For the past fifty years, we’ve been sending spacecraft tour next-door neighbor, Mars. Starting with Mariner 4 in 1965, which did the first flyby. The Soviets achieved the first soft landing with the Mars 3 probe in 1971. Long before those milestones, sci-fi authors have looked to the Red Planet with their own speculative fiction such as Mars being inhabited by aliens (Percival Lowell’s 1895 Mars) and Earthlings on Mars (Ray Bradbury’s 1950 The Martian Chronicles).
Now such fiction could become reality in the next twenty years. Although the minimum distance between Earth and Mars is roughly 35 million miles, NASA believes the Red Planet is within our grasp. Their scientists have established three steps for our trip to Mars.
The first, Earth Reliant, is already in place with the International Space Station (ISS). Research is focused on human health and behaving in space as well as extra-vehicular activities (EVA). Since explorers in deep space and Mars won’t have access to Earth’s resources habitations have to be self-sufficient to help crews remain healthy and safe.
In Proving Ground, second step, NASA will conduct operations in deep space beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), with missions that will last up to a year, but can return to Earth in a matter of days. Objectives include transportation of crews and large cargo, working in space and continuing studies on staying healthy. One of the goals is the In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). The Mars 2020 Rover set for launch in..well…2020 will carry an ISRU payload to demonstrate how oxygen can be generated from the Martian atmosphere to product rocket propellant. More than half of a 35mt Mars Ascension Vehicle (MAV) is the propellant, so being able to manufacture it on the Martian surface is an enormous advantage. More advanced ISRU technology will enable humans to use local resources such as ice crystals or hydrated minerals to produce water.
The third and final stage is becoming Earth Independent. NASA is working to come up with new technologies to produce water, air, fuel and materials for building. The European Space Agency (ESA) is also getting into the action, with support from NASA, with their ExoMars orbiter and lander, which will search for the chemical origins of life. Currently, the goal for putting boots on the ground on Mars is sometime in the 2030’s.
So simply put, the ISS studying EVA for NASA to put humans into LEO and beyond, with the help of ESA to establish ISRU by 2030.
Get it? Got it? Good.
It might be too late for our generation but let’s encourage others to turn the Red Planet into the Pink Planet!