Timely and grim reminders of the dangers of space travel

Aspiring Mars colonists need to get real about deadly risks

Credit: Image credit: Flickr / USDAgov

This is a solemn week for NASA and fans of space flight as it marks the anniversaries of three tragedies that together took the lives of 17 astronauts.

Today is the 27th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, which killed seven crew members -- including Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire school teacher and the first "civilian" in space (more on that later) -- less than two minutes after liftoff on January 28, 1986, when an O-ring seal failed.

Sunday was the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 1 Fire on January 27, 1967, in which three astronauts died in the capsule on the launch pad during routine tests.

And Friday marks the 10th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, in which seven astronauts perished upon reentry on February 1, 2003, because of damage to the wing from a piece of insulating foam that broke off the external fuel tank during launch.

All of which makes a timely reminder of how fragile are human bodies and human technology, especially as NASA and several private space companies plan to send people to Mars starting a decade from now.

As fascinated as I am by the idea of space travel, I think we're going to be sending people to their deaths if we rush into this, which we most assuredly will now that the private sector is in a race to monetize space.

The thing is, we weren't built to live in space. We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to exist in the environment on the planet known as Earth -- this atmosphere, this gravity, this biological mix. We can't possibly survive in space or on a different planet without creating an artificial environment.

But those artificial environments are only as reliable as the weakest link, whether it's a bad O-ring, a damaged wing, a dysfunctional organization, a cash-strapped company, or an astronaut run amok. And in deep space, there's no rescue mission, no back-up, no Plan B. There's only death, whether it's instant or slow and painful. That's the likely reality awaiting the handful of humans "lucky" enough to be part of the Mars One (more like "One-Way") mission or Elon Musk's planned 80,000-person Mars colony.

Yet when you read the Space.com interview with Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp, there's nothing mentioned about the dangers of sending humans to Mars. In fact, when Lansdorp is asked to name the biggest challenge Mars One will have to overcome to be successful, he cites three: 1) funding 2) solving technical problems, and 3) finding the right crew.

Nowhere does he mention that there's no evidence humans can survive indefinitely -- or even for a prolonged period -- in an artificial environment on another planet. Indeed, there's plenty of evidence that our bodies are seriously impacted by things like zero gravity and radiation.

Sadly, those petty details probably will be overlooked as Mars fever pushes aside reason and caution. After all, Mars One is pinning its financing on a global reality television show that is supposed to culminate with settlers on the Red Planet. And they can't disappoint advertisers or millions of viewers.

Now read this:

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