To continue my latest astronomy kick, let’s look at the options NASA or any other space agency has if they want to put humans on Mars. There are two competing strategies: a temporary stay and a permanent stay. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
If we wanted to establish a temporary base on Mars, the structures that astronauts stayed in would not have to be as expansive and intricate as a permanent option. Most likely there would be several missions to the base location prior to the astronauts arriving. These missions would bring much needed supplies to the location such as food, fuel, water, a return vehicle, and whatever else the astronauts need to survive a stay on the red planet. This would result in several spacecraft that all land near one another but remain unconnected. Because the astronauts plan to return to Earth, they do not need a means of producing food or water, because they could always just send plenty ahead of time so that they know they have enough to survive their stay on the planet.
This plan would be rather easy to implement (relatively speaking). NASA has gotten pretty good at landing vehicles on Mars about right where they want to and the missions proceeding the astronauts can be as long as necessary because no resources would be used up by hungry and thirst astronauts. If you look at establishing a base on Mars like a camping trip, this method would be the equivalent of renting a cabin in the woods. There is food and water and shelter provided when you get there, you use it up, and then you go back home. This plan is nice in that NASA could do this very soon, all they need is a new lander for Mars. Also, there is no construction necessary, the spacecraft themselves function as the shelter. Finally, and most importantly, this method is cheaper than a permanent base, at least in the short term, and would be easier to pitch to politicians.
However, there are some disadvantages to this method. The biggest of which is that the astronauts could not stay very long once they got to Mars. Even though you can bring food and water to the surface before you get there, the red planet orbits the sun at a different rate than the Earth. That means that there is only a brief period where the two planets will be close enough together to make a return trip survivable. If astronauts only got a few weeks on Mars, it seems like a big letdown when you consider all the time and energy that went into the trip.
If the permanent settlement strategy were pursued, things would be a bit different. Rather than have multiple launches of ships with supplies for the astronaut’s stay, there would probably be multiple launches with construction materials and supplies. This is because a permanent settlement on Mars would mean there is no return trip for our brave astronauts. They would be stuck on the planet and would have to produce all of their own food, water, power, and oxygen. This means they would need some way to grow plants on Mars. The technology exists to grow plants on other worlds, it is basically an airtight greenhouse. The astronauts would have to become vegetarians, because vegetables and other plant products would be the only thing they could reliably grow. But such a building cannot just be flown to Mars, it would need to be built from raw supplies that were sent to Mars. This means that construction materials and robotic construction workers would need to be sent to Mars well before any astronauts. These robots would toil away, building the perfect settlement for our astronauts, one that is able to generate its own power, recycle its water, grow food, contain all of its air, withstand tremendous wind on the surface, and become a permanent home for the rest of our astronaut’s lives. So, rather than a collection of separated vehicles like in the temporary strategy, it would most likely be much larger and interconnected to ease movement to different areas of the base.
This method would establish a permanent human presence on Mars and would enable unprecedented access to another world. The disadvantages of this are pretty significant however. First of all, it would be a long time before this happens. The construction of such a base would be a slow process even with advanced robotic workers. Second, it would be very expensive initially. The cost of sending all of the construction material to Mars would be enormous. However, once the base is built and self sufficient, it would be practically free to operate.
So, if you had to decide one strategy to pursue, which would you choose? Vote in the poll below and be heard!