Sunday, February 25, 2024

The human challenge of a mission to Mars

Nathaniel Rich, Can Humans Endure the Psychological Torment of Mars?, The New York Times Magazine, Feb. 25, 2024. From the article:

That people will travel to Mars, and soon, is a widely accepted conviction within NASA. The target date for the initial human mission has drifted slightly — in a 2018 report commissioned by Congress, NASA estimated that the first human beings would land on Mars “no later than the late 2020s” — but the certainty has not wavered, even if technical hurdles remain. Rachel McCauley, until recently the acting deputy director of NASA’s Mars campaign, had, as of July, a punch list of 800 problems that must be solved before the first human mission launches. Many of these concern the mechanical difficulties of transporting people to a planet that is never closer than 33.9 million miles away; keeping them alive on poisonous soil in unbreathable air, bombarded by solar radiation and galactic cosmic rays, without access to immediate communication; and returning them safely to Earth, more than a year and half later. Many other problems involve technical details so arcane that McCauley wouldn’t even know how to begin explaining them to a well-intentioned journalist lacking an advanced engineering degree. But McCauley does not doubt that NASA will overcome these challenges. What NASA does not yet know — what nobody can know — is whether humanity can overcome the psychological torment of Martian life.

Enter CHAPEA. Instead of asking questions about aeroshell sensor design and terrain-relative navigation, it promised to ask questions about people. For 378 days, four ordinary people would enact, as closely as possible, the lives of Martian colonists, receiving directives, feedback and near-total surveillance from mission control. They would eat astronaut food, conduct basic experiments, perform maintenance duties, respond to endless surveys and enjoy highly structured down time. This level of extreme verisimilitude is necessary to ensure that the experiment accurately determines whether human beings can thrive while living millions of miles from everybody they’ve ever known.

There's much more at the link.

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