Elon Musk wants humans to travel to Mars. He just doesn’t want to be the first to go. Because, uh, there’s a very good chance of dying.
“The risk of fatality will be high,” Musk conceded in the course of describing SpaceX’s absurdly ambitious (and still preliminary) plan to establish a human colony on Mars. “There’s no way around it.” Much like early voyages to the South Pole or the initial moon launches were incredibly dangerous, the first would-be Martian explorers will face huge risks. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. That’s just the price of conquering new worlds and exploring hostile environments.
So what exactly makes a journey to Mars so perilous? Chris McKay, a senior scientist at NASA Ames Research Center involved in planning future Mars missions, walked us through some of the hazards. Some, like exploding rockets, are hair-raising; others, like radiation exposure, could prove more tolerable.
But it’s a good bet that something may go terribly wrong in a mission this audacious and this complex. “Going to Mars is a big, big thing. It’s going to involve risks,” McKay says. “We’ll always try for perfect safety. But we all realize that part of the deal … is that there could be fatalities.”