A few weeks ago, a NASA panel headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine announced a projection that a round-trip excursion to the Moon will cost in excess of $150 billion. This indicates that a round-trip excursion to Mars would cost an astronomically larger amount. A significant chunk of that money would go to protecting astronauts from the extreme amount of radiation that they would encounter on the trip. The fuel cost to get to Mars and back is another large portion of the cost.
Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss, Director of the New Origins Initiative and physicist at Arizona State University, has suggested in interviews and in an op-ed piece for The New York Times that it might be more cost-effective to only send astronauts to Mars on a one-way ticket.
Dr. Krauss’s argument boils down to a couple of key points. First, that there is really no point in bringing astronauts back from Mars when the whole point in sending them is to establish life on Mars. Krauss argues that it would be less expensive to send supplies to Mars than to return the original crew. Second, it would realistically cut down on the amount of radiation protection that is needed. The astronauts would only encounter the radiation on the trip to Mars, and they wouldn’t have to suffer a second radiation. With less radiation protection and less fuel (the vessel wouldn’t have to contain fuel for the trip home), the entire ship would be lighter, and less fuel will be needed to get there. It’s like the ads telling you how to get more fuel-efficiency out of your car. Empty the trunk, lose the weight of the stuff, and you are rewarded with more miles per gallon.
Dr. Krauss realizes that this one-way trip to Mars would only work if we had willing people to go. According to Dr. Krauss, preliminary polls indicate that people would line up to be the first to move to Mars. But is it realistic to train people to go to Mars, knowing that, realistically, their time alive on Mars is likely to be short? Or could we also use that as a cost-cutting measure? If we figure that a person’s lifespan will probably be drastically reduced on Mars, what with the exposure to radiation on the trip there, the harsh environment, and the fact that they would be setting up the basics — shelter, water, food — upon arrival, could we spend less on training?
Is it worth human life to cut costs? As Dr. Krauss points out, one-way trips to a new world are not new. The Pilgrims had no intent of ever returning to the homeland. Most explorers throughout history knew that they were likely to die out there. But Mars is further away; it’s a totally foreign land, with no guarantee of food or potable water, or easy ways to create shelter upon arrival. To our knowledge, there are no natives to help us.
How many people would be necessary on a one-way mission to Mars, not just necessary as work-power, but necessary to retain a sense of society? Would being one of a very few be thrilling, or would it drive you mad to stand on that red planet and know that your little group is all alone and likely to remain that way? To steal a line from The Exorcist, you’re going to die up there. Is it worth it?