Friday, June 7, 2013

Don’t Plan that Trip to Mars Just Yet (Space Travel is a Transportation Issue Too, Right?)

A recent article in USA Today described the ill effects of extreme radiation exposure in the event that humans travel to Mars. The article states that “…astronauts would likely receive a significant fraction, about 15% to 20%, of their lifetime allowable radiation dose on a round-trip to Mars,” a trip that is estimated to be about 6 months. The research and planning going into potential travel to Mars comes from President Obama’s space exploration plan, which he revealed in 2010. The plan also calls for possible travel to a nearby asteroid, and both of these plans are being spearheaded by NASA and private teams.

                Much of the research into the side effects of travel to Mars comes from the information received by NASA’s Curiosity rover, which recorded five solar storms that greatly increased the amount of radiation in space. If astronauts are walking on Mars during one of these storms, they would have very little protection from the radiation (Vergano, 2013).
                As much as I love learning about the explorations of science and astronomy (I’ve seen the IMAX film Hubble and the planetarium film Life both twice at OMSI, and the movie Contact is one of my all-time favorites), I can’t look past how problematic it can be. One of the quotes from the article sums up their solution to the problem of high radiation exposure: “The best thing to do is to get there faster." This was stated by Cary Zeitlin of the Southwest Research Institute. Is that really a solution?  
Humans have such a deep thirst for exploration and knowledge, often transporting us to far off frontiers, yet our public education system (the main vehicle for distribution of knowledge and information) is falling apart at the seams in the United States (and in much of the world). When it comes to space travel aimed at unraveling the mysteries of the universe, we’ll spend billions of dollars, use up tons of precious energy and limited resources, produce an exorbitant amount of carbon emissions and pollution, risk deadly exposure and litter the universe with massive machines that may or may not come back to Earth.
                What do we do? I don’t know anyone that isn’t fascinated by cosmic revelations, but at what cost do these revelations come? The “Skilled Veterans Corp” in Japan was a group of retirees age 60 and up who volunteered to deal with the crisis at Fukushima after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in order to make sure that others didn’t have to submit to radiation exposure in order to stabilize the plant (Lah, 2011). They risked their own quality and quantity of life to save others from radiation exposure, yet now, it seems the exposure that we’ll receive traveling to Mars can’t come soon enough! As potential planners, we are dedicated to helping people focus their travel more locally and choosing more ecological transportation options. So why is space travel exempt from this?

Thanks to Yunemi Jang for some astronomical editing!

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Picture #2:

Vergano, Dan. “Study maps radiation hazards of Mars trip.” USA Today. May 30, 2013. Web.

Lah, Kyung. “Japanese seniors volunteer for Fukushima ‘suicide corps’.” CNN. June 1, 2011. Web.


  1. First of all, I’d like to start out by saying that space exploration is not about putzing around the universe looking for fun and excitement. Space exploration is about, at the most basic level, increasing human knowledge and understanding of the universe around us and protecting the human species from extinction through global catastrophe. NASA, I should point out, is essential to the sustainability movement. NASA represents one of the greatest sources of global climate information and the recipient of more than a third of the federal spending on academic science and research.
    Protecting manned missions from radiation will be costly, but it will be highly beneficial to human knowledge. Manned missions have much lower failure rates than robotic missions. Manned missions are also able to creatively deal with problems that robots are not designed to. Manned missions also benefit from a person being on the ground who can make decisions. Currently radio transmissions to the Curiosity rover take anywhere from 4 to 20 minutes depending on the position of Mars in relation to Earth. Round trip transmission time could approach 40 minutes, which is not long enough for a rover to avoid disaster by driving into a ditch or crevasse. Radiation shielding for a mission will likely add billions of dollars to the launch costs of a mission, but will result in a much greater variety of data retrieved, greater mission flexibility, and a greater understanding about how humans can survive long-term in space.
    The space program is not some luxury federal expenditure; it is less than 0.5% of the federal budget. I would argue that only through understanding of the universe as a system can we understand that our impact on this planet has real, tangible results and will not be easy to reverse. At the same time, it should put into perspective that the Earth is the only home we have.
    As an aside, most rockets do not produce carbon emissions. Most modern rockets use LOX/LH2 (liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen) which reactively combine to form steam. Solid booster rockets may, but it is hard to say what ecological impact the complex chemicals combusted have. Some rockets (like the Falcon) use LOX and kerosene, but the total number of rocket launches in the world usually is only around 80 a year, and therefore not a significant source of carbon emissions.

    “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” - Theodore Roosevelt

  2. This can be a tricky topic, so thank you for tackling it. I completely agree Glen, that space travel is integral to gaining further knowledge about our own planet and the universe as a whole. This knowledge isn't simply abstract, useless frivolity, it has a direct impact on public policy and understanding. I have to admit, however, that like you Haley I have sometimes wished our focus was a little closer to earth. The U.S. economy is still in shambles, public education is going down the tube, and poverty, homelessness, and hunger are rampant worldwide. All this, and we're still worried about Mars. It can be difficult to swallow. On the other hand, this does not negate the very real benefits of space travel. In the end, we have to make a choice as a country, we have to sort our priorities.

  3. You both make very valid points and just to be clear, I don't think that space exploration is some useless endeavor. There are legitimate reasons for research and exploration. I think what the issue here is that so much goes into obtaining the information and so little goes into dispersing it. How do we justify working day and night to discover ways to travel further and further away when we are not putting that kind of effort into making sure kids are receiving a decent education, keeping arts programs from getting cut, and providing quality of life for people here on Earth? Is it possible that space travel distracts us from the beauty and mystery that should be protected here on Earth because it allows us to believe that there's "something better out there"? 0.5% of the federal budget is still a significant amount and could do wonders for social programs and schools. We shouldn't need to compare our world to other places to know that we should be taking care of it. The environmental movement has been in existence for far longer than space travel, so we don't need to know that the ozone layer is depleting to know that we are doing something wrong. We can look at our extremely high rates of cancer, diabetes, obesity, mental illness, and even natural disasters to see that. Is the desire to put environmental destruction "into perspective" really worth the expense (both monetary and ecological expense)?

    Rockets do not need to be launched to contribute to carbon emissions. Rockets, cars, space cameras, computers, phones, nearly all electronics (both regular and those meant for space travel) contribute to excessive carbon emissions and pollution just by being built.

    I love science. It's fascinating, helpful and most of the time, it's life-saving. But is it possible that science can be excessive? Misleading? Or even just wrong? Expecially when it sometimes contributes to the expense of quality of life? Yes. This isn't the case all the time, but I think Camille's right. We need to get our priorities in order.


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