For the Mother: Tell Me About Mars Exploration

>> Friday, June 12, 2009

The Mother gave me a great question since I was out of them: What is the current status of the manned mission to Mars? Loved the "Mars Rising" series. How much of that was true?

This is a great question, most of which I can't answer, because the answer to the first part is "speculation status" and the answer to the second one is "I have no idea because I've never seen it." I really should watch a little television once in a while, but I really don't. But fear not, I think you'll like my whole answer anyway.

To elaborate on the first answer, let me explain. Constellation (our exploration program) is designing hardware to launch (Ares I rocket) a craft (Orion spacecraft) capable of going to and from the ISS and orbiting the moon in support of lunar expeditions and outposts (like excursions only longer on the order of months). I believe there are groups actively starting to wrestle with the challenges associated with building the lander (Altair) for the Moon. These are the criteria we are using for the design even though a manned mission to Mars is definitely an end-goal.

But, right now, there's a world of speculative prototyping and speculating on the right directions to take for both the lunar surface and, especially, Mars. Some of the prototypes exist and are quite cool, though perhaps not as cool as the many concepts being bounced around in simulations. Some of those are supercool. But Mars is at least twenty years away and what we actually find is most practical, what we actually build and fly so far away may resemble the concepts out today as much as street cars match automotive concept cars. A lot can happen between now and then, a lot of politics and money wrangling, a lot of lessons to learn on the moon, a lot of technology to perfect. The plan is to use the designs we're designing now as the starting point for Mars, but by then, there's no way to tell how much we'll be able to use moving forward. Everything you saw in the documentary might be true, but I'd bet a great deal of it will look different when we really get there.

So, why not design for Mars now?

I'm glad you asked. (You would have, you know it).

Well, first, we're not ready.

  • Part of it is that we haven't sent people beyond low earth orbit in literally decades. We need to reteach ourselves learning from what was done before and taking advantage of some of the technological advances since then (like computers - Apollo 11's computer had a total of 80 Kb - not Gb, not Mb. I think my watch has more than that. I know my cellphone does.) Most of the people who were deeply involved in the Apollo Program are either retired or dead. We haven't been building those kinds of rockets, those kinds of spacecraft in decades.
  • Part of it is that we don't know enough. Mars has had many missions to it, but we still don't know it as well as the moon but there's a lot we don't know about the planet and the trip there. Even more importantly, what we do know poses technological problems we don't necessarily have the knowhow to fix today.
  • Additionally, there considerable challenges to address that we don't have with the moon. Like a lander than can deal with reentry. Like storms. Like a long long trip with no one able to come rescue you if something goes wrong. And things go wrong with Mars missions, quite frequently. Roughly two thirds of all planned Mars missions failed before completing their missions. Not because of a bogeyman, but because getting there is complex, is challenging, is tricky with minimal margin for error. And, if we fail, we only lose money, not people. We'd better know what we're doing before we send people are sent over. Just the radiation and meteoroids alone are issues.
That's why going to the Moon is so important. It's a dry run for most things we have to do for Mars, but within reach. The math to reach the moon is relatively benign and we don't have those tricky three month launch windows. There's no complicating atmosphere and no storms, BUT it has gravity and we haven't waltzed in spacesuits in gravity for years. It has a high radiation environment (relative to low earth orbit) and methods we develop there to protect the crew may help with Mars. We'll want to explore it with rovers and there's no reason to think we can't test out real designs in a real extraterrestrial environment to see how they work. Dust mitigation on the moon will be at least as challenging as it will be on Mars and we better get that handled because, if we come back with an enclosed environment as dusty as the Apollo missions came back, we'll have a whole lot of astronauts with red lung.

It gives us a relatively safe way to prove we have a viable program because, if things go wrong here, it might be days or weeks before we can get them, but it won't be months and years. Mars has a 780 day period between 2-3 month windows for optimized approach. We can launch one vehicle in that period, but, if something goes wrong after the window has gone by, anything we send after them has no possible way to catch up - heck they won't be going to the same place. The earth has changed positions and so has Mars. We may have no choice to abandon them, alive or dead. If they get lost on the way, if they get stranded on Mars, help can't reach them, even if we were able to launch immediately for months or years. Maybe ever. We need to be confident, really confident, they can make it before we send them.

Or, let's say, we send two during the window and we find out, say, when the first lands, that there's a catastrophic design flaw with the lander. We'll either have to waste the second mission's trip and send them back or we'll have to gamble that the second lander can survive. The moon can help increase our confidence in our hardware.

Personally, I like the design I've seen of the rover they're talking about. It's a pressurized rover with suits you climb into from the back but they're attached to the outside. This eliminates the need for an airlock, drastically reduce dust brought into the habitable environment and is way safer for the astronauts in my opinion. Here's hoping that our end result is as appealing as they current model (pictured above and below).


  • Aron Sora

    Just more speculation, NASA is conducting radiation tests which indicates they still want to leave LEO

    The document says it is radiation hardened, but what are they using? I thought radiation shielding was very thick. That spacesuit system is cool. But... I though each suit had it's own urine capture system and I wouldn't want to share a suit.

    I've noticed NASA is sticking the the 2020 date for a moon mission which is the middle of the next Maslow Window. Does NASA support the Maslow Window theory?

    Wow, I'm sorry about this comment, it's asks ore question instead of adding on.

  • Stephanie B

    The radiation environment circling and on the moon is considerably less benign than LEO (low earth orbit).

    Radiation hardening is actually taking an existing integrated circuit and redesigning it to be more resistant to radiation. With our dense circuitry, this is a real issue (whereas our early space vehicles had much clunkier and therefore more resilient electronics). If you want, I can add an answer on radiation hardening as a post or you can read about it here. You decide.

    As for the "urine capture system", it's effectively and adult diaper as opposed to part of the suit. The suit is always sanitized on the inside after use.

    I can also answer the last question as a question if you want...after I look up Maslow Window.

  • Aron Sora

    Wow, when I read the report I thought that it meant radiation protection for the crew.

    It would be cool if you answered that question.

  • The Mother

    Great answer. I had thought that it was a little more speculative than the show had implied. I guess I was right.

    Still, WAY cool.

    I still get shivers up my spine when we take the old Mission Control tour at Johnson and see the tiny little computers that had such tiny processing power--and that got us to the moon.

    As my dad (who worked on Mercury, BTW) often comments, we went to the moon using slide rules.

  • Stephanie B

    I'm in complete agreement. I'm in awe about what they did with so little.

    It's disheartening sometimes thinking of how much we've advanced in many ways and yet how, when it comes to rocketry, we're not much further than we were back then.

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