As you look up, mesmerized by the sea of stars beyond the ship glass, you are taken back to a childhood memory of yours. One were you were running across the hill at night, looking up in wonder.
Suddenly, an alarm blares out from behind you. A “Danger! Hub is Damaged!” warning deafened the room, its owner a digital female voice. You look to your right to see your crew members zipping up in their EVA suits, preparing to leave the spaceship. “We need to seal the pothole. Impact with a small planetesimal is affecting the heat shields!” shouts Crew Commander Nadia. “I’ll scan the ship for further damage,” you yell back as you head into the bridge.
As you open the terminal to look through all subsystem reports, you see your crew members outside in the black with Nadia, moving closer to inspect the damage from the window. You look at the clock and realize the worst is yet to happen. “Ten minutes until orbital insertion. We need those heat shields fixed!” John's voice echoes over the intercom.
Subsystems seem stable for now, but a damaged heatshield is bad news for landing on Mars. You look back at your crew and ping them. “We can’t find the pothole!” one responds back. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1...Entering Martian Atmosphere,” says the same digital female voice. “Arghhhh, you’re all dead,” replies back John over the intercom. “Well that was an impossible simulation!” yells back Nadia. “How is it realistic to have us fix the heat shields during atmospheric entry?” you called out. “You are supposed to experience the most extreme and unlikely and impossible to solve of scenarios and simulations. Only way to properly train you.” You look away in anger and leave the room.
You secretly breathe a sigh of relief as the simulation is finally over. But still, you want to be able to succeed at them, even though the commander creates near impossible scenarios for you to try. At least, we have things to do to be fully prepared aboard this ship, for any sort of crazy scenario where we will most likely will die.
You put away your toolkit in frustration and retire to your quarters to rest, hoping to go back to that childhood memory of yours, even though it’s just a fading dream now.
Journey of a Lifetime
What a crazy few months it has been for Mars. Elon Musk released his plan to colonize Mars. Boeing started claiming that they will beat Spacex to reach Mars since they’ve been seeing a lot of negative press about them lately, least of all by me. ExoMars reached Mars, even though the lander failed upon landing (Rest in Peace). And yes, the SpaceX explosion happened that got Mark Zuckerberg so mad, because it carried onboard it the satellite needed for his Internet.org project.
Needless to say, Mars has been very much talked about and in the news lately.
Now, I don’t wanna cover everything that happened with those event since I’m sure you’ve all been reading up on them. What I’m gonna be doing instead in this post is figure what’s the probability of someone ending up going to Mars. And with being accepted, what does the everyday life of an astronaut look like and what are the things they are expected to do.
Let’s start off with the assumption that you are aspiring to go to Mars. What are your odds? Well, we'd have to consider a few routes you can take.
Being able to get to outer space at least.
Your initial options there are either a) being an astronaut, or b) being rich enough to pay for a flight outside Earth.
Then there’s the survivability period in space for the trip to getting there, which in itself is another large journey. You’d have to follow a strict routine and regimen, especially if you are returning back to Earth.
Final preparations are for when you get there, establishment of a base to do your experiments and your living quarters.
In this post, we shall go over all the qualifications for what it takes to be an astronaut and how to endure the travel of going to Mars.
Table of Contents
- The Basic Requirements
- The Right Stuff
- Alternatives to NASA
- The Training
- The Roles
- A Day in the Life
- First Landing
The Basic Requirements
Historically, NASA gets between 2,000-6,000 applications, and select about 10-15 astronauts for their class, according to an AMA with Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator. That comes up to a 0.167% chance of being an astronaut.
However, the latest application round for the 2017 class reached a record breaking 18,300 applicants, which was due to NASA’s social media push that earned it even more followers and recognitions and engagements online. Let’s assume the 2017 class will result in 20 astronauts. That throws your chances to a cool 0.109%, way lower, but the odds were so low to begin with anyways.
Now, there’s a big filter that NASA imposes on you before you even apply to become an astronaut, which is a basic list of requirements you need to be eligible for in order to apply. Now, just like any other job application, we can safely assume that most applicants spend 50 seconds going over the application before applying. This leads to applicants being instantly disqualified because they don’t meet the basic requirement yet are still being counted as an applicant, thus inflating the total applicant count.
The basic requirements that a person needs to meet before even applying to become an astronaut is to have a bachelor’s degree in STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with three years of relevant experience in that STEM field. They also must pass an eye physical exam to be qualified with a 20/20 vision acumen. Imagine how many of the applicants that apply don’t meet this criteria.
Now, if you think you’re not qualified, there are other alternatives. Like buying a $200,000 ticket to Mars with Musk’s Interplanetary Transport System later on, or shelling out $20 to $40 million dollars to the Russians for the pleasure of chilling aboard the International Space Station for a few days.
The “Right Stuff”
I often thought about what it means to have “the right stuff”? Is it the balance of every personality trait that you can have while empowered by a feature? Such as being the jack of all trade, master of none, and also being pretty good at something else? Or maybe being a master at everything? So many questions.
I imagine there’s a very thin line, one that borders on the madness of leaving everything we love and know behind us, while facing our noble ambitions of exploring the unknown and contributing to science.
Science should be the most important reason for leaving our world behind. If this isn't part of the goal of an astronaut, then it's doubtful the applicant will get far in the training. You must be in a state of wonder and curiosity about Mars and passionate about pushing humanity towards becoming a multi-planetary species.
Sadly, however, even if you got everything that is needed, something can get in the way. Like say, feeling airsick when inside a plane doing crazy maneuvers to test your endurance. Or maybe you can’t really improve your Russian skills to read the outdated documentations when there’s a system failure on board the I.S.S.
Who really knows, you gotta be incredibly lucky. Maybe you scored a 95.5% and your colleague scored a 95.6%, and NASA has a specific quota for how many people it is recruiting and you simply didn’t make the cut. It can happen.
Alternatives to NASA
We can think of other alternatives to being an astronaut. Let’s say you have a good amount of cash lying around, surely that ought to buy you something, right?
Well, one way is to be paying the Russians for that pleasure of launching with them to the International Space Station. That would probably set you back a cool $20-40 million dollars. I don’t know about you guys, but that’s a ton of money just to spend a few days in the International Space Station.
British soprano Sarah Brightman famously mentioned a lifelong dream to go to space, planning a $52 million and 10 day trip to the ISS with the Russians to record a music video over there. She however dropped out from continuing the journey after only a few months of training, citing family reasons. Invest the remaining money elsewhere, Sarah. For now, the only real music video that was shot in space is by none other than Colonel Chris Hadfield (Of Canada) singing David Bowie's Space Oddity.
So, what’s left then?
Elon Musk’s plan to go to Mars and beyond, of course!
I’m sure all of you know about the most recent development with SpaceX, mainly the keynote at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico on the 26th of September.
Now, Big F Rocket (BFR) and Big F Spaceship (BFS) which form part of the Interplanetary Transport System, or ITS (Musk thinks this needs to be renamed) will able to transport hundreds of people to Mars, land there, and then fly back to Earth to pick up more passengers.
Musk argues that under his system, tickets to go the Red Planet would cost about $200,000 a person, which is totally affordable for most people. This is assuming you start saving from now until the future and that there isn’t a lot of rich people who decide to liquidate their assets and book journey on the first few expeditions ahead of you. This is a big freaking deal by the way, especially compared to earlier predictions of a ticket costing $500,000. Mars is slowly becoming a reality for a lot of us. This is certainly an avenue for many to take in case they don’t qualify to be astronauts.
Other alternatives include being an astronaut with another space agency, but the odds of getting in and being an astronaut for them are so low, it’s not worth mentioning. If you don’t have a stack of 200k laying around, then with NASA we shall go and continue our journey onwards to Mars.
It’s the training that I think is the most exciting thing of all. Think about it, of all the people on Earth, they picked you to be the representative of this mission. Surely it’s no walk in the park to prepare for your role as an astronaut.
If you thought you were gonna just “science it”, then you are mistaken. It’s more than just doing scientific experiments and collecting data.
You will be expected to learn a lot about medical procedures, because you can’t just be relying on the the mission’s physician, especially in case of an emergency. Another cool thing is also having to give speeches, so they’ll have to take public speaking classes.
Let’s say you’re a mechanical engineer. Well guess what, you’re about to learn how to write and read ship code, build and replace and measure circuits, and debug a whole subsystem, all the while reading technical datasheets and documentations.
That’s not all, though. Botany, chemistry, geology, and medical expertise come to mind. You won’t necessarily be the primary scientist in that area, but you will learn how to help support any endeavors in those fields by categorizing and testing out experiments and recording the results.
The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory is what astronauts use for training for space walks and extravehicular activities (EVAs). Scientists are basically underwater in a really big swimming pool, measuring 12 meters in depth, 62 meters in length, and 31 meters in width. They practice on full-sized models of space vehicles, and can spend up to seven hours underwater at a time!
For more microgravity training, the KC-135 comes into play. The plane is commonly known as the Weightless Wonder or Vomit Comet, by providing about 30 seconds of zero-gravity, giving the astronauts on board weightlessness.
You’ll also need to be good at lifting and running, so don’t be surprised if those are incorporated into your regimen. Hitting the gym should become your life, but if you’re looking for a more space-friendly tailored workout, you might be more interested in what Mike Hopkins has in store for you. NASA’s very own astronaut Mike has developed a fitness program for everyone called “Train Like An Astronaut” which I suggest you check out. I’ve been following up on his examples and routine both on board the ISS and on the ground, and incorporating into my fitness routine.
Russian here helps a lot, since you’ll be conversing with a crew that might be composed of Russians and Americans and native and secondary English speakers, but you want to display a united front, where you understand each other cultures. You must be able to coordinate together and know how each person thinks and get used to working together and solving problems together. This also includes talking to Russian Mission Control Center.
A cool part of training is the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility, where astronauts conduct their training in a replica or “mock up” of what the ISS would look like, which will be the same for a Mars base building mission.
A big part of training that should be required would be living in remote places in isolation, be it Antarctica or the Utah Desert. In Antarctica, we have the Concordia Research Station, which lies on the southernmost tip on Earth. The nearest human beings are 600 miles away, which is still pretty far considering the fact that you are on the South Pole.
Concordia Research Station is a French-Italian facility where about 16 people live in there in complete isolation for about a whole year while the effects of long space missions is studied. It helps predicting what happens in space in the long term and planning for it, simply by studying the participants and their behaviors. I’d imagine NASA would lease this and have the Martian astronauts live there for a whole year.
Another long term study is currently being done in Utah with the Mars Desert Research Station, under the care of the Mars Society. What’s cool about this is that you can apply to be part of the study. The facility supports Earth-based research welcomes scientists and engineers as well as students of all walks of life in an eight-month field season. According to them, the long term isolation allows for rigorous field research and human adaptation research, which will provide data that supports any mission to Mars.
Now this overview is by no means a definitive guide to the type of roles on a mission, but it’ll help lay the groundworks of what you’ll expect on such an expedition to Mars.
A commander of the Mars mission is the main person in charge of the entire operation, the one who gets to make the final decision on any choice the mission faces. A commander is not necessarily the smartest person in their crew from a technical perspective as well as from an operational and scientific achievement.
However, in that case, they make up for it in expert decision making and leadership, and being able to assess what their team is telling them and take it into consideration. They would have a bit of military background most of the time, but it can vary and they can be of an engineering background.
Now, if we have a crew of 6-8 people, it would be ok to have just one type of commander. However, the bigger the crew and the mission, the more subcategories of commanders are needed, each with their own objectives and missions. This is especially true in larger teams, with about 50 people going on a colonial mission.
The Pilot’s role is to help by being able to commandeer a ship manually in the event of an emergency. It is highly likely that by the time there’s an expedition to Mars, navigation will be fully auto-piloted with minimum need for someone to pay full attention to controls and were ship movement is executed to a precise degree of maneuverability.
Yet, a pilot must be ready to be able to take control and fly a spaceship at any time for the mission and understand everything there is about the controls. A few others with assistant pilot roles can assist as needed, depending on the size of the mission.
Let’s assume several expeditions are happening, or this one has a theme or a goal, like building a colony, making a biosphere, or just pure scientific experiments and data collection.
The mission specialist will be the person in charge of making sure that the mission is successful and the objectives are complete. The way they’d differ from the commander is their concern is the goal of the mission objectives being complete while the commander worries about the survival of the entire crew.
Engineering has to be one of the most crucial roles in any expedition, mainly because you need to have people onboard that are able to solve problems, fix things, debug failing components, and build new things.
If an expedition lacks groups of people with technical abilities, the expedition is doomed. It’s the technicals and engineers who can assess things and direct efforts whether it’s a continuation of the journey in space or colony establishment.
Engineers can be flight engineers, system engineers or mechanical engineers, as long as they take a variety of different expertise in subsystems.
Science Officers are in charge of a particular field of science for experiment conduction and data collection. For instance, in a larger expedition, you can have a science officer for Geology, Physics, Biology, Botany, who direct efforts in conducting experiments in their respective fields. Those positions can be shared among different astronauts, so it’s not an exclusive role.
A botanist can be a mechanical engineer too (right, Mark Watney?). Also, physicians on board the crew can also be scientists or helping conduct experiments.
A Day in the Life
Now that we have gotten over the stages of qualifying to be an astronaut, there’s still the training we must endure as a crew. That’s probably the hardest stage.
I mean, let’s throw a couple of assumptions for a second. First, we will assume that our model for designing a day-to-day schedule onboard a ship is based of what research we have conducted on board the International Space Station.
So, there will be exercise, there will be science research, there will be maintenance, there will be drills. What else? A complete analysis of you as a variable in this adventure. Weight, food, vitamins, heart rate, body temperature, mood, potentially brain waves, among other things.
You will also be exercising a bit differently. On average, you’ll be working out about 2 hours per day (hey, no one said being an astronaut is going to be easy). The reason for this is that regular activity helps prevent bone and muscle loss. What’s cool though is that the equipment used is different in space than on Earth, mainly because lifting that 200 pound bench press in space is super easy (thanks to microgravity). So, special equipment is designed for this type of space workout.
For instance, here’s a cool video of astronaut Karen Nyberg on the COLBERT treadmill in space.
Resting after a long day of work is always a great thing, but in space, there is no up and down, just plain old microgravity. So, you can technically sleep in any orientation, but it’s best to attach yourself so you’re not floating around and bumping into space stuff and tools (that’s never a good thing). Eight hours of sleep is the usual amount given to astronauts.
Daily vitals and computing body measurement are an interesting addition, though. Think about a really smart AI that can analyze every part of your body and help you optimize everything for maximum efficiency. Sort of like a biohacker minus the implants, just sensors mostly. Now, a lot of you might be thinking, “Well that’s cool and all, but why would I bother knowing all of this.” Well guess what, if you’re gonna be gone for a while into space, it sure is important to know about any changes in your body that you can diagnose later.
Another factor is training simulations that will help the crew occupy most of the time with things to do. This will also help the crew stay fresh and trained for all sorts of scenarios. Also, in their free time, they will each have tasks to complete and scientific experiments to perform and logging and analyzing all this information. They must also socialize with each other and make decisions together about daily development that happen on the ship, as well as prepare meals together.
By those prepared meals, I wonder if there will also be alternative foods that astronauts can rely on long term. I’m thinking food that lasts a long time, kinda like how Soylent or other meal replacement food products are. In general however, if we are considering what it’s like to eat in space, NASA compares it to going camping. You pack for a long time, bring nonperishable food, and dispose of it safely just before going back home. Everything else needs to have water added, like noodles and mac and cheese. If you are a foodie as well, checkout Williamsburg's Menu for Mars, a supper club in Brooklyn that pioneers a menu for the Red Planet. I think for a future post, I would like to take a look at the food and cuisine one would consume on Mars or prepare for that voyage.
What would also be interesting is agriculture onboard the ship as a way to practice for the gardens to be built once we get to Mars. Also, how cool would it be to grow your own garden and plants and vegetables onboard a spaceship! A biosphere then will be practiced on Mars to help cultivate and grow food.
There’s also the factor of cryosleep and when to implement it. The usefulness of a fully automated ship helps astronauts skip time and not be bored and instead use a few months nap to just deal with the journey. We just need to be sure they’ll be safe throughout the journey.
I wonder if we can study long term effects of cryosleep in space before such an expedition. Who knows, maybe train one astronaut to be designated sleeper on board the International Space Station, whose entire expedition is just them passed out, in the name of science!
Arriving on Mars should prove to be the coolest thing we are about to do. It also will prove to be the hardest.
While I won’t be discussing the aspects of base building and the type of colonies you can belong to on Mars just yet and leave it for another post, I will say this.
This is in no way a turn-key solution to base building and colony establishment. There is no manual on how it’s actually done. You’re just going by the best approach you know. You are actually following procedures and guidelines given to you by your mission designers. But you should be prepared for any possible type of problem that arises when you get there. You will come across things not going according to plan, or things not working as they should, and then you’ll have to debug and find out what went wrong.
You have to understand a few things. There's no going back, well not initially. We can assume that after your first landing as a Martian astronaut along with crew members, you become something extremely larger. A space colonist. A planetary geologist. A green terraformer. You become so much more than a “human who has been to space”. This is why it's important to know that you might not return. Your duty rests on building a livable breathable habitat for the next generation to come. You've already cheated nature by being the first living organism there in a while. Or are you? There's so much that can happen, it's very unpredictable. That's why you need to know that you might die over there. You probably will, but most likely due to old age on the Red Planet. Still, you are not going there for the sake of saying “Yeah, been there, done that” but instead to make it permanent. You can still go to Earth later, but honestly it should be the last thing you consider. Otherwise, why be on the expedition, right?
I am pretty sure a lot of you are keeping with National Geographic’s Mars TV show, and if you haven’t, then I strongly urge you to watch it. I will be discussing elements of the show in future posts, but for now, I want to direct you to a quote early on from the first episode that belongs Ben Sawyer, commander of the Daedalus, the mission spacecraft that will land the first manned crew on Mars.
“Drives better than a Cadillac. But that shine isn't gonna last. Over the next 7 months your bodies are gonna be exposed to nearly 200 times the dose of a normal year's worth of radiation exposure on Earth. Calcium will leach from your bones which will lose nearly 10% of their mass before you even get to Mars. There is no test that can tell you whether or not the notion of being 60 million kilometers away from the planet on which you were born can shatter your mind in so many pieces. Some of us if not all of us will almost certainly die on this mission. Might be in takeoff, might be in landing, might be in the new world itself. Now you all are the bravest group of women and men I have ever met. I'm damn proud to be here with you. But right now I want you to stop and ask yourself what really is important to you about this mission. And if the answer to that question is not the most important thing in your life then I'm gonna invite you to walk out that door and go pursue whatever that thing is. And don't ever look back, because no one will ever have the right to hold it against you.”
- Commander Ben Sawyer
What I like the name of the spacecraft is that Daedalus was the father of Icarus, the dude who glued feathers to himself with wax to form wings with his father’s help. Icarus obviously died because he flew too close to the sun (such a noob) and the wax melted away, causing his fall to his death. But what’s interesting for naming a spacecraft after Daedalus, an inventor, is because it appears as though we are in a way no trying to invent the correct and only method to get to Mars. We don’t claim to have it right at first, it will require a huge sacrifice to the God of War for us to be able to land on his realm. So, now, we are simply paving the way, inventing what we think will work in order to get to Mars. It will truly be a test for all of us and will advance our technology in such a large scale that we will also work on the infrastructure that will keep us on Mars in the long term. Our solar system will become alive and teeming with human activity soon enough. But we can’t do it on our own while everyone is sitting back. You wanna help, you gotta think about your long term strategy, be it to be an astronaut for NASA or a SpaceX colonist and plan it out. It’s time to get your hands dirty.
But hey, now that you’ve arrived on Mars with the rest of the crew and made a temporary habitat to chill in, you’ve earned yourself a cold beer. Enjoy this moment with the rest of the crew, because tomorrow the real work begins! And now that you’re finally here, if you happen to steal your colleague’s toothpaste, you are technically a space pirate.
Part V of The Martian Sex Journal
From the perspective of the dreamers of Mars, if we can’t even colonize the Red Planet, then this whole experiment is jeopardized. If humans can’t inhabit the cosmos, then we are literally stuck to Earth and its problems and warfare.
Part IV of The Martian Sex Journal
This is where the irony of living on Mars with the dreams of terraforming it lies in the eyes of this tourist Martian visiting and experiencing Earth for the first time. The Martian’s forefathers left this very planet to settle and colonize Mars and terraform it be like Earth, even though they left Earth because they didn’t want to live there to begin with.
Part III of The Martian Sex Journal
To a baby growing up, this is a shocking new way of viewing the world, especially when the people raising the baby use Earth as a reference point. Everything is sacred, everything is sustainable, everyone working towards a common goal.
Part II of The Martian Sex Journal
The topic of sex and procreation in lower- and micro-gravity and giving birth to a child has become an important topic in life sciences. Being able to successfully live in those conditions and give birth to healthy babies that will be second-generation colonists capable of carrying the torch is the most essential task of going out and venturing into the final frontier.
Don't Miss Out on those Occupied Mars articles!
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