Gernot Grömer in conversation
“I’m not volunteering for a suicide mission.”
ÖWF / Florian Voggeneder
Frank Haas converses with Gernot Grömer about technological challenges, trivial problems and the huge opportunities afforded by a mission to Mars.
Mr. Grömer, Mars is not the ideal vacation destination. It has major temperature fluctuations and is beset by sandstorms; there's hardly any oxygen and basically no water. So why go there?
(laughs) Right. If you want to lie on the beach and order a drink, then Mars definitely isn't the right choice. But there are other reasons why we find the planet fascinating. For instance, the many questions: why is Mars the way it is now, and has it ever sustained life? In our view there have been phases when this was at least possible hypothetically. The question now is whether it was actually inhabited. And those are two very different things. Viewed from this perspective, Mars offers something that every good vacation destination needs: a narrative, a story. There's a great quote from Ibn Battūta, the Marco Polo of the Arab world: "Traveling initially leaves you speechless and then transforms you into a storyteller." In other words, we still don't fully know what to expect when we land on Mars, what surprises the planet has in store for us. And that, in a nutshell, is the reason for going there.
So a manned mission to Mars is the ultimate aim. How close are we to it?
Several space agencies around the world are looking into this. The Chinese, for example, have announced 2033 as a possible date. Also, there are some private initiatives – such as Mars One, which plans to offer one-way trips, so you would have to spend the rest of your life on Mars. That really is pie in the sky. But when an Elon Musk says he wants to fly to Mars within the next ten years, you have to take it seriously. He has already demonstrated his ability to tap spectacular technological developments in the past – if only because he has the financial muscle to do so. Based on the forecasts of the Austrian Space Forum, we can expect the first Mars expedition thirty years from now at the latest. In other words, the individual who will take the first step on the Red Planet is currently about ten years old and attending an elementary school in a city like Bregenz, Beijing or New York. One thing is certain: we are no longer asking whether we will fly to Mars. Now it’s about the when.
The trip itself would take about six months. But what about the return journey? How do you get back?
The idea is simple: when a Gebrüder Weiss truck travels to Italy, it doesn't take enough fuel for the entire journey because it can fill up at a gas station before the return leg. That's exactly how we view Mars: like a large, planetary gas station. CO2 from the Martian atmosphere can be broken down into carbon and oxygen, which can then be combined with hydrogen – brought from Earth or produced on site – to make rocket fuel. To achieve this, you would first have to dispatch an unmanned cargo craft to land a return spacecraft with empty fuel tanks on the surface. For a few months, the atmosphere can then be processed until the fuel tanks are full and the Earth receives the "primed for departure" signal. Next a smaller, speedier, low-mass manned spaceship will arrive. If something goes wrong, the crew will simply board the return flight and head straight back. But if everything pans out, they will remain on Mars for a year before returning to Earth in this fully fueled spaceship. So the secret is to park the return spacecraft on Mars before the first humans show up.
Gernot Grömer is the founder and Administrative Director of the Austrian Space Forum. AMADEE-20 was already the thirteenth astronautic Mars simulation headed by this astrobiology specialist.
The Austrian Space Forum is one of several players worldwide and you cooperate with an array of space institutes.
Exactly, it's all very international. Although we call ourselves the Austrian Space Forum, well over twenty nations are involved. Our official working language is therefore "BE," or "Broken English." Two hundred people from twenty-five nations are participating in the analog mission in Israel, and any distinctions between countries of origin vanish very quickly. Nevertheless, we are an Austrian institution and for a good 15 years we've been doing something for which we are quite uniquely configured in Europe. It would be a real pity – and bad for Austria as a business location – if it were to lose the lead it has built because countries like China are pumping far more resources into comparable programs.
Let's return to the subject of Mars. What about the extreme levels of radiation? Is a solution lined up?
The radiation issue is a bit like taking a stroll in the Antarctic clad only in swimming trunks. There's a technological answer. I fret more about the problems we haven't even discovered yet, for the surprises that wait over the horizon. We have to be able to point to every single component and say what will happen if it fails. So, in the area of technological development, the mantra "fail fast, fail cheap, have a steep learning curve" always applies. This necessitates that we push new technologies to their absolute limit during development. If I know where the vulnerabilities are and where a part is likely to break, then I can learn from that. In my view, it would be a horrible mistake to fly to Mars without a 3D printer. After all, if disaster strikes, the nearest spare parts depot is 380 million kilometers away. Nor is there any guarantee that the return spacecraft will function as planned. And that opens up a string of significant consequences, from nutritional issues through to deciding how much toilet paper I need to take. The problems and challenges we need to master are very basic, sometimes even trivial. For example, in one past mission we transported our hardware to Oman in two shipping containers. The two spacesuits were both in one container – and this very container was damaged in a storm at sea. We learned the lesson that it is better to ship the two suits in separate containers so that we can continue working with one if the other gets lost. Of course, if you explain that to an experienced freight forwarder, then he or she will say: Hey, I could have told you that.
Despite all the challenges, applicants for flights to Mars aren't in short supply. What, from your point of view, makes an ideal astronaut?
(laughs) According to the science fiction author Robert Heinlein, a good astronaut needs to be able to write a computer program, grill a chicken, tell a good joke, apply a splint to a broken bone and simultaneously write a great story. In other words, unlike with robots – which perform highly specialized tasks – we don't always know exactly what individual humans can do. For complex missions I need generalists. Piloting a spacecraft is not enough. You need to be able to repair a life support system – and reassure a depressed colleague. In psychology, individuals like this are seen as variants of Alpha characters. They are people who tend to be quiet and methodical by nature, but who can switch up a gear quickly and seize control in an emergency.
But isn't a 25-strong team of this type of character a bit too homogeneous?
Of course, which is why we do our best to build teams with complementary attributes. The various Alpha characters are not similar in every respect. For the mission in Israel, we now have six analog astronauts – that's a fairly standard size for a team, a size we are also expecting for Mars. The other members provide on-site support outside the isolation zone and they too need to be the right mix. When forming a team, we begin with qualities that rule candidates out, using the so-called select-out criteria. For instance, anyone with an irregular pulse or psychiatric issues is excluded. Then we come to the select-in criteria – where people have particularly high degrees of competence in a specific area. In our case, that helped us narrow down the shortlist to 30. After that, we look at how well people harmonize with each other. We choose teams, not individuals. And we apply certain basic strategies, starting with a balanced gender ratio. Quite simply, mixed teams function much, much better in the long run. We then abandon the candidates in the wild somewhere – in some gorge in the Austrian mountains – and order them to survive! Needless to say, we closely monitor this exercise. At the end of the day we sometimes realize that there are individuals we have misjudged, who may not be good team players after all. But those who do successfully "survive" this stage will be inducted into the small contingent of certified analog astronauts, from which the crews for the various missions are then picked. So it's quite a complicated process.
What can certified analog astronauts teach us about surviving during the pandemic? Aren't they experts in isolation too?
The media bombarded us during the crisis. Analog astronauts were in high demand for interviews on coping with stress. We have a broad repertoire of techniques we can call on. A structured everyday routine is the classic. In other words, don't wander around unshaven in your pajamas all day long. Have a shave, even if you have no plans to go out. Then there's "Set yourself a target." For us, that involves flight planning, taking rock samples and so on. But you can also apply it to situations in normal everyday life, by picking on something specific and then doing it. It's also helpful to have a functioning buddy system comprising other people dealing with similar trials and tribulations, so you can help each other get through. In our case, these are the people at our Mission Support Center who underwent training together with the analog astronauts and forged personal relationships with them.
Even while we are fighting the pandemic, we humans are very concerned about climate protection. How can space exploration help us here?
There are many different ways. On the one hand, Mars is basically a good model for our planet, given its atmosphere of 95% CO2. As a result of the greenhouse effect, it is 19°C warmer than it should be. Venus – where CO2 also dominates in the atmosphere – is the hottest planet in the solar system. In this context, the effects of CO2 on the Earth's atmosphere have only just been discovered. Lots of people don't even know that the entire climate debate actually evolved from planetology. In general, space travel is an excellent tool for monitoring the Earth, climate trends and their effects, and weather patterns. There is simply no better vantage point than a satellite platform orbiting our planet. On the other hand, for example, Mars offers us a paradigm for studying extreme phenomena. On Mars, we can observe what happens when there is an excessively high level of CO2. Our research may seem remote, but it has real scientific consequences for us on Planet Earth.
You're saying, we should fly to Mars sooner rather than later?
Yes. And there are good economic reasons for that. There are reasons related to technology development, there are scientific reasons and there are geopolitical reasons. Nations that cooperate on space travel do not wage war against each other. What is more, we have both the resources and the skills. Austria's annual space budget is equivalent to about 100 meters of highway construction. You have to see that in perspective. Shortening the second Iraq War by three months would have more than paid for a Mars mission. It's there, we can do it. It's my assumption that we will be the last generation on Earth to think of the Moon and Mars as uninhabited celestial bodies. Our grandchildren will grow up in a world where a lunar station is just as much a part of everyday life as a base in the Antarctic.
Would you leave Earth one day too?
If I had a firm idea of the technology used and the people accompanying me: yes. After all, you wouldn't move into a caravan with any old co-worker and spend half a year trapped inside it with them. Also, I'd want to feel comfortable that there's a realistic chance of making it back to Earth. I'm not volunteering for a suicide mission.
Frank Haas is Head of Brand Strategy and Communications at Gebrüder Weiss – and editor-in-chief of ATLAS.