The people behind the Inspiration Mars Foundation -- which on Wednesday announced plans to send a manned spacecraft on a 510-day fly-by mission to Mars -- say this on their website: "We are steadfastly committed to the safety, health and overall well-being of our crew. We will only fly this mission if we are convinced that it is safe to do." Let's hope that's true, because launching humans on such a long and faraway mission into space before we're technologically capable and reasonably certain about the health effects of such a prolonged journey just isn't worth it, at least in my opinion. The foundation, headed by U.S. multimillionaire and first space tourist Dennis Tito, wants to send a two-person crew ( a man and a woman) to Mars in 2018, when a rare planetary alignment would allow for a relatively short round-trip of about 500 days. The craft wouldn't even go into Mars orbit, but instead would fly within 100 miles and then "sling-shot" its way back toward Earth. The problem is, even while the Inspiration Mars Foundation assures it won't go through with the mission if it is unconvinced it would be safe, Tito tells Space.com that the two-person crew essentially are going to be guinea pigs:
SPACE.com: What is the scientific value of a manned mission to Mars, if the crew won't be landing on the planet? Tito: At first, I thought this is not a science mission. This is for inspiration; it's a test flight to show we can get there. You're going to learn a lot about the engineering problems.But then as I started learning more about the life sciences, apparently [the benefits] are huge. There hasn't been really any information on human behavior in this kind of environment. The impact of radiation, the isolation — the academics are all very excited. It'd be a huge scientific value in the life sciences.
And let's not forget all the other things that happen to the human body in space. A Russian experiment in which participants lived in the equivalent of deep space for 17 months showed that long trips in space can have drastic effects on sleep patterns and fitness. Given that prolonged sitting can be fatal, this is something to think about. Then there's bone loss, heart atrophy, nausea and headaches -- all conditions of modern space travel. While we're at it, let's throw in the recent NASA-supported study reporting that space travel is harmful to the brain and could accelerate Alzheimer's disease. And the "impact of radiation," as Tito puts it, is described in Wikipedia:
The potential acute and chronic health effects of space radiation, as with other ionizing radiation exposures, involve both direct damage to DNA and indirect effects due to generation of reactive oxygen species. ...By one NASA estimate, for each year that astronauts spend in deep space, about one-third of their DNA will be hit directly by heavy ions. Thus, loss of critical cells in highly complex and organized functional structures like the central nervous system (CNS) could result in compromised astronaut function, such as changes in sensory perception, proprioception, and behavior or longer term decrements in cognitive and behavioral functions.
So you lift off from Earth as a fully functioning human astronaut and you return (if you return) as ... what? I've said it before, and I'll say it again: As eager as I am to see us explore the stars, rushing into it is only going to lead to unnecessary lives lost. I understand exploration requires risk, but it shouldn't require recklessness. But that's just me. What do readers think? In our eagerness to go to Mars, are we rushing into disaster? Now read this: