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You could send Congress to space

March 22, 2017

Some scientists' wishes are coming true, but not all of them. US President Trump is backing NASA on deep space missions to Mars. But he says he's not up for it himself. In any case, life on Mars is so far off.

Donald Trump unterzeichnet NASA Haushalt
Image: picture alliance/dpa/Newscom

It was a light moment after a few nervous months in the science community, but one that quickly passed. "You could send Congress to space," suggested US Senator Ted Cruz to the President as he spoke in support of NASA's ongoing work. "What a great idea," retorted Donald Trump, but he declined the temptation and the laughter stopped.

America's space agency and the President did not get off to the best of starts.

In November 2016 there were the first signs that Trump wanted to cut NASA's research on climate change. Groups of scientists - perhaps fearing a "Trump-washing" of all that had gone before - started archiving content from government websites. Some government scientists were even alleged to set up "rogue" Twitter accounts, calling for public support to protect the American sciences.

And all that's not over yet: there will be an international March for Science on April 22 starting in Washington DC, with numerous "satellite marches" in places like Berlin, London, Vienna, Sydney and Melbourne, Paris, Zagreb, Santiago, Hong Kong … the list goes on and on. People the world over are concerned - rightly or wrongly - about Trump's stance on science.

But there's one area of science - and NASA - that seemingly stands above all his threats: deep space. On Tuesday, Trump signed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017.

This legislation reaffirms "our national commitment to the core mission of NASA, human space exploration, space science and technology," said Trump before pausing and then musing, " … we support jobs, it's about jobs also."

Jobs on Mars

This law, said Cruz, was the first of its kind in seven years. So it's perhaps understandable that the huddle around President Trump was happy. He was proclaimed the future "Father of the Interplanetary Highway," and Democrat Senator Bill Nelson, a former payload specialist who flew on the Space Shuttle Columbia, whooped, "We're going to Mars!" 

And the law certainly makes it look like the Americans are going to Mars. It was, said Trump, "the initial steps toward a bold and brave new future for American space flight."

It supports the new American Orion spacecraft for manned missions and its Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS is said to be the most powerful rocket ever built.


Modell eines Austronauten im Orion Spaceship beim European Astronaut Center
A model of the Orion spacecraft for manned spaceflightImage: DW/Z. Abbany

NASA's biggest long-term goal is getting to Mars by the 2030s. The question is will going there make sense? And what will people do there? How will we sustain life there - with what jobs?

It's hard not to feel a twinge of Trump's wanting to trump (apologies) the Chinese in their space endeavors. China has taken great strides in recent years, exploring the moon and is on course to inaugurate a Chinese Space Station by 2020. Who would have thought it only a few years ago?

Learning from our earthly errors

One of the biggest challenges to a life on Mars - apart from designing the spacecraft that will get us there (and back) - is life itself. It only cost about 10 percent more energy to get to Mars than it does to get to the moon. But, still, if you opt for a life on Mars today, chances are you are also opting to die there as well.

Former US President Barack Obama had set his heart on sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and "returning them safely to Earth." But even with the speed at which technology is advancing today, we're going to need a whole lot more than an American presidential pen to paper to get us there, and keep us there in prosperity and health. If we get to Mars by 2030 it will have to be an international project, and one for all of humanity.

Mondmission China Landung Yutu Jade Hase
China lands on the moon with Yutu - Jade Rabbit - in 2013Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It would cost a lot to ship enough supplies to sustain the first colonies on Mars even if, as scientists suggest they should, the colonizers learnt quickly to live off the land.

Then there is the risk of radiation. Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field protect us to a greater extent from cosmic rays and solar flares. In deep space, radiation is estimated to be 200 times stronger. That doesn't necessarily raise our risks of cancer significantly, but it is something to be considered.

Ironically, we could learn from our lessons in climate change on Earth to "terraform" Mars. The Red Planet is way too cold for any meaningful, or human, life to survive. The average annual temperature is about 60 degrees Celsius below zero. And the topsoil can't host life, but there may be water 10 to 20 meters below the surface. Scientists describe Mars as being on the edge of habitability - it has sunlight, water, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. We just need to find a way to raise the temperature on Mars to unlock life-giving properties - water and life-inspiring bacteria - and make it habitable for humans.  

Scientists have suggested triggering a "runaway greenhouse effect," building a massive mirror to redirect extra sunlight to the planet's poles - it would be too big to transport from Earth so you would have build it on location - or we could produce heat-trapping gases on Mars, such as we have on Earth. But even then a full evolution of life, with an atmosphere to sustain animals including humans, could take hundreds, if not a thousand, years.

But, then, you've got to start somewhere, haven't you?

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people