When Will Mankind Reach Mars?

British astronaut, Tim Peake, chats about his role at the European Space Agency and addresses the prospect of a manned mission to Mars. Sunday, 28 October 2018

By Dominic Bliss

What is your day-to-day role at the European Space Agency?

My role is head of astronaut operations. I’m in charge of a small team looking after European missions. We try to fly European astronauts about once a year. At the moment German astronaut, Alex Gerst, is on the space station. We provide all the support for the astronauts before, during and after the missions, as well as family support. We have a team working at mission control who talk to space station crew. They look after medical health and all the science payload and experiments the astronauts are doing. It’s a busy role I have, but it’s operations focussed which is what my background in the military was, so I’m very happy with that.
In our [astronaut] class of 2008, we were the first European astronauts selected by ESA. Prior to that, individual nations would select their own astronauts. We haven’t got our own independent access to space so we have to fly [to the International Space Station] with the Russians or the Americans.
Generally speaking, we send astronauts once every year to the ISS for a six-month long duration mission.


When do you realistically see the first human beings setting foot on Mars?

Mars is the stated goal of several space agencies including ESA, NASA and the International Space Exploration Coordination Group. There are also commercial companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. At the moment it’s looking like mid- to late-2030s when we’ll see those first crewed missions to Mars. That's not to say it couldn't happen sooner than that, especially if, for example, commercial operations become more ambitious more quickly, and more technology is developed sooner. That might spur us on to Mars sooner than the mid-2030s.


Do you think Mars missions will be government-funded rather than commercial?

I think they will be a partnership of both. That model is working quite well already. At the moment on the ISS we have cargo vehicles supplied by commercial companies, such as SpaceX and Northrop Grumman. That partnership is expanding and, later this year, Boeing and SpaceX hope to have their demonstration flights of crewed vehicles to the space station. This year will be uncrewed flights. Hopefully, by the end of next year, they will be delivering the first long-duration crews to the ISS. So we’re already used to working with commercial companies in this public-private partnership. And I think that kind of partnership will continue on to our deep space exploration missions.

Is this type of partnership mainly down to cost?

It absolutely makes sense. Some commercial companies can operate with faster turnaround times in terms of their technological development. For example, we’ve seen how rapidly SpaceX has been able to develop their Falcon Heavy rocket with a reusable capability. This sustainability is bringing down the cost of access to space, so if a commercial company is doing particularly well in one area, it means government agencies can purchase those services and focus their efforts on developing technologies that the commercial companies may not have the expertise in, such as lunar landers, surface habitation modules, or radiation protection shielding. Working together, we can split our efforts and be more efficient.

Can commercial space companies make decisions more quickly than government space agencies?

They can, yes. But you have to temper that with the level of expertise that the government agencies have. The ISS has been up there for 20 years. Before that there was the Shuttle-Mir programme, the US had Skylab, we worked with the Russians on the Mir space station… Over the years there has been a huge amount of expertise built up with government space agencies.

What are the biggest hurdles to overcome in crewed missions reaching Mars?

No challenge is too great. Yes, it’s going to be difficult, but it’s definitely possible. No one is sitting here thinking ‘We’re never gong to make it’. We know what the challenges are and they’re all achievable.

I would say the greatest challenge is radiation. When we’re operating on the space station, we are slightly protected by the Earth’s magnetosphere which helps shield us from solar particle events, and gives us an element of radiation protection. As soon as you leave the Earth’s magnetosphere you’re subjected to stronger solar particle events and galactic cosmic rays. They are two types of radiation. Solar particle events are more predictable and not as severe; water surrounding a module can help to shelter the crew from solar particle events. Galactic cosmic radiation, however, is completely unpredictable, involving extremely high-energy particles coming from the solar system and galaxies. They penetrate the space station, ripping through everything in their path, and they might strike part of the hull of the spacecraft, sending out secondary particles of radiation. So we need to develop methods of shielding the crew against these. We already do that on the space station to some degree, since we have inner lining around the hull of the station which helps to prevent secondary particle radiation.

It's a challenge I think we can overcome. We’re not talking about providing anything that is outside of the bounds of what is possible in terms of spacecraft design. What would really help is to reduce the transit times to Mars because, once astronauts are on the surface of Mars, we can build habitats that will provide much greater radiation protection; maybe even using the soil of Mars to provide radiation protection. Better propulsion techniques will reduce the transit times to Mars.

Do astronauts returning from the ISS report health problems due to radiation?

Not any radiation-related problems, no. The space station carefully monitors them. We don't have a more than three per cent greater risk than anyone else on earth. In a six-month mission most astronauts would receive around 100-150 milli-Sieverts which is the equivalent of about seven to eight chest x-rays per day.

Do you personally have a burning ambition to visit the Red Planet?

Mars would be outside of my career time. I would love to go to Mars, absolutely. The reality is that if someone said today, ‘We have a mission for you next year; it’s a three-year mission and it’s going to Mars’, with a nine-year-old and a six-year-old at home, that would be irresponsible and selfish of me as a father. But if we can reduce those mission times and reduce the risk levels, Mars is going to be a very attractive mission for a number of people.

Will missions be a one-way ticket? Or is that too distasteful for the public?

It’s not an idea being entertained by government space agencies at all. From a personal perspective, I think we can do better than that. These challenges aren’t so great that we can’t overcome them. If we can send people to Mars, we should be able to bring them back safely.

The November issue of National Geographic, guest edited by Tim Peake, is on sale from 31 October.