Traveling to Mars, the challenges we face and proposed solutions


Curiosity, the Mars rover.
Photo courtesy of

Tom Moore

Contributing Writer

It has been all over the news, from TV to radio, and all over social media. “NASA set to explore Mars!” “The Curiosity Rover lands on Mars.” “Curiosity’s Twitter feed reaches 1 million followers.” “NASA plans manned mission to Mars by 2032.”

What was maybe not so readily advertised about the trip to Mars is that it took Curiosity eight months just to get there.

“Star Trek” makes it look easy. With 24th century technology, matter/antimatter exchanges, warp nacelles, artificial gravity and inertial dampeners, the USS Enterprise flits from one end of the galaxy to the other and boasts all the comforts of having never left Earth. But since we live in the early 21st century, not the 24th, what will it take to survive an eight-month trip from Earth to Mars?

There are four major problems that have to be overcome to traverse the 50 million miles between Earth and Mars:

Challenge No. 1: Ambient Radiation. The Earth’s atmosphere provides a natural shield that blocks all kinds of nasty particles and rays that wreak havoc on human anatomy. To protect human’s vital organs, any deep space vessel must have shielding from radiation. Unfortunately, shielding means extra weight, and extra weight means a lot of extra fuel.

Challenge No. 2: Decalcification of bones because of extended period in zero gravity.

Challenge No. 3: The atrophy of skeletal muscles due to extended periods of exposure to zero gravity.

Challenge No. 4: Recent missions on the International Space Station have shown that some astronauts actually suffer brain damage, similar to that of oxygen deprivation due to extended periods of weightlessness.

The Solutions

The traditional solution, and one that has been assumed since the first trip to Mars was proposed, is to engineer the environment of the spacecraft and habitat to simulate earth as closely as humanly possible.

But what if this is the wrong approach? This is the question proposed by Robert Hoffman of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. “What if instead, we engineer human biology to withstand at least some of the harshness of space travel itself rather than relying completely on the ships life support to work for us?”

Further research into this idea led Hoffman and his team Jeff Bradshaw, Patrick Hayes, and Kenneth Ford to develop “The Borg Hypothesis”: According to this study, “long duration, deep space missions will not be successful unless and until human biological evolution is forced.”

What Hoffman was proposing was to implant much of the hardware and electronics needed for a Long Duration Mission (LDM) directly into the body of the astronaut. That way, the fail-safes for the astronauts’ survival could be within themselves, so they would not have to rely so heavily on the ship’s systems.

Let’s call these “enhanced” astronauts “specialists.” If humans are to survive an eight-month mission through deep space to Mars, we must engineer our bodies to be more hardened and machine-like than they are currently. The creation of specialists for missions such as these will be an extremely intense and expensive undertaking. Our specialists could be engineered to withstand radiation through the hyper pigmentation of the skin and implanting special glands that contain nanites to shield their vital organs. Thus a ship crewed by these specialists would no longer need to worry about heavy radiation shielding. The mission could thus save money on shielding weight and extra fuel costs.

By replacing or enhancing the skeletal bones and muscles, the problem of bone decalcification and muscle atrophy could be solved.

The final enhancement could be the direct interface between the specialists’ brains and the ship’s computer. Thus a pilot could tap directly into the ship’s external sensors to get a “ship’s-eye” view of the immediate vicinity of the space where the ship is traveling.

If we start work now, by the time the design, building and fitting of the ship has been completed, a crew of specialists could be engineered to take on the challenge of our first inter-system flight to Mars by 2035.