What I Would Miss on Mars

When I first saw images from NASA’s various Mars rovers, I was almost crawling out of my skin with excitement. As I spoke at a NASA sponsored conference where scientists and engineers were discussing plans for a Mars mission and colonization, I was enthralled with the thought that humans are actually planning for mankind to leave our planet for a foreign world.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I would miss if I were a colonist on Mars. I’ve decided, what I would miss the most is something we take for granted in most places of the world; water.

Of course, Martian pioneers would have to have abundant stockpiles of drinking water. But I sure would miss Earth’s oceans; their awe inspiring breadth and depth, their multitudes of sea life, and the gentle shades of blue-green in clear water along sandy coasts.

I would miss the sound of the surf, the laughter of children chasing and being chased by harmless but persistent waves.

I would miss the sound of clicking shrimp, and the clicking of dolphins corralling schools of fish.

I would miss being able to open the windows on a perfect day. I would miss feeling a breeze on my bare face.

I would miss never having to wonder if I had enough oxygen to breathe. I’d miss not worrying that toxic carbon dioxide would seep into my tiny house and suffocate me and my family in our sleep, or that my home’s pressure barrier would fail and our blood would essentially boil, releasing a flood of deadly bubbles stopping our hearts.

I am concerned that those attempting to colonize Mars woud sink into a chronic melancholy simply because the water that pleases and sustains so many of us is absent on Mars. Could these homesick astronauts survive, and even thrive?

If the first wave of colonizers did survive, procreate, and nurture the next generation, the first generation of true Martians, then I suspect that generation would fare much better psychologically than the first. After all, they would never have known the verdant forests and splendorous seas of Earth.

As I pondered what it would be like to be a third and fourth generation colonist on Mars, growing up knowing nothing else, I realized that rather than space exploration being a guaranteed and common place activity at that time in the not too distant future, a bleaker possibility exists.

It is entirely possible that war, disease, asteroid and comet collisions, or even the failure of mismanaged banking systems could so impoverish the Earth that space travel to the Martian colony might not remain economically sustainable. Eventually, to the stranded Martians our Earth could be little more than a distant memory, perhaps even a legend. Martian children might grow up on the red planet hearing tales of Sky People who came to Mars from a far away place, a world of indescribable beauty, with colors of blue and green that are not even imaginable on Mars.

Some native Americans have in the past recounted tales of Sky People coming to Earth. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the next generation of Earthlings becomes the fabled Sky People that populate the planet Mars?

If offered the chance to be one of those Sky People on a one-way trip to Mars, would I sign up for the mission? Frankly I don’t think I could leave the most beautiful planet in the solar system, perhaps in the galaxy, even for something as exotic as a trip to Mars. 


Divers In Space

Signs of flowing water have been found on Mars. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/05/science/space/05mars.html?_r=1

That of course makes Mars even more tantalizing than it is already.

Now Mars has been added to a growing list of bodies in our solar system that are believed to have water, and in some cases entire oceans. Let me be so bold as to pronounce, where you have water, you will eventually need divers.

Biosphere 2

I once attended a joint NASA – Diving Conference at Disney World in Orlando. It was largely devoted to discussions of the science and engineering that would be required to send men and women to Mars and to sustain them in a colony. I was presenting a diving related talk at the invitation of one of the editors of the Life Support & Biosphere Science journal, a short-lived scientific journal that reported on the science conducted in Biospheres and other life-support systems.

After hearing a number of fascinating NASA accounts, I talked about a rather arcane subject: A Priori models in the testing of diving life support equipment. That work was published in 1996. At the end of the talk, a NASA engineer asked, somewhat smugly I felt, how diving had anything to do with space.

Well, that wasn’t at all the purpose of the meeting, or the reason why I was talking. The organizers believed, correctly, that sojurns in space and underwater share elements in common; namely, people and breathing equipment. We could, and should, learn from each other.

Now, regarding the question: I can ad lib with the best of them. Knowing that Jupiter’s moon Europa was believed to be hiding a large ocean beneath its icy surface, I responded that someday astronauts will be carrying a dreadfully expensive piece of hardware to an alien moon or planet with water, and that priceless tool will get dropped  — into the water. It happens all the time on Earth.

Now what? You can’t go on-line, order a replacement, and expect an overnight FedEx shipment.  That is when a space diver would be worth his Earth-weight in rhodium.

Saturn's moon Enceladus

Since that time, we’ve learned that Saturn’s moon Enceladus jets water from its south pole.  As reported in the journal Icarus, that suggests that, like Europa, there may be a liquid ocean beneath the moon’s icy crust.

My suspicion is that long before we’ll need cowboys in space, we’ll need divers in space.

So divers, keep your diving helmets oxygen clean. You may get the call any day now.