If you’re a billionaire with lots of money there’s no better way to spend that cash then to try and send other humans to mars. But is Mars space travel really something that could be a reality in less than a decade? Moonshot explores the race to Mars and the people trying to make it happen.
Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.
And our cover artwork is by Andrew Millist.
KRIS: It’s May 25th, 1961…
KRIS: President John F. Kennedy - addresses a joint sitting of u-s congress…
KRIS: The topic - space exploration.
KRIS: And more specifically this:
JOHN F KENNEDY 1961 SPEECH: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.
ANDREW: Ok… so John F. Kennedy’s moon program - clearly an audacious goal for any country to achieve... even now, more than half a century later - but let’s not forget - this was 1961! A time of no mobile phones, no PCs, no internet. None of it.
KRIS: There wasn’t even any useful computer code - at least not the sort that could control a moon landing - nobody had invented it.
ANDREW: There was no clear way of making this work - JFK didn’t even have a plan for how to land a man on the lunar surface.
ANDREW: AND by all accounts - NASA - the very government department tasked with this momentous project - even they weren’t certain. They needed more funding to work out how it could be done. That was the very reason John F Kennedy was at congress - to ask for more money!
KRIS: The Apollo program was the very definition of a moonshot - a goal which seemed more than just a little bit crazy... but in less than a decade had changed the world. (Moon landing 'One small step for man')
KRIS: I’m Kristofor Lawson
ANDREW: And I’m Andrew Moon..
KRIS: And this is Moonshot - A podcast where we unearth the seemingly impossible ideas...
ANDREW: ...and the crazy ones that believe they have the plan. From curing the incurable, to disrupting our daily lives - and sketching and re-sketching our futures.
KRIS: Now the moon mission sparked a huge rush of interest in space - it was a symbol of hope and possibility. Children across the globe grew up hoping they would one day be living or perhaps working in space. It redefined what people thought was possible.And while - unfortunately - we not yet at full jetsons level - if you’ve been paying close attention to the news recently there’s a whole new space race happening - and it’s largely being driven by one man:(Elon Musk talking about his Mars plans.)
ANDREW: That man there is Elon Musk - the CEO of Tesla - the company not only reinventing how we drive on the roads, and how we harness the sun’s energy on a massive, distributed scale…. No, there’s more. He is ALSO the founder and CEO of SpaceX - the company that has quickly become the driving force behind a new space race - the race to mars…
KRIS: While the moon slips into the shadows - mars is the new frontier….
ANDREW: Musk wants to someday have a self-sustaining population on the red planet….which he says will require around 1 million people to relocate from earth.But considering no human has ever stepped foot on Mars...there’s an awful lot to do to make that vision a reality.
Kara Swisher: “I think, you know, they want to start putting into place the things that are needed because one of the things you have to do when you get to mars is build a city to live in, and bring the things there that you need - you can’t make them there. Eventually that’s the goal is to make things on Mars and use the planet’s resources but you sort of have to bring everything and set it up….
Kara Swisher: “You know the problem of going to mars as humans is humans, humans can’t sustain life there very long.”
KRIS: So if you follow Silicon Valley and tech happenings, you may recognise that voice. That’s Kara Swisher. She’s the executive editor of Recode media, along with Walt Mossberg from the verge interviewed musk last year about his plans to go to mars.
Kara Swisher (From Recode Media Event): So when will people like yourself get there? I assume you’ll be first in line for that.
Elon Musk (From Recode Media Event): ... I think what ultimately matters is being able to transport large numbers of people and ultimately millions of tons of cargo to mars. And that’s what’s needed to create a self sustaining… and a growing city on mars... The basic game plan is we’re going to send a mission to mars with every mars opportunity from 2018 onwards. And they occur approximately every 26 months.
ANDREW: Hold on...Go back a bit there.
Elon Musk: The basic game plan is we’re going to send a mission to mars with every mars opportunity from 2018 onwards.
ANDREW: So does that mean people will be heading to Mars in 2018? Next year?
KRIS: Well, no - unfortunately if you want to head to the red planet, according to Musk, you’ll have to wait until around 2024. The mission in 2018 is more of a scientific one just to make sure everything works.
ANDREW: But when you think about it 2024 is just around the corner. We will be sending people to mars - on a regular basis - in just seven years! Maybe. If nothing goes wrong before then.
ANDREW: So obviously in the meantime they’re spending a LOT of time triple checking everything. BUT did you know, there are already people experiencing what Mars life could be life for those first adventurers - right here on earth.
Dr Jonathan Clarke: Our days are very busy. My day generally starts at around about 6:30. I get up and quickly check my email for personal messages and urgent messages from mission management.After 7, I have a wash, a cup of tea or two with breakfast at about 8; cereal, homemade bread or porridge, even pancakes on special days. Then we have our morning crew briefing and commence our daily tasks. ‘
KRIS: This is Dr Jonathan Clarke - he’s the crew geologist for the Mars 160 mission.
Dr Jonathan Clarke: ...which means that I look after the geological research on the mission and give geological advice to other people in their own projects.The goal of the Mars 160 mission is to study and compare exploration operations at the two different station run by the society; one in the hot desert of Utah, the other in the cold desert of Arctic Canada.
ANDREW: Doctor Clark is part of an experiment run by the Mars Society… one that’s pushing the boundaries to see what life within the Red Planet’s extremes could really be like.
KRIS: Essentially eight people lock themselves up inside of this Mars simulation and see what happens. The mission lasts for 160 days - 80 days in the desert and 80 days in the cold arctic.
KRIS: And all of this research is something that Dr Clark has wanted to be involved with since his childhood.
Dr Jonathan Clarke: I was drawing and making models of Mars spaceships, writing stories, and constructing little Mars environmental chambers in my early teens. I wanted to do research projects on Mars at the university, was told there’s no role for Australian students in Mars research.
Dr Jonathan Clarke: And in 2001 I came across an advertisement from the Mars Society Australia…(cut to) who were looking for someone to lead an expedition to Central Australia… [CUT TO]... I applied, and I’ve been an active in Mars Society Australia ever since.
ANDREW: Dr Clarke is now the president of the Mars Society in Australia - and this wasn’t his first time in such a simulation.
KRIS: Yeah, they take this stuff pretty seriously. They eat what astronauts eat, they do space walks in space suits, and run lots of experiments.
Dr Jonathan Clarke: We’re working 10 to 14 hours, six days a week. Any entertainment is squeezed in at the sides or at the end. But we do have about one day off a week when we sleep in and only do the essential work and relax.
ANDREW: The crew is halfway through the mission right now - they completed their desert phase in December and they’re due to start the Arctic mission in June 2017.
KRIS: There’s also a bunch of rules for how the missions work…. to try and simulate life on mars as accurately as possible.
KRIS: So even though they were in Utah when we interviewed Jonathan - I had to send our questions through email and wait for him to send an audio response…. because if they really were on mars, we couldn’t just pick up the phone. If we did, there would have been a 20 minute phone delay.
ANDREW: OK, so I get that the basics of life will be different. Food, leisure time, all that. But the real question - not how we’ll change to fit the conditions in the short term. How will mars change US - the human race - in the long term?
Dr Jonathan Clarke: So I’ve no doubt that people will cope on Mars expeditions or on Mars stations. People are tough and adaptable when they’re properly chosen, and these characteristics are selected for – and have done so already for real space missions, existing space missions and space station, and of course the Apollo station, submariners and so on.
Dr Jonathan Clarke: Mars settlements where people will live under such conditions for their entire lives might be different. Not only will they be living under such conditions, but raising children in them. New balances between community protection and freedoms will need to be found. We’ll be moving to new social territory in this regard, but to some extent billions of people already live in artificial, highly urbanised environments completely dependent on external supplies of food, water, power, waste disposal. So the difference really is one of degree rather than one of kind, I think.
ANDREW: There are also a whole host of other researchers and companies looking into what life on Mars will truly be like. There’s people designing new rockets, space suits, food supplies, even ways to extract water from the ice on the surface…
KRIS: There’s many different people working together to make this mission possible - but unlike NASA’s original moon mission - the race to mars and even space travel in general is being driven by billionaires.
KRIS: Sure NASA has been doing a lot of research on Mars - but it’s really the private companies that have been driving public interest in Mars space travel.
ANDREW: Former U-S President Obama wrote a great opinion piece for CNN just a month before the 2016 election - stating a very clear goal of wanting to send people to mars and have them return to earth by around 2030… and now the new president Donald Trump has just signed into law the NASA Transition Authorisation Act - which lays out the goal of having a manned mission to Mars by 2033, and he made the announcement with a distinctly Trump flavour…
Donald Trump: Almost half a century ago our brave astronauts first planted the American flag on the moon. That was a big moment in our history. Now this nation is ready to be the first in space once again. ... It's amazing what's going on. So many people and so many companies are so into exactly what NASA stands for. So the commercial and the private sector will get to use these facilities, and I hope that they're going to be paying us a lot of money.
KRIS: The new act provides NASA with a clear focus going forward. One centred on both the exploration of deep-space, and also enabling the commercialisation of space - giving an increased incentive for other companies to follow in the footsteps of Elon Musk…. And providing ways for those companies to take on the large-scale projects, like sending people to Mars or building new space stations. And those companies will continue to help NASA in delivering goods - and people - to the International Space Station.
ANDREW: And now that NASA has this clear direction they actually have to go away and create a ‘human exploration roadmap’ - how they plan to make humans on Mars a reality. But given the commercial focus of President Trump’s act, there’s no doubt companies like Space X, Mars One, or Blue Origin ….run by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos - will be very happy indeed.
KRIS: But whoever ends up making commercial space travel a reality - you can be sure of one thing. It won’t come cheap. (Elon Musk speaking about the cost of space travel)
ANDREW: But if you’re someone that has that cash to make that first trip to mars - Dr Clarke has a bit of advice for you and the rest of those first Mars explorers.
Dr Jonathan Clarke: Be prepared for paperwork; it will follow you to Mars. Cherish your crewmates; your life, health and sanity depend on them, and theirs on you. Remember that the world is watching, and always work for the best.
KRIS: So there you have it - paperwork - it doesn’t matter where you go in the solar system you’ll be stuck filling out a form.