Humans to Mars: A giant leap for a giant team

How many people does it take to launch someone to another planet? Travelling to Mars will take more teamwork than any other human endeavour to date.

Illustration by Michael Dockery

Illustration by Michael Dockery

Human space exploration is one of the most complicated scientific endeavours that can be imagined, let alone attempted. Transcending political, scientific, and planetary boundaries to accomplish such an enormous enterprise would require immense effort from a variety of disciplines. So far humankind has only travelled as far as the Moon; a trip to Mars would be at least 145 times longer, even on a good day. The launch of a human to another planet would require effective collaboration among hundreds or even thousands of people, each working toward a small part of the collective goal: a successful mission from launch to return.

Laying the groundwork

For any project of this scale, the collaboration begins well before the launch date. The first step is a call for science proposals. This might happen a decade or more before the launch of an actual spacecraft — assuming the mission receives sufficient funding and access to all necessary technologies and facilities (which may not be a reasonable assumption).

Take, for example, NASA’s Curiosity rover, an extensive and important mission whose complexity does not come close to what would be required for a crewed mission to Mars. While the rover was not launched until November 2011, the mission itself began in 2004, when the rover’s scientific goals and instruments were selected. That selection process marked the beginning of a long collaboration between the scientists whose proposals were selected and the engineers working to integrate the required instruments into a launchable rover.

 
The Mars Curiosity Rover, taking a self-portrait on Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech (public domain)

The Mars Curiosity Rover, taking a self-portrait on Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech (public domain)

 

The team behind any scientific proposal consists of a variety of scientists who will work on the project: one Principal Investigator, a few Co-Investigators, maybe a post-doctoral researcher or two, and several other collaborators, consultants, and graduate students. For a crewed interplanetary mission, proposals could range from human physiology studies with the astronauts as subjects to geological studies in which the astronauts’ only contribution is hoisting a drill.

Each proposal, of which there may be hundreds for a particular mission, is evaluated by a group of scientists and engineers at the host organisation (e.g. NASA) for both merit and feasibility. The selected proposals become a part of the project: their instruments will be on the spacecraft and their teams will be part of the larger mission.

From the ground up

According to Abbie Hutty, a spacecraft structures engineer working on Mars rovers at Airbus Defence and Space, the personnel requirements for a mission like this are as extensive as they are varied. As the mission progresses, they steadily increase: “Electronics engineers, power engineers, software engineers, propulsion, mechanisms, structures, verification, quality, process, materials, thermal, processor, RF [radio frequencies], AOCS [attitude and orbital control systems] engineers... will then be supported by schedulers, lawyers, finance team, contracts and commercial staff, procurement team, assembly and integration team, test staff,” Hutty said. All these personnel come from a variety of agencies, subcontractors, and institutions, each working on a different mission objective or instrument.

Each of these specialties cannot work in a vacuum, though: “Everyone knows of everyone else and has to liaise with all the other teams to make sure that their design is acceptable and within the requirements of every other specialism,” Hutty explained. 

 
From the planning to the launch, and on to the surface of the red planet itself, a thousand or more team members will be involved to get our astronauts safely there and back again. NASA/ESE/Hubble Heritage Team (public domain)

From the planning to the launch, and on to the surface of the red planet itself, a thousand or more team members will be involved to get our astronauts safely there and back again. NASA/ESE/Hubble Heritage Team (public domain)

 

Lars Osborne, a mechanical engineer at Spaceflight, expanded that “a requirement might be how many drill samples a rover can take, or the sensitivity of the mass spectrometer. And then it takes a lot of work by the engineers to figure out how that affects everything else - how much power is needed, how much it can weigh while still fitting in the rover, and how durable it needs to be.” Even after all that work is done, each piece has to fit together. If, for example, the funding is insufficient or an instrument is too heavy, new modifications may need to be made across the board to make sure that everyone’s requirements are met. Add on top of that the needs of human astronauts (who cannot be adjusted and fine-tuned like scientific instruments), and it is clear that the mission team will need to be a well-oiled machine.

By the time the instruments are built, tested, and optimized for the mission, this larger team can include a thousand people or more, all working together toward the success of each science goal and the mission as a whole. But when the time comes to launch the spacecraft, team members, having spent years developing and integrating their science, must entrust their hard work into the hands of a few carefully selected astronauts.

The long trip to Mars

After the launch, the astronauts become the focus of the mission. After all, they’re the only ones with physical access to all that painstaking science and engineering. This places the burden of collaboration and communication on them: not only do they have to get along with one another in the limited space of their spacecraft, but they also need to communicate effectively with the Earth-based team to make sure that everything goes smoothly and science goals are met.

Brian Shiro is a collaborator with NASA’s HI-SEAS program, which simulates long-duration Mars missions in Hawaii. Shiro has found that there are a few personal characteristics that are absolutely necessary for astronauts on a long mission: “As with any extended remote endeavour, the participants need to be committed to the mission, take the activity seriously, and have the maturity to work through any challenges they meet along the way. For missions like this that stress autonomy, they also need to be resourceful and independent decision makers.” Astronauts on an extended mission would be screened not only for these essential qualities, but also for their dynamic together as a crew.

 

A look inside the cramped living quarters of the International Space Station.

 

For an interplanetary mission, crew members would be stuck together in a relatively small spacecraft for at least 8 months (a reasonable estimate for the time it would take to get to Mars). On the International Space Station (ISS), there are about 388 cubic metres of living space for a full crew of 6 people: about 65 cubic metres per person. While that may seem like plenty of space, it doesn’t allow for much privacy, and astronauts on the ISS are constantly together through both work and free time. Their cooperation and collaboration is key, and they manage to make do with the small space of the ISS.

The International Space Station is already in orbit though; a spacecraft to another planet would need to be launched in one piece and stay that way for months, even years. The Soyuz capsule, in which astronauts fly to and from the Space Station, has only 2.5 cubic metres available for a three-person crew (about enough to stay in one place and not move too much). It’s safe to assume that an interplanetary spacecraft would need to provide more room than the Soyuz but less than the ISS. Still, because any additional living space and weight makes the launch significantly more difficult, quarters would certainly be cramped.

As anyone who has been on a long road trip knows, it can be difficult to get along with anyone in a small, enclosed space for an extended period of time; on an interplanetary mission, the drive is 8 months long and the windows don’t open. During the time spent on another planet, there would need to be more living space, but astronauts would remain both isolated and stuck with one another. For this reason, astronauts in general are required to be good housemates - not only resourceful and independent, but also easygoing and collaborative.

 
Astronaut Scott Kelly shows the cramped conditions within the Soyuz simulator. NASA/Bill Ingalls/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Astronaut Scott Kelly shows the cramped conditions within the Soyuz simulator. NASA/Bill Ingalls/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Shiro has observed that crew members’ mindset changes throughout the mission. “In the first third, they are highly motivated and productive. In the middle third, they can get depressed and feel some animosity to the ground... By the final third of the mission they see the light at the end of the tunnel; productivity picks up, and their mood improves, crescendoing towards the end.” In a mission likely to exceed two years in length, it is crucial to mitigate any mid-mission ennui or animosity. Astronauts on the International Space Station speak with psychologists at least twice a month, but time delays of up to about forty minutes (round trip) in communications between Mars and Earth might render that sort of communication difficult.

In fact, such a delay could render many communications difficult. On the ISS, astronauts are able to easily communicate via e-mail, radio, and even video conferences with mission control, exchanging signals that, at worst, may be delayed a few seconds. Should an astronaut come across a problem with one of the experiments, the project scientists and engineers can provide real-time instructions and advice with no inconvenience. This gives the astronauts a safety net while also allowing the mission scientists some control over their experiments after they launch. 

Even on an interplanetary mission, Shiro said, astronauts may “contact Mission Support with requests and questions several times per day. This can include asking for us to look up and send a journal paper or a website, for example,” but it cannot include requesting immediate assistance. Because there is no possibility of immediate help from Earth in the case of a crisis, mission scientists and staff must place an unprecedented amount of trust in their astronauts’ ability to make the best decision in a split second. And even if the astronauts do everything exactly right during the stationary part of the mission, there’s an additional 8 month journey home remaining.

The slow finale

By the time a crewed interplanetary mission is over, perhaps a decade after the first science proposals were selected, it is likely that a thousand people or more will have touched it in some way. From engineers to nutritionists, lobbyists to astronauts, the mission team will be large and diverse. “The community is great working on a mission - especially science missions which tend to last longer and have a unique focus, so people really become attached to the mission. It becomes like an extended family,” Hutty said. 

 
A different sort of family portrait. Astronauts Chris Cassidy, Pavel Vinogradov, Fyodor Yurchikhin, Alexander Misurkin, Luca Parmitano and Karen Nyberg are part of a community of scientists all working together to push the boundaries of exploration. NASA Johnson/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A different sort of family portrait. Astronauts Chris Cassidy, Pavel Vinogradov, Fyodor Yurchikhin, Alexander Misurkin, Luca Parmitano and Karen Nyberg are part of a community of scientists all working together to push the boundaries of exploration. NASA Johnson/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

If every piece of the mission has worked well and every gear turned smoothly, the end of the mission itself will not mark the end of that family; instead, it will launch a long period of data evaluation and assessment. The scientists will finally have their experiments back, the engineers will be able to revel in the success of their projects, and the astronauts will return to the sights, smells, and spacious scenery of Earth.

A human mission to another planet will take more resources, hard work, and collaboration than most, if not all, human accomplishments to date. It’s impossible to predict all of the new technology or the problems that may arise as space agencies seek to send humans to Mars, or to tell whether all this hard work will result in concrete benefits beyond those of less labour-intensive robotic missions. Lest it be forgotten, space is a dangerous and difficult place, much more so for humans than for rovers. But the imagination of the public has been piqued. The resounding successes of past missions have shown us that when it comes to space, we are excellent at working together. Despite the many moving parts of such a mission, it seems inevitable that it will happen someday, even if that day is two or three decades from now.