The failure rate of Mars Missions is high. Many things can go wrong, and the smallest overlooked detail can result in disaster. In 1998, a miscalculation as a result of a mix up of metric and standard measurement units cost NASA its Mars Surveyor Climate Orbiter. The most common cause of failure has been lost communications.
These failures can be very expensive. Billions of dollars have been spent on Mars exploration, triggering some to question whether or not the scientific payoff of space programs is worth their funding and support from tax dollars.
But recent, successful missions such as Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers and the ESA’s Mars Express have garnered worldwide attention and interest. New discoveries providing evidence that Mars was once a watery planet, perhaps more like Earth, together with the looming possibility that forms of life could exist on the Red Planet have fueled the impetus to further explore this distant frontier.
A human mission, such as that depicted in the Race to Mars mini-series, is even more complex. Not only does the mission need to bring supplies and fuel for a return-trip, as well as launching living quarters, vehicles and equipment…but the cost of failure is incredibly high in human terms, economic terms, and for the very future of the space-program.
The following discussion uses the Race to Mars mission-plan as an example.
What can go wrong:
- Possible equipment or systems failure, including guidance system, seals or valves, rocket boosters can cause crashes, gas leaks and explosions.
- Structural failure can break up the rocket.
- Decompression can suffocate the crew
36-48 hours into flight:
- Docking with the crew transit vehicle. This is a slow and methodical process. Dangers include possible collision and pressure failure. If computerized process fails, a manual override is available, but risky.
- Ship spun up to provide Artificial gravity to protect astronauts’ health. Spining too fast would make the crew sick and cause structural damage to the ship.
2-5 months, traveling to Mars
- Elevated radiation from a solar flare could harm crew and damage electronics.
- Loss of communication (here or at any other phase of the mission): would make the mission much more difficult, with the crew reliant on their own skills and equipment
- Astronauts could be harmed by cosmic radiation and excess carbon dioxide in the air.
- Puncture from a micrometeorite could cause partial decompression.
5 months, arriving in orbit
- Critical navigation moment. No margin for error.
- Astronauts must transfer to the MADV lander already orbiting Mars. Docking is always dangerous.
Landing on Mars
- Known as the most dangerous 6 minutes in the mission. Everything from parachutes to retro rockets to LIDAR equipment to Terminal Descent Engines must work precisely in order to slow the lander down. Any variation in the timing or function and the lander can end up kilometers out of place. And with the vehicles, supplies and surface-habitat already in position on Mars, ending up too far off course could compromise the mission.
On Mars: 60 days
- Astronauts are under threat from dust devils (static-electrical discharge), Martian dust storms (poor visibility, long duration) and radiation (a risk due to the thin protective atmosphere of Mars). If their space suits malfunction or rip, depressurization and extreme cold can cause loss of limbs or death.
Ascent from Mars
- The ascent from Mars and docking with the crew transit vehicle again requires split-second timing.
Leaving Mars and re-entry
- The return trip is as risky as the initial journey. Re-entry once the crew reach Earth is always dangerous.