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


  1. HvR

    February 7, 2017 at 13:42

    Nice read unfortunately going the way of the science fiction with the 3 major players in space exploration rather focusing on the earthly realm.

    US and EU governments more interested in creating welfare states and keeping the pocket of their paymasters lined and Russia going back to empire expansion I wouldn’t be surprised if we loose earth’s last permanent space programme the ISS by 2025


    • Original Heretic

      February 7, 2017 at 13:44

      Sad but true.
      Especially right now when, with all the high powered telescopes pointing out into the universe, giving us more information than we’ve ever had before, we’re only going to get to see and not touch.


  2. Original Heretic

    February 7, 2017 at 13:46

    Question: does anyone know just how badly the Van Allen radiation belt can really mess space travel up? I read one thing, then another, and I seem to be finding conflicting information.


    • RinceThis

      February 7, 2017 at 13:50

      True. Radiation even in orbit is dangerous, away from the Earth, and the moon’s protective electromagnetic fields could prove fatal..


      • Original Heretic

        February 7, 2017 at 13:55

        Yeah, that’s part of what I’ve read.

        But then (and this is going into the conspiracy theory side of things, SORRY ZOE!), the astronauts who went to the moon say that they weren’t affected.


        • RinceThis

          February 7, 2017 at 14:01

          Well they did experience flashes of light, which is when highly charged particles strike their retina. Also, there is still a protective field helping.


          • Original Heretic

            February 7, 2017 at 14:08

            Yeah, they did report that.
            But weren’t there also those astronauts that went up in the late 90’s, that reported getting really sick while up there? The reports afterward still stated that the Van Allen belt was more dangerous than previously thought.

          • RinceThis

            February 7, 2017 at 14:11

            yeah, that’s why the ISS is below it I believe?

          • Original Heretic

            February 7, 2017 at 14:17

            That’s right. It was done intentionally due to the dangers of the Van Allen belt.

            From what I recall, those astronauts in the 90’s, it was reported that they went higher than anyone had gone, since the moon missions. And even then, all they did was get close to the belt, they didn’t even get all THAT close to them.

            The way I see it, there are very few options that could explain this:
            1) The controversial one is, of course, that the moon landings didn’t actually happen.
            2) The moon missions went through the belts quick enough that they didn’t really get affected too badly.
            3) Something happened to the Van Allen belt after the moon missions to make it more dangerous to us.

          • HvR

            February 7, 2017 at 14:55

            ISS, 400km orbit well below the nearest belt at 1000km more due to orbit transfer cost reason than anything else.

          • RinceThis

            February 7, 2017 at 15:06

            More than ‘they will die quick’? lol

    • Alien Emperor Trevor

      February 7, 2017 at 14:27

      It’s dangerous to be sure, but once you’re past it you’re in for a great party as you enter the Van Wilder belt.


      • Original Heretic

        February 7, 2017 at 14:31

        True story. I’ll write that down.


      • RinceThis

        February 7, 2017 at 15:07

        shut up!


    • HvR

      February 7, 2017 at 14:54

      Badly if you do not take it into account, otherwise it is insignificant for say a mission to Mars where astronauts will be exposed to much lower ionizing radiation (galactic cosmic radiation and radiation from solar events) but over a very long time which will be the problem to overcome.

      Health risk from radiation dosage is 2 fold, intensity and exposure time.

      The van Allen belts are 2 or 3 donut shaped belts around the earth at different intervals, so the thickest in line with the equator and very thin but closer to earth around at 60 degrees from the equator. If you launch from the poles you can pretty bypass them completely.

      For the Apollo missions the planned the orbital transfer path in such a way to go through a thin part of the big 2nd belt to minimise exposure time. Combined with the shielding in the vehicle and their suits their actual radiation exposure (from meters under their suits) for the entire mission was very low. Apollo 14 was the max at 1.14 rad. Under 20 rads in a day there is no change to your body and over 100 rads per day you get sick.


    • HairyEwok

      February 7, 2017 at 15:12

      For some odd reason I read Van Halen radiation belt.


  3. Andre116

    February 7, 2017 at 13:53

    In the Expanse they have an interesting way of creating artificial gravity on space ships…just keep accelerating all the time (with short periods of deceleration so they don’t end up going too fast). Of course you’ll need an engine and fuel that you can accelerate constantly. Simple as that.


    • Original Heretic

      February 7, 2017 at 13:55

      Or they could use the EMdrive.


    • Admiral Chief

      February 7, 2017 at 14:02

      Indeed, we need a different propulsion method


  4. Admiral Chief

    February 7, 2017 at 14:25

    One thing I really liked reading was the warp factor “info”

    Have a read if you are interested


  5. Banana Jim's Final Form!

    February 8, 2017 at 15:32

    I would love to see this happening in my lifetime, and not just the act of a human being physically walking on Mars, but the establishment of a functional outpost. I doubt I’ll see the latter in my lifetime, but I certainly hope my son will experience that.


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