A Space Odyssey to Mars in 1986

As seen in 1972

It is April 1986, one year since the giant spacecraft blasted out of the orbit around Earth and headed into deep space, propelled by powerful nuclear engines. The Earth is now so far away that it looks no bigger than a bright star. On board, the crew is too busy for sentimental homeward glances. In a few minutes, three astronauts will enter a smaller spacecraft and cast off from the mother ship to start the final lap of a momentous journey. Their little craft will carry the space travelers to man’s first landing on the surface of Mars.

Though the scenario has the ring of fiction, it could become fact – in the unlikely event that the US Congress has a change of heart and next year appropriates funds for a manned trip to Mars – a minimum of $30 billion to $40 billion, to be spent over a twelve-year period. If that approval were given, NASA’s dreamer planners would not be unprepared. They have already spelled out in detail a daring program that could land Americans on the Red Planet by the mid-1980s.

White-Hot gas

The Mars expedition would make a twelve-day lunar landing mission like a Sunday excursion. If all could be in readiness by 1985, for example, the Mars astronauts would be blasted out of orbit on April 5, when the Earth, Venus and Mars will be in ideal positions for the mission. Their craft would swing by Venus on September 10, 1985, getting a valuable gravitational boost that would speed it to Mars by April 10, 1986. The expedition would depart from Mars on May 20 and arrive back in Earth orbit on November 15, 1986, 590 days after leaving.

The ambitious mission, as planned, will require two command ships, each carrying a crew of six. If one craft becomes disabled, the other can safely return all of the astronauts to Earth. Unlike lunar missions, the journey will not begin directly from Earth; that would require boosters too huge to be practical. Instead, the two cylindrical ships will be lofted piecemeal into earth orbit by Saturn type boosters. There, the separate parts will be latched together. Finally, a space shuttle will bring up the astronauts as well as their fuel and supplies.
Propulsion for the Mars craft will come from an engine not yet developed, perhaps the proposed NERVA (for Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications). It consists of a small nuclear reactor that heats liquid hydrogen until it is expelled as a jet of white-hot gas. To kick out of earth orbit, which requires much less thrust than the earth launch, the 270-feet-long ships will fire – and then discard – the two outboard NERVAs strapped to their sides’ the main booster, at the center of the engine cluster, will be retained. Then, as the two ships pull away from Earth orbit, they will be docked end to end to form a single unit within which the crews can pass back and forth through airlocks.

Some bottled oxygen will be taken along (so that it can be used, among other things, to repressurize the cabin in the event of a meteorite hit), but most of the oxygen will be produced by the electrolysis of water. Although the ships will also carry a supply of fresh water, a large portion of the water consumed by the astronauts will be produced by passing exhaled carbon dioxide through a reactor that separates oxygen from CO2 and combines it with hydrogen. Other water will come from recycled urine and wash water. Earlier plans to grow algae on board to supplement the food supply have now been shelved. “Algae cookies taste pretty horrible,” explains NASAs Robert Lohman. Instead, the food supply will consist largely of frozen and freeze-dried food.

To counteract the possibly damaging effects of weightlessness on such a long voyage, the joined spaceships will have a shielded compartment in which crew members can sit out dangerous barrages of radiation during solar storms. There will also be exercising facilities, games, a library and other diversions to while away the hours. One problem has not been resolved: what to do about the crew members’ sexual drives. NASA psychologists agree that pornography, which suffices as an escape mechanism for nuclear submarine crews on 60-days missions, may not be enough. With an all-male Mars crew, they believe, homosexual activity is inevitable. Including women in the crew poses other problems. As one psychologist puts it: “Sex will be more of a public relations problem than a medical problem for NASA.”

When the linked-up ships finally approach Mars, they will separate, fire their main engines to enter an orbit around the planet, and reunite. Before any manned landing takes place, the expedition will send down several small unmanned probes to scout landing sites and scoop up soil before returning to the mother ship.
When sites have been selected, three astronauts will descend in a lander which will contain a Mars rover, scientific gear and supplies for a month’s stay. The surface activities – televised up to the mother ship and relayed to Earth – will resemble the familiar rock gathering and experimenting of lunar exploration. The astronauts will wear oxygen packs to survive in the thin carbon dioxide atmosphere, and space suits to weather Martian temperatures, from 75 degrees F at the equator at noon, to – 180 degrees F in the Polar region. But there will be significant differences. Since Martian gravity is one third’s of the Earth’s (compared with the Moon one-sixth G), the astronauts will walk with a more normal gait. They may be buffeted by the high winds of Martian dust storms which often exceed hurricane force. They will also be on the lookout for things that do not exist on the Moon: water and primitive life forms.

During this stay, several expeditions will be sent to the surface. Finally, after 40 days in orbit, the twin ships will separate, fire their engines to boost them away from Mars, and redock for the long voyage home. After shipping back into Earth orbit 186 days later, the astronauts will transfer to a waiting space shuttle for the descent to Earth. Above them in orbit will be the empty Mars ships, awaiting the next crew of interplanetary travelers.

(Time, December 11, 1972)

gothic art

Gothic Mars. Illustration by Megan Jorgensen