In case you have followed our updates throughout the past weeks, you may have read that we want to support the manned exploration of space. But what do we mean by that? What exactly are the current plans for sending humans deeper into space and, possibly, to other planets?
Since the Russian Mir station was retired in 2000, the International Space Station (ISS) has been the only permanently manned spacecraft in orbit around Earth. Even though the Chinese have sent crews to their Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 experimental space stations, these orbital outposts are not permanently manned. The last (and only) time that humans ventured beyond Earth orbit and landed on a celestial body other than Earth was during the U.S. Apollo program in the late sixties and early seventies—almost half a century ago!
News about astronauts living and working in space have almost become commonplace by now. But keeping a station like the ISS running 365 days a year is by no means an easy task. It has become routine enough, though, that the government-funded space agencies are openly thinking about handing over Earth orbit almost entirely to the private sector. Instead, they are settings their sights on a destination much further away: Mars.
Sending humans to Mars is an endeavor that comes with so many challenges that it will take years, if not decades, to solve them all. That’s why most agencies believe that going back to the Moon first is the only reasonable approach. While a one-way trip to Mars takes half a year or more, the Moon can be reached in just a few days. That makes it possible to send astronauts for only a couple of weeks at a time—and at a significantly lower cost.
Such short stays in orbit around the Moon or on its surface can be used to test a range of technologies required to safely reach Mars and land on it. Even though the Red Planet and Earth’s companion are quite different in some respects (Mars has an atmosphere, for example), the lunar environment still makes for a much better testbed than any we can construct here on ground. Some even suggest we should establish humanity’s first deep-space outpost on the Moon and use it as waystation for exploring destinations that are even further away.
One of the main medical challenges of traveling to Mars is the prolonged exposure to the heightened levels of cosmic and solar radiation. Without better knowledge about the radiation environment and improved shielding materials, trips to Mars seem to be rather risky adventures. And that’s exactly the challenge we try to address with our 3D-DOS experiment!
Picture credit: National Geographic Channels