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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

School Winner: Why is it so difficult to send a manned space ship to Mars?

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    30 Nov

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    Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy. 

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    Ever since Mars has been known to humans, it has been a source of speculation. Is there life on Mars? Does Mars have oceans? Can humans live on Mars? Essentially, Mars is a huge area of curiosity and NASA is closer than ever to answering previously unanswerable questions. Despite NASA’s optimistic plans to have a manned space ship orbiting Mars by 2030, various hurdles are yet to be overcome.  

    Mars being 150 times further from Earth than the Moon, it’s a much larger scale mission than any other mission before. The food and fuel supplies necessary would be huge and make for an incredibly heavy space ship. A space ship of these proportions would be too heavy to escape Earth’s gravitational pull, meaning assembling the spaceship in space would be the only viable option. The International Space Station was assembled in space with 31 flights of the reusable space shuttle fleet and amounted to a mass of 4,500 tonnes. NASA estimated the mass of a Mars vehicle to be 1,250 tonnes and assembled with less than 80 missions, so would it be technically possible to assemble it in space? Theoretically yes, if the space shuttle fleet hadn't been retired after 64 missions and been extremely expensive to build and maintain. Converting the construction of the Mars vehicle into a question of money and priority.  

    Even if a Mars spaceship was successfully constructed and launched there are many health risks. Harmful solar radiation, ionising radiation and cosmic rays could damage the craft and put astronauts health and safety at risk. Furthermore, in 2011-2012, the Mars Science Laboratory measured enormous quantities of energetic particle radiation at 0.66 Sieverts. The journey to Mars would be the longest mission ever to be undertaken by a manned spaceship and it is unclear which health threats are associated with humans spending prolonged time in a low gravity environment. In extreme cases astronauts risk losing their eyesight. Physiological aspects aside, abandoning real time communication with Earth for extended time periods could have negative psychological effects. Meteorites and space debris may puncture or hit the space ship, with detrimental consequences.  

    The real problem is that in the case of any medical issues there are no terrestrial medical facilities which are easily accessible, therefore all health risks must be explored and ruled out prior to the mission. To gain more information, NASA has plans to use the Mars 2020 Rover to explore the availability of Martian resources on Mars.  

    It is no secret that a manned mission to Mars is a challenge, even for the genius minds at NASA. However, no more than a few decades ago no one would have thought a landing on the moon was possible. To conclude, NASA faces numerous challenges but, if progress continues steadily, hopefully a manned mission to Mars will become a reality. 

    Ava Lottig
    Latymer Upper School 

    "My name is Ava and I am in year 12 at Latymer Upper School. I study Chemistry, Maths and Physics at A Level. I am interested in the future prospects for astrophysics as well as the growth of physics within the medical field. I enjoy competitive rowing and mentoring a GSCE student in Chemistry and Physics."