Hello all! Many moons ago, I posted an update where I explained how I would be teaching a course through the Kepler Space Institute (KSI). Titled “The Exploration and Potential Settlement of Mars,” this six-part course will examine how Mars has inspired our mythological/astronomical traditions, the history of Martian exploration, and the possibility that humans will live there someday.
Well, as of a few weeks ago, the starting date has been set! This course will commence this Summer (on July 24th) and will last for six weeks. If all goes well, a second cohort will commence in the Fall and could lead to me reaching other courses through KSI. The six-part course breaks down as follows:
Session 1: Perceptions and Portrayals of Mars
This lesson deals with how ancient peoples perceived Mars, how it has inspired mythology and folklore, and how its passage across the heavens influenced our cultural development. From there, the lesson moves into what we have learned about Mars and how that led to its changing portrayal over time. From a deity to a planet, from the site of another civilization to a lifeless ball of rock. And now, a world that may have supported life and could again someday.
Session 2: History of Proposals
This lesson focuses on the history of proposed mission architectures that would send astronauts to Mars. These include Von Braun’s “The Mars Project,” the earliest plan for mounting crewed missions to the Red Planet. During the Cold War Era, as NASA got closer to setting foot on the Moon, several plans were drafted for what would come next. By the 1990s, there were renewed plans for missions that would leverage In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). By the mid-2000s, work began on the next generation of launch vehicles to make this happen. Today, NASA and China plan to send crews there by the 2030s, with other space agencies following in the ensuing decades.
Session 3: Mars in Popular Culture
Mars has always occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of people, not the least of which are science fiction writers. The moment we realized Mars was a planet with similarities to Earth, speculation began that there might be a civilization there. The nature of this civilization reflected humanity’s hopes and fears, alternating between hostile invaders to benevolent creatures endangered by humanity. By the 1970s and after, SF portrayals shifted to one where Mars was a dead world and the first Martians would be humans. And with the growing knowledge that the planet was once warm and watery, we now portray humans living there and even restoring it to what it once was.
Session 4: Getting There
This session explores the major challenges in sending missions to Mars. Using current technology, missions are generally restricted to making transits every 26 months (when Earth and Mars are closest to each other), and transit times can last from six to nine months. For this reason, next-generation propulsion technologies have been explored for decades, including nuclear rockets! In addition to time, other challenges include radiation, microgravity, supplies, waste management, and more.
Session 5: Living There
Once we’ve solved the problem of getting there, there is the rather large challenge of how humans can operate there for extended periods. This includes a hostile environment (thin atmosphere, toxic air, radiation), providing food and water, sourcing power, seasonal hazards (like dust storms), and Martian gravity (40% of Earth). This lesson addresses these challenges, how they could be mitigated in the short term, and how space agencies and commercial space companies plan to do that.
Session 6: Staying There (Making a Garden)
What about the long term? Can humans live on Mars indefinitely, giving rise to the first “Martians”? What would this take in terms of planning, technology, and living strategies? And if we really want to think about the long term, how could ecologically engineer Mars to make it more like Earth (aka. terraforming)? What would that take? And what would implications would human settlement and terraforming have for any possible lifeforms that could still be living there?
To learn more, check out the course info at the Kepler Space Institute.