Space is something of an obsession for humanity. Since the dawn of time we were enthralled by the stars; as a species that loves to explore, space is that outermost place we can reach. And we did reach it, landing on the moon in 1969, almost 50 years ago (let’s please not talk about the conspiracy theories, okay). A lot has changed, and instead of focusing on the moon, space travel is oriented towards that red planet, Mars. The media has been fascinated by Mars for ages, and I secretly hope that if there are Martians they are more like Marvin from Loony Tunes than Martian Manhunter from the DC universe. Instead of green men, though, we might be the first Martians, and it might not be such a futuristic idea.

I got to interview Kartik Kumar, an analog astronaut with the Austrian Space Forum, and pick his brain about the intricacies of space travel. To be clear, analog astronauts aren’t the non-digital version or something. They emulate the role of astronauts here on Earth.

Space exploration is a risky business at the best of times. Given the value placed on human life, it is imperative that we have a thorough understanding of the risks in space. Hence, in preparation for human missions, a lot of work is done on the ground a priori. This practice goes all the way back to the start of human spaceflight. During the Apollo era, astronauts would practice and experiment here on Earth to prepare for missions to the Moon. Not only does this allow engineers to better safeguard the astronaut’s life, it also provides a means to test processes, (contingency) workflows and experiment procedures.

Kumar astronaut

In his role at the Austrian Space Forum, the focus is on developing technologies, processes and workflows for Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) on Mars. That means he is testing spacesuit simulators, doing 4-6 hour field missions. With the Aouda suits weighing about 45kgs, the average EVA is similar to a half marathon. During an EVA, the communication between Earth and the habitat on Mars could be delayed by about 10 minutes, posing unique challenges to the mission. Talk about lag – no one had better complain about their ping in Overwatch unless they start playing on Mars.

I asked about some of the basics, though. I had heard NASA had launched a “Space Poop Challenge”, trying to get proposals for in-suit waste management for long EVAs, but I was curious about general eating, drinking, hygiene and other details. Is the food always hot or cold in space? I just imagined prepared meals that are never quite heated up properly in the microwave – scalding hot food can’t be particularly safe in space, right?

Taking care of the basic functions for astronauts is a really important part of ensuring that they can carry out the work they have been assigned in space. The systems employed for eating, drinking, and general hygiene depend on the specific circumstances. For instance, on the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts are provided with a variety of foods and drinks that are packaged for ease in microgravity. During EVAs outside the ISS, astronauts are provided with their basic needs by the spacesuits that they don.

[…] Astronaut food has come a long way since the start of human spaceflight. Nowadays, astronauts on the ISS eat “normal” food. It’s packaged in special pouches to make it easy for them to prepare meals in microgravity. They consume everything from fresh fruits and vegetables, to pasta, burritos and more! Interestingly, the ISS has ovens on-board to heat up food but there are no refrigerators. So food has to be stored carefully to prevent it from spoiling.

In addition, recently, astronauts ate fresh greens that were grown on the ISS for the first time. This heralds the start of the era in which astronauts will hopefully increasingly become more self-sufficient by being able to grow food themselves. Mastering the ability to grow your own food in (deep) space is an essential element for future human missions to Mars.

Mars food production

Despite the monotone voice of the guy in this video, check out how cool it is:

Okay, so we grow food or eat prepackaged burritos, but how viable is the idea that we could end up on Mars soon? Is it still the realm of movies and games that Kartik doesn’t even watch or play (he hasn’t even watched an episode of Star Trek)? Obviously it’s fun to imagine and enjoy for fiction and entertainment, but it could be a reality sooner than we might think.

It’s actually not so much an issue of gravity on Mars that’s the main concern at this point (although obviously it’s important), but rather the microgravity environment en route. We know low gravity conditions cause bone loss and muscle atrophy, which is why on the ISS astronauts spend so much time exercising. A return mission to Mars could take around 500 days, of which a year would be spent just traveling there and back. It’s a long time to spend in microgravity and a lot of research is being done into the range of physiological impacts this could have. It’s also putting my daily commute into perspective. But if that’s the issue, what are the chances that we will be able to travel to (or even live on) Mars in the future?

I think it’s more a question of when rather than if. Technology will progress to the point that it will be possible. The real questions in my mind are what the political, economic, judicial and social frameworks are going to be like and whether they will be able to cater to such exploration missions. Political issues play a major role in dictating our ability to accelerate towards such goals, especially since frontier space endeavors are still heavily financed through public funds. There is a growing effort to commercialize the space industry and seek private funds to achieve these goals. In truth, I think public-private partnerships are the way forward and once the political will is there, we will see rapid strides being made towards setting foot on the Red Planet. In short, my prediction is that we will walk on Mars within the next fifty years. Elon Musk and others might be able to achieve this even sooner but only time will tell

(Photos courtesy of the OeWF)

Just imagine if in the space (hah!) of a 100 years of human development we go from launching our first successful missions to the moon to now being able to walk on and even colonize Mars? It really does feel like the start of so many SF movies, games and books I’ve consumed over the years. Next step Mars, and then we need to be discovered by another alien civilization, and then it’s just a matter of time before we’re a dystopian future or leaders of an intergalactic space federation.

Last Updated: February 9, 2017

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