Wednesday, April 23, 2014

MARs – Where are we? NASA, Mars One, and the Human Experience

There has been a lot of clamoring for that golden ticket to Mars. It seems everyone is talking about going to Mars from NASA to ‘Mars One’ (who has eliminated that nasty return trip) to Russia, to basically any country with a space program or private individual who has a dream.

This week from April 22-24 in Washington DC there is a non-profit group called ‘Explore Mars’ who has NASA and various leaders from government, the academic world, and the business world getting together for a summit, the Human to Mars Summit 2014. Discussed will be the value, challenges, and status of America’s path to Mars. In addition to many noteworthy speakers, the summit opens with a keynote speaker of magnitude - Charles Bolden, the NASA administrator.

In honor of this event I decided to post a little of this and that about just that, our path to Mars but I am not going to limit myself to just America. If I were to go out in space and run into someone else who asked where I was from, chances are my answer would be Earth, not the USA. Unlikely they would have heard of the second one, possibility for the first. Actually, I might say third rock from the Sun!

Mars is not the stranger to us here on Earth that it was when the Egyptians called it ‘Har Decher’ or ‘The Red One’. As Mars is visible to us all with the naked eye it seems it has always been romanticized or demonized in our dreams, fantasies, movies, and Sci Fi books.

But fast forward a century or two and our vast number of robotic explorers have studied Mars for more than 40 years. The hold on a human component has been the technology to allow one to survive. Astronauts & Cosmonauts alike have been up on the ISS in low Earth orbit where yes they can monitor Earth but also they can work at expanding our knowledge of the various survival skills we will need in deep space. Here on Earth commercial agencies are expanding the tremendous groundbreaking-research and science and then further if one reaches out to the universities from California to MIT to Maryland, to Dundee gained are the different types of habitats to assist in living and working in space.

The ISS is due to be decommissioned in 2024. The extension seems to indicate that by that time the US and many other countries of Earth will be moving to their own Moon base. Each will be learning a whole new set of rules in this space age. Certainly Mars is very different, but less different from the Moon then the ISS in Earth’s orbit.

Let’s get back to that list, the list of several countries and civilian or commercial entities going to Mars. Mars One is planning a one way trip to the red planet. Critics of the plan suggest that it is not well worked out and that much of it is left to their suppliers. I would agree if the suppliers in question weren’t SpaceX & Paragon. Can this plan succeed? You decide. I’ll run through the basics.

In 2011 it began, at least to the worlds understanding. Everything from mission architecture to budgets, timelines, design of the actual mission, and more was laid out in a meeting with potential suppliers from the aerospace industry in the US, Canada, Italy and the UK. Discussion of this concept of a permanent human settlement on Mars using existing technology resulted in a solidification of the plan.

In April of 2013 the Astronaut Selection Program was launched. There was an online frenzy of applications – all from people who sought to be one of the Civilian Astronauts to make the historic journey to Mars. Amazingly, with full knowledge that the trip would be one way, that they would give several months a year over to training over 100,000 people applied.

Training has begun for groups selected from the first batch of applicants and will continue until launch 2024. It starts with periods of time in a remote location and over time they will be trained with regard to repair of habitat components or the rovers, trained in medical procedures and also trained regarding growing their own food.

Training is and will take place at two separate locations. The locations for training are not yet released though the second training outpost will be a remote site such as the Arctic Desert whereas the first will be easier to reach though a Mars-like terrain is sought.

There are many next steps such as a communications satellite possibly in 2018, it is hard to say as the mission date has been postponed for two years and there was no mention of any effect on the prior calendar. A later launch will send an “intelligent rover” and one trailer to transport the landers to the settlement site. A northern location is being considered. After reaching the settlement area, the rover will clear a place for the solar panels. Additionally a second satellite will be launched.

Then it gets real. 6 cargo missions – 2 living units, 2 life support units, & 2 supply units will be sent on. The rover sets up the outpost before the humans arrive, a sort of concierge service.

The LSS (Life Support Module) becomes activated and is feed Martian soil and water is extracted. Part of the water is used for obtaining Oxygen.

With a 2025 date at present the first Mars crew will make their way to Mars though after the components of the Mars vehicle are first launched into Earth’s atmosphere and assembled. This vehicle consists of a transit habitat and a Mars lander as well as the propellant stages.

With the Mars crew fully trained by this time they launch into Earth’s orbit shift to the transit vehicle, and get going. It is a 210 day flight give or take, mostly give. Plans go on for the next cargo and next crew and follow a similar pattern.

In having a medical review of a mission to Mars by a panel of medical experts, NASA was advised that it involved too many what if’s. The most likely culprits are the cosmic radiation, life support systems and psychological stressors. NASA’s bubble technology could save ‘them’ from the first, the 2 part mission planned for both the Moon (where the robotic rover will ‘make’ water in 2018) and Mars (where oxygen will be ‘made’ in 2024) each will be well in advance of human arrival and needing such supplies. AND the 3rd item, well, that is hard to predict. Personalities and testing here on Earth can only review so much but if the other two are sound then there should be less stressors to worry about.

FINAL NOTE as I could go on forever with various plans and speculation. Surgeries as there is bound to be the need for some and to this end a mini-robot is being designed. One that might enter through the belly button (aided by the abdominal cavity being filled with gas first). Perhaps one might have nightmares based on this concept, perhaps remembering Neo and the Matrix, but this robotic doctor comes in peace.

***A personal note – A child of seven, Dexter, sent the below letter stating that he heard they were looking for two people to go to Mars and he would love to in the future as right now he is only seven. NASA responded with a letter of the keep the dream alive variety and some Mars swag. Alright NASA, and Dexter, good going, seeing you on the front page and in my telescope in a couple of decades!


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