. – [Male 5] T-minus 15. – This flight is a huge deal.

We haven't yet landed the rocket. So this is going to be hopefully our first successful landing. – [Male 5] T-minus 10, nine, eight, seven six, five, four, three, two, one, zero. We have liftoff of Falcon 9. (spectators cheering and applauding) (dramatic music) – [Male 6] Vehicle's reached maximum aerodynamic pressure. – [Male 7] Stage 1 propulsion is still nominal. Altitude 32 kilometers. Speed at one kilometer per second. Downrange distance 13 kilometers. (explosive sounds) (slow dramatic music) – [Casey] Space is defined by the strange relationship between failure, risk and innovation, which is you can take risks. You can try something very innovative. But you're more likely to fail. – So what was it supposed to look like? Well, you'd have the booster going up, and what I'm showing you here is going to be a composite, a long exposure photograph.

What it's supposed to have looked like, and then the booster coming back down. And what you see on your right hand side of the screen is the booster that came down back onto the launchpad. And what I want to know, Jedidah, is why is it so important to have reusability? I'm talking about Mars, going to Mars. Why is that so important? – Yeah, over the long term, the hope is that if you can reuse something, it's cheaper, right? You want it to be cheaper and more efficient. It's sort of your workhorse that you just continue to use. It's not always the case that things are cheaper when you reuse them, but you want something that you can use, rinse, recycle, reuse. That's rinse, repeat, that's what you want. The other thing is, you want to be able to use that piece of technology as scaffolding for the next thing you do.

Maybe you use a piece of your booster to build the first structure, right? Maybe you recycle it in that way. So you hope, first, that there's a cost savings. You hope that there's a sort of efficiency that you can build in. And third, that you can use it as a scaffolding for the next thing. – Let's look at the idea of the timeline. What is it, like seven months to get there, right? Just to get there. So we need to, right now, start building up on that, and one of the most recent attempts at that is the year-long mission that both the U.S. and the Russians took part in. U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly, you can see here in this image, spent a whole year, coming back in March, exploring this whole concept of what happens to human body being exposed to microgravity for long durations? So we're starting to work on those aspects. And I'd like to know, I mean, what toll does it take on the human body? What does space travel, long term space travel, do to a human body? – The truth is we don't really know, right? We've never done this before.

Commander Scott Kelly and his colleagues were sort of the first to stay in space as long as they did. And even there, they had a lot more protection from Earth, from the sort of microgravity. Also, we were still in the magnetosphere, so they had protection from radiation. Still, more radiation than they'd have if they were where we are, but we don't know what's going to happen when you put a person in sort of interstellar, interplanetary travel for seven months. We don't know. We know already that you lose bone mass. We know that you've got these radiation effects. We have no idea about the psychological impact. So these are all things that we're still trying to understand, and his mission, their mission is critical to understanding at least step one in the process. So there's a lot to be understood.

– When we get there, I'd like to know how are we going to choose the landing sites? Now, what I've got here for you is the map of Mars, and these are potential landing sites that we have. What goes in, Ray, maybe you can speak to this, about choosing… – Well, there are engineering aspects. There are science aspects. You want to go to a place that's scientifically interesting. Could be layer deposits that represent kind of ancient riverbeds or lakes. It could be ancient hydrothermal deposits from volcanoes, or whatever it turns out to be. But you also need to land in a place that you can get back out of. And that's the plus or minus 50. It's relatively easy to go back into orbit. And not too cold, because Mars is cold to begin with. It's way below freezing on average. And if you go to the high latitudes, it's super cold. – You know, the ultimate goal is to send humans.

So what I'd like to know is what do you guys think in terms of the specialties? What kind of people should we be sending to Mars? – It's an important point to recognize that going to Mars is going to be what they call sociotechnological. It is not just going to be the technical that takes us there. It's not just going to be the sociological or the psychological. It is going to be the interaction of those two things, the optimization of those two things, that makes it happen. So, yeah, you want people that have skills that are technical. You want them to be able to fix things and create experiments. Physicians, you need someone there in case you have medical emergencies. But you also want the kind of mental stamina to be able to deal with all of the conditions that you're going to be sort of faced with.

So as I look at it, I think about not just your skills in terms of what you've been educated to do, I think of a variety of perspectives, of life experiences, of outlooks on life, because all of those things are going to be necessary to make this work. So we need an inclusive environment and an inclusive set of people. – [Andrew] I guess growing food is going to be important, isn't it, Jedidah? – Yeah, so it's this idea of being able to reuse and create a sense of self-sufficiency, right? We cannot haul all the food we'll ever eat to Mars if we go, if we stay. All of these questions. You just can't bring it. You've got to create self-sufficiency and food security there. So the idea is that you'll want to figure out ways to grow things on Mars. And not just for food, which is going to be important, but again towards that social component. You'll want something to do that brings you closer to nature.

We've seen Mars is an arid place. There's not much happening there, as we can see so far. So you want some green. You'll want to get your hands in the dirt. You'll want to grow something, see it progress over time. So there's that mental sort of restorative piece of going and being out in nature, even on Mars. – I mean, that's interesting, but when we're talking about going to Mars, to me this looks like a candy wrapper. I don't know, but there's trash on Mars right now already. – Already. – Right? There's trash. I mean, we're already… – What can you do? I mean, it's probably a piece of the sky crane. – Right, but we're not living there. Humans aren't there yet. We're sending our stuff there. And then we're already altering Mars, right? There's already alterations of Mars, and there's talk about how humans will be altered by Mars as well.

There's a lot of talk about that. And I want you guys to check this little video out. This whole idea of altering Mars and stuff. It's really fascinating. – Terraforming Mars is not a small job. This is a massive project. This is a bigger project than anything humanity has ever attempted. – Terraforming is taking an environment such as Mars and making it more Earthlike. – Terraforming is like super science fictiony right now. I don't think people understand how big planets are, so terraforming one is a ludicrous task. – You solve all the problems except breathing. So once Mars is terraformed and made more Earthlike, you're still going to have to wear a helmet on your head of some sort or some kind of breathing apparatus. – Might we have the urge to tinker with our DNA, such that you don't need a spacesuit on Mars? – We are on the edge right now of being able to change our own genome and our own genetics in our own bodies in real time. – Our ability to control DNA, the programming language of life, helps us open up Mars.

What happens if there is a virus that drives some kind of a flu and knocks out a large population or large percentage of your group? You can actually sequence the virus, send it back to Earth to analyze, and you can send back from Earth an upgraded T-cell. – If you do interfere with our genome so that you can survive on Mars, you're pretty much going through a one-way door and saying, I will never go back to Earth. – We might very well have a future in which you have different kinds of humans that look very different from each other. – Once we get computers that are smarter than humans at thinking about stuff and coming up with stuff, we can ask them to figure out how to cure viruses. – We can kind of tell them, look, we want to explore, and this is what we'd like to do. And then the robots, either the rovers or the helicopters or the balloons can make their own judgement and actually do the exploration. – So ultimately we're going to need things like machines that can make machines if we want to have a solar system civilization.

– Well, future technologies that we're developing on Earth now, like 3D printing and electric cars, can actually be extremely useful to us in creating an outpost of civilization on Mars. – Imagine being able to send a 3D printer to the Martian surface that sort of pulls the soil out, adds some water, adds some binder, and is sitting there 3D printing shelters in advance of a community coming. And you've got your homes pre-built waiting for you right there. – So Jedidah, this is all nice, but what happens if we find life on Mars? Will our plans be altered? – I think they should be, right? Because now we've got to understand and figure out what's happening, try not to completely decimate their way of being and life in terms of, probably, microbial structures and such. Also just small tidbit, no terraforming.

– No terraforming. Interesting. Why is that? – It's a stupid idea. – Okay. Why? – It's out of equilibrium. I mean, Mars is cold and dry today for a reason. Early in geologic time, there were volcanoes. There was a massive amount of greenhouse warming from the gases coming up. Because it's small a planet relative to Earth, it stopped its internal activity sooner than the Earth. So the gases in the atmosphere were on a one-way trip to be oxidized and placed into minerals. So if you increase the amount of sunlight with mirrors, or whatever, you can sublimate, get more water vapor in the atmosphere, more rain. But what's going to happen? It's going to react with the rocks and go back down into the subsurface eventually.

There's a famous reaction that was codified by Harold Urey. He's a very distinguished Nobel Prize winning chemist. And it's the way the Earth stays more or less the way we like it. Sometimes it goes into deep freeze. Sometimes it's really warm. But what happens is, is the volcanoes pump up the gases that keep us warm. But the hydrologic cycle consumes those gases, as carbonic acids, CO2 goes into the water, and it reacts and forms limestones. But the limestones go back downstairs, get decomposed, and the gases come back up as greenhouse gases through volcanoes. If you stop the internal engine, you go in the one-way deep freeze. It's what happened to Mars, because it's smaller than the Earth. So terraforming can increase the temperature of the surface, but you can get some gas out. But it will eventually get corroded and put back down into the subsurface in a one-way trip. So it may work for a couple decades, but over longer time, it's bogus, in my opinion. – And also would decimate whatever is there that we don't know yet.

– Yeah, there's a very important paradigm that all the nations are following called Planetary Protection. So you sterilize spacecraft before they're on the surface, because the worst thing to have happen is to go to Mars in the future and find ourselves. – All right, I have a question. One last question. If you could take anything from Earth, any physical object on Earth, what would it be, and you take it to Mars. Wouldn't you want to take something to Mars? What would one thing be? – I'm going on my 47th wedding anniversary, and I really like my wife, so she would go with me. (audience applauding) – Nice. You get points. You get points for that. – That's videotaped. – Is this being taped? – Yes it is. (audience laughing).