No empty space

Is space travel any different from the voyages of the past?


The ‘Pathfinder/Sojourner’ spacecraft, contained in airbags, prepares to land on Mars’ surface in this artist’s conception. Photo: Reuters
The ‘Pathfinder/Sojourner’ spacecraft, contained in airbags, prepares to land on Mars’ surface in this artist’s conception. Photo: Reuters

Two years ago, I drove to a Starbucks in Orlando to meet Taranjeet Singh Bhatia. He’s a young man who grew up in Indore and is now a graduate student in computer science at the University of Central Florida. I mean no disrespect to him by saying that he’s no different from probably thousands of similar Indian graduate students across the US. After all, I was one too, some years ago. When I listened to him, there were times when I felt I was looking in a mirror that took me back through those years.

No different, yes—except in one important respect that had sent me to Starbucks that morning: Bhatia may be going to Mars.

This is true. The Netherlands-based Mars One project plans to send four humans to Mars in the late 2020s, then two more every couple of years. The idea is to establish a human colony on that planet. There is much contempt for and scepticism about Mars One in space-exploration circles, but this is their stated goal. They have a shortlisted pool of 100 people around the world to select their astronauts from. That number will be whittled down to 24 soon, and those 24 will begin several years of training for the trip to Mars.

And one of those 100 is Taranjeet Singh Bhatia (there are three other Indians on the list). There were plenty of things I wanted to ask him about, learn about. Some concern him personally, and I’ll return to those.

There are many hard questions about future ventures in space, like Mars One, that people around the world are already grappling with. After all, Tesla’s Elon Musk and possibly Amazon’s Jeff Bezos are putting their minds to, and spending their fortunes on, space exploration, as are Mars One and, of course, the US space agency Nasa. Which may remind you that Musk’s SpaceX has even announced plans to send two wealthy space tourists on a jaunt around the Moon—the first time since the mid-1970s that humans will have left an earthly orbit. In fact, when they circle around the dark side of the Moon, they will have gone further from Earth and into space than any humans ever have.

SpaceX’s manned ‘Dragon V2’ space taxi, an upgraded version of the unmanned spacecraft ‘Dragon’, which will be capable of sending a mix of cargo and up to seven crew members to the International Space Station. Photo: Bloomberg
SpaceX’s manned ‘Dragon V2’ space taxi, an upgraded version of the unmanned spacecraft ‘Dragon’, which will be capable of sending a mix of cargo and up to seven crew members to the International Space Station. Photo: Bloomberg

But as newsworthy as such a jaunt will be, this remains the kind of exploration that is, after more than a half-century, familiar: orbiting Earth, going to the Moon. It still presents great scientific challenges—trajectory, orbit, speed and gravity calculations, for example—but yes, it is familiar. Now that we know the basics of getting into space, the reason to do it is something else altogether—and it isn’t high-end tourism either. Musk, Nasa and nearly everyone with an eye on space is thinking of a longer-term and far grander goal: establishing human settlements somewhere out there. Even Bengaluru-based TeamIndus, which plans to put a rover on the Moon, ran a competition recently to “imagine, design and build an experiment that will help us build sustainable life on the Moon”.

In other words, we’re talking about the colonization of space. We’re starting with the Moon and Mars because those are our closest celestial neighbours, but they will eventually be stepping stones to go much farther. Thus the importance of “sustainable life”. It’s really just the next logical step for mankind in space.

So what are the challenges in taking this next logical step?

There will be enormous resource requirements, both for a prolonged journey through space and for setting up colonies somewhere. Carrying everything from Earth is impractical and expensive. But we can exploit the Moon, or asteroids, en route to Mars; and then mine Mars for later excursions. There are already companies looking seriously into landing probes on an asteroid and mining it—for earthly use for now, but the same idea will support space exploration too.

Besides, if we dream of going anywhere outside our solar system, we will have to figure out how to cover the unimaginably vast distances of space. From our nearest stellar neighbour, Proxima Centauri, light takes over four years to travel to us—meaning that the distance is about 40 trillion kilometres. The swiftest spacecraft we have produced is Voyager 1, currently zooming out of the solar system at about 17km/second. At that speed, it will take 70,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri. This means it’s futile and meaningless to attempt a journey like that unless we find ways to accelerate spacecraft to somewhere near the speed of light. What kind of energy—or really, what new science and technology—will that call for?

There are food considerations. Travelling to Mars will take several months. Can astronauts carry food adequate for that long? Or should they investigate somehow growing food on the way? And if that’s solved, the far harder question is about growing food on Mars, or the Moon, or other celestial bodies we seek to settle on. We don’t know if they have water or oxygen there, we don’t know if the soil has the nutrients our crops need. The book and movie The Martian do a good job of telling us what the issues involved are, but that’s just the tip of an entire iceberg of problems that we must solve.

Plenty of research efforts are tackling one or the other of them. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for example, a team of scientists is looking into the viability of generating oxygen on Mars itself. Their experimental apparatus will travel to that planet on Nasa’s Mars 2020 mission, after which we’ll know if it can work. A Mars One adviser, Wieger Wamelink, is part of a UK-Netherlands research team investigating if bacteria can survive in the soil available on the Moon and Mars, thus enhancing crop production. “With this next step,” Wamelink remarks, “we are moving from just growing crops to building a small but sustainable ecosystem.”

"Carrying everything from Earth is impractical and expensive. But we can exploit the Moon, or asteroids, en route to Mars; and then mine Mars for later excursions."-

And among the ideas submitted to TeamIndus was one to test how yeast would perform in a place with little or no atmosphere. Yeast, of course, is crucial to making that most basic of human dietary needs, bread. It’s also crucial for beer, which is why that experiment was actually couched as a beer-brewing effort.

Then there are, if you like, the human considerations. For example, the effects of gravity, or the lack of it. In the weightlessness of space, our bones grow weaker and less dense. How will astronauts who land on Mars after several months of travel cope with that change in their bodies? How will they adapt to the weaker gravity on Mars?

Or take the psychological concerns. Musk’s tourists next year had better know each other really well, because being stuck together in a glorified tin can for several days can put strains on the most congenial of friendships. Imagine extending that to a few more people and to the several months it will take to reach Mars—and when you emerge from the tin can on that planet, you will have to promptly get to work to establish a settlement. No other human is likely to join you for months more, perhaps years. Communications with loved ones and support staff back “home” will be a slow, time-lagged business. What will conditions like these do to the minds of these pioneers?

Earlier explorations have posed such questions, of course. After all, the small groups of humans who walked out of Africa, or sailed in little ships across vast wild oceans, were on journeys that promised only uncertainty. Leaving a planet behind is certainly different from a junket to the Moon—but is it really that different from leaving a land mass behind?

There’s also the question of what “home” is anyway, and this is, finally, what really took me to see Bhatia. I asked to meet him because I wanted to know what he thought of the very idea of a one-way journey to Mars. What does it do to know you are leaving Earth for good, never to return? What does it make you think of? How can you prepare for something like this?

It wasn’t difficult to come up with a list of questions like those before I drove to that Starbucks. It was even a pleasant thought experiment to come up with answers of sorts. But for Bhatia, this was no experiment. Being shortlisted had made it all very real indeed. Always providing he makes the final cut, and Mars One belies the scepticism and actually takes flight for Mars, he’s got several years to fully come to terms with that reality.

But no surprise: He’s at it already. It’s made him think about technology. About family. About priorities as a student. About his faith, Sikhism, and what it teaches about compassion. Besides, he has taken to wearing his turban in the older, more traditional style favoured by Nihang Sikhs. Sensing my amazement, he says, “It contributes to my mindset and gives me control, discipline and stability.” Those, and compassion, he figures he’ll need in spades if he goes to Mars.

Gave me a lot to digest, Mr Bhatia.

And yes: Humans have always been explorers. So a one-way journey to Mars is, essentially, no different from setting out across the Pacific with no plans to return. Turning ourselves now into a space-faring species just means, in effect, new hurdles to overcome. For me, some of them are forever symbolized by a young Sikh’s electric-blue turban.

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