Can We Handle The Isolation of Reaching Mars?

Illustration by Keith Pfeiffer

NASA plans on sending people to Mars in the 2030’s. That means that in just 14 years I will be seriously regretting that I got an art degree instead of studying anything else that would have put me into space.

In 20 or so years there will be people living on Mars.

How crazy is that?

No, I mean really. Is this insane? We’re about to send a handful of people 48,678,219 miles away to live on a planet that can get as cold as -190°F, with no water that we could drink, nor an atmosphere we can breathe. These select people will be the furthest away from Earth any human has ever gone before, making them the most isolated group of people in history.

To be clear, I am all for colonizing Mars. I can’t stop thinking, dreaming, or talking about it (just ask my friends- they’re beyond annoyed). Our ability to colonize Mars will be the start of a whole new era that will bring insight into our own past and future. We will be able to study how Mars came to be the way it is and how we can prevent Earth from doing the same. And with the discovery of liquid water on Mars, NASA will be trying to answer the greatest question of our existence: is there life elsewhere?

With that being said, I have some questions. Unless NASA can get the new ion engine to a working stage in time, it will take about 8 months to reach Mars and then the crew will have to wait 26 months for Earth’s and Mars’ orbits to line up again in order to head back home. How will the crew be able to handle being isolated for such a long period of time? How will their team morale be affected? Will they even be able to conduct their jobs after such a journey? What will each crew member be giving up in the name of scientific advancement? Is it all worth it?

I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of being so distant from Earth, from safety, from home. I can’t imagine the feeling of the being trapped inside of a small spacecraft, with a small group of people, with no privacy, all while knowing that just a few inches of metal and glass separate you from infinity. I don’t think I could ever handle the claustrophobia of being in space, knowing there is no way I could just turn around and head home. Nor could I handle the stress of knowing that if I were to make one small mistake, I could risk the my life and all the lives of the crew.

It takes a certain level of bravery to strap oneself into a gigantic rocket about to hurtle towards space, but it takes a whole other level of heroic bravery to face the pure isolation that these astronauts will endure. And when these heroes do return from the cold red planet, overcoming the pain of being hopelessly far removed from their families and loved ones and surviving in the harshest of environments, they will be bringing with them the dawn of a new era of information and exploration, a new chance for the world to come together for united celebration of what humanity can accomplish; and I’ll be just fine sitting in my warm cozy apartment making pretty pictures or something like that.

Keith Pfeiffer is an award winning freelance illustrator currently living in Richmond, VA. You can find more of his work at www.keith-pfeiffer.com