The race to Mars is on. And by race I mean “painfully slow planning and plodding.” Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Putting people on Mars is no small feat — the journey itself is 7-8 months long (please tell me the astronauts will have Netflix!) and the astronauts will be subject to radiation the whole way. And then there’s everything that has to happen once we land, although I think a smart mission would involve sending robots ahead of time to set up some infrastructure. But more than anything, there’s the funding. It’s true that the House recently passed a reauthorization bill that supports manned Mars missions, but it’s unclear how much that will help, and to say that the price tag of such a mission is prohibitive would be an understatement. Still, despite all these obstacles, we humans are committed to spreading our species to another planet. The question is, who will be the first to do it? Will it be Mars One, the Dutch non-profit that’s currently whittling down a field of over 200,000 candidates for a Mars landing in 2025? Will it be NASA, with or without the help of other countries? Or will it be SpaceX, the renegades of the private space technology sector? Elon Musk is betting on the latter.
Perhaps the recent National Research Council report lambasting NASA’s plan to get humans to Mars was the wake-up call the government needed. That report (which somewhat ironically cost upwards of $3 million to assemble) couldn’t have been clearer in stating that, under current circumstances, NASA’s manned Mars missions were nothing but a pipe dream, and an invitation to “failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best.” Yikes. But sometimes, a kick (or ten) in the ass is what the government needs, and when the House passed a new NASA reauthorization bill last week, it took the step in providing a more feasible budget for putting people on Mars.
Just before the bill passed the House, Steven Palazzo, Chairman of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said, “We are committed to once more launching American astronauts, on American rockets, from American soil,” and argued that the bill would “serve as a pathway to Mars.” The bill also reinforces Obama’s previous commitment to developing a cutting-edge heavy-lift rocket launcher, as well as the new generation of Orion spacecraft, which is currently undergoing testing.
Both NASA and President Obama—at least, early on, before budget realities called for revisions—have outlined goals to get humans to the Red Planet by 2030. Whether or not that’s actually going to happen is up for debate. According to the National Research Council, the space agency’s current plan won’t get us there, and to continue to pursue this course “is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best.” In other words, NASA just got busted.
Congress authorized the report, which took the NRC 18 months and cost more than $3 million dollars. One of the findings is that on its current trajectory, NASA sorely lacks the funding to make a manned Mars mission happen, even if Obama’s vision pans out. Hmm…where have we heard that before?
Just under a year ago, GFR reported on a four-month simulated Mars mission taking place in Hawaii, which focused primarily on feeding astronauts decent food for their long-term stays on other planets. Hi-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog & Simulation) researchers are now testing various kinds of extra vehicular activities, comparing the difference between 3D-printed tools and conventional instruments, devising better and safer astronaut training and preparation methods, identifying techniques for distinguishing different volcanic minerals on Mars, growing plants under different wavelengths, and refining methods of converting trash to gas, as well as studying psychological and emotional challenges and adjustments to such a taxing mission.
The Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are triumphs for NASA, but why should the space agency rest on its laurels? Even though both rovers are rolling around on the Red Planet, NASA is hard at work on other vehicles for future Martian exploration, particularly spacecraft to deliver payloads. Their efforts are currently focused on supersonic parachutes and inflatable saucers to help slow and gently deposit cargo on the planet’s surface.
The technologies are a part of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project. As we continue to explore Mars, and other planets, we’ll need a way to transport larger loads. Spacecraft move at incredibly high speeds through the Martian atmosphere, so they need to decelerate quickly and safely, allow for a soft landing for whatever they’re carrying. Previous missions, such as the one that delivered Curiosity, have relied on the Viking parachute, which NASA has used since 1976. But a simple parachute doesn’t generate enough drag for the heavier equipment that future endeavors will need, especially if humans do try to colonize Mars.
NASA’s next manned spacecraft — its first new model in 40 years — is called the Orion, or “Apollo on steroids.” Presuming that it passes the various stages of unmanned flight tests, this may be the spacecraft that brings humans to Mars or to the asteroid belt for mining. To put it mildly, there are a lot of eggs in Orion’s basket, so much so that not even the government shutdown halted work on the craft. Even Universe Today dubbed 2014 “the Year of Orion.” Despite its importance, there are higher-priority matters, such as national security. Orion’s first exploration flight test, due to take place in September, has been pushed back to allow the U.S. Air Force to launch two Space Situational Awareness satellites.