According to astronaut Chris Hadfield, NASA could have sent people to the Red Planet decades ago, but chose not to considering the perils associated with such an undertaking.
In other words, it was technically possible to send astronauts to Mars way back then, but much too dangerous.
That's according to Chris Hadfield, a retired astronaut who was the first Canadian to walk in space. Between 1995 and 2013, he flew inside two of NASA's space shuttles and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, lived aboard the International Space Station, and spent a total of 166 days in orbit.
Hadfield has since retired from space work, but he recently shared some of his spaceflight knowledge as part of a new MasterClass web course online.
It's Still Dangerous To Go To Mars
Business Insider asked Hadfield if he's hopeful NASA, SpaceX, and Blue Origins — currently the biggest players at the forefront of space exploration ventures — will send people to Mars someday, perhaps within the next decade or so. His answer? We could have done it way, way back.
"We could send people to Mars decades ago," said Hadfield. "The technology that took us to the moon and back when I was just a kid — that technology can take us to Mars."
Hadfield is correct. As early as 1952, there were plans to send astronauts to our neighboring planet by scientists such as Wernher von Braun, the architect of NASA's Saturn V moon rocket. This was well over 15 years before the first Apollo mission.
Ability isn't enough of a reason to go, however. According to Hadfield, while NASA may have been technically able to send people to Mars, it wasn't easy, safe, or worth the risk of human life.
"The majority of the astronauts that we send on those missions wouldn't make it. They'd die."
The desire to explore the depths of the universe has never been more potent today, it seems. Thanks to SpaceX's recent strides in rocket launch innovation with the Falcon Heavy, interest in space exploration has seemingly been reinvigorated; the possibilities have entered popular dialogue again, following somewhat timid enthusiasm in the years after the moon mission.
However, Hadfield is still wary about our immediate plans to go to Mars. The Red Planet is farther away than most people think, due in large part to inaccurate representations of interplanetary distances. In fact, it's 660 times as far as the moon is to Earth — a round-trip journey could take as long as three years inside a spacecraft.
What It's Like To Travel Through Outer Space With Rocket Fuel
Traveling that long can result in a number of disasters. Technical ones, including radiation and explosions, are a given. But the psychological effects of such a trip are often overlooked.
When Ferdinand Magellan launched a globe-trotting journey in 1519, there 250 people scattered amongst five ships.
"They only came back with like 15 or 18 people and one out of the five ships," said Hadfield.
Current technology also doesn't permit long-distance space travel yet. SpaceX's BFR might sound promising, but it's still primarily based on burning rocket fuel, which Hadfield says is like "using a sailboat or a peddle boat to try and travel around the world."
To be clear, Hadfield still thinks we should send astronauts to Mars, and even colonize the planet one day. However, he wants people to be clear of the dangers of such a trip, and the current limitations of technology.