The Beautiful Desolation of Life on Mars — On Earth

In May 1996, an autonomous resupply vehicle docked with Russia’s ailing Mirspace station. It carried the usual items — food, clothes, scientific equipment — along with much more cherished ones. The American astronaut Shannon Lucid received M&Ms. For the two cosmonauts, Yuri Usachev and Yuri Onufriyenko, there were perfume-scented letters offering a welcome respite from the smells of the space station, which astronauts have likened to body odor, trash and hot metal.

Films and books may focus on the gritty strength of explorers, but in their diaries they speak with almost motherly affection for gentle touches of home. Space crews in the past have delighted in the scents of fresh tomatoes, lemons and apples, as well as recordings of rainfall or cafe chatter. The psychological value of these things is considered high enough to warrant the extreme expense of delivery. (A single apple costs around $300 to launch to orbit today aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.)

For those spacefarers who will one day go to Mars, the cost will be higher, the distance greater and the conditions far more dangerous.

Many experts suggest that Mars settlers will need to live inside heavily engineered habitats, protected from a world with high radiation, a thin atmosphere and toxic dust storms. They will probably spend much of their time in small, crowded structures with little privacy. Communication with Earth will require at least three minutes each way, making live calls from home impossible even during emergencies. Proposals typically call for round trip journeys of two years. There will be no care packages with truly fresh touches from home.

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