The Mars Society recently announced the winner of the Gemini-Mars competition, the culmination of a program that was originally announced last year. Awhile back I described the benefits of such a program here and here. Gemini-Mars is a proposed Mars flyby mission, so named because it would include a two-person crew and also because it would pave our way to reaching the Martian surface, much like the Gemini Program did for the Moon in the 1960s.
The top team, from Cranfield University in the UK, was one of 10 teams invited to present their plan at the 2016 Mars Society Convention held last month in Washington DC. Details of the plan were not included in the announcement, but will presumably be contained in the conference proceedings. I was unfortunately not able to attend this year, and thus haven’t yet seen the presentation.
The original contest announcement included the statement that the plan “could be placed on the desk of the President-elect in late 2016 and be completed by the end of his or her second term”. Well in a matter of weeks we’ll know who that will be, and hopefully that individual will have an interest in taking this next bold step.
We’ve landed numerous craft on Mars, and this wouldn’t have capabilities that have made robotic explorers so useful. However, it would be the first designed to bring humans to Mars, quite a milestone. While the company has indicated that it doesn’t intend to provide details on the program until September, there is some very interesting potential .
Besides demonstrating the descent and landing technology, the mission could add greatly to our knowledge of radiation exposure and the long term performance of life support systems without a team of highly skilled (and motivated!) mechanics in the loop. I wonder if the mission could include a simulated crew, consuming oxygen, expelling CO2 and other waste. Of course the Dragon craft wouldn’t be the only habitable volume for the six month trip in a manned mission, but any opportunity to test systems under challenging, real-world conditions would be welcome.
Phobos’ grooves, long thought to be related to the enormous impact that created Stickney Crater, may actually be due to deformation from tidal forces. These “stretch marks” may indicate that Phobos is not solid, but rather is an aggregate of rubble surrounded by a thick layer of powdery regolith. This would make it easier for tidal forces to fracture the Moon.
These findings, if accurate, could present interesting challenges and opportunities for astronauts visiting the moon for exploration, mining, or setting up a base. Phobos will figure prominently in Ghosts of Tharsis, our upcoming sequel to In the Shadow of Ares.
In line with NASA’s recent focus on Humans-to-Mars, the agency announced a new contest to design structures on Mars using existing materials found on the planet. The In Situ Resource Utilization Challenge offers a $10,000 first place prize and two $2,500 second place prizes.
Of course, ISRU is a cornerstone of all practical Humans-to-Mars proposals, and it’s nice to see NASA embracing it. Personally I’d like to see a near-term sample return mission with the return powered by fuel derived form the Martian atmosphere, a much bolder ISRU demonstration than some of the proposals currently under consideration for the Mars 2020 mission.
ISRU is so critical because it significantly lowers the cost and (if done properly) the risk of the mission. As NASA indicates:
One advantage of using resources from the planet instead of bringing everything from Earth is the potential to save the agency more than $100,000 per 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of cargo each launch.
As for that $100,000, that’s gotta come down quite a bit, regardless of ISRU. Of course the private sector is making great strides there already.
The document is definitely much more of a PR brochure than an actual mission plan, but of course this is for public consumption.
It includes three phases: “Earth Reliant” (ISS-based), “Proving Ground” (cis-Lunar) and “Earth Independent” (Mars and vicinity), “each with increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth.”
It is positive to hear NASA publicly proclaim, “Like the Apollo Program, we embark on this journey for all humanity. Unlike Apollo, we will be going to stay.” It’s quite a reversal from a few years ago where even mentioning Mars seemed to be a taboo.
Unfortunately, this “plan” does differ from Apollo in other key areas: it lacks the political mandate, budget and timeframe to provide a reasonable chance at success, at least in our lifetime. This isn’t NASA’s fault, of course; it’s a political reality that must be overcome.
Other problems include the plan’s attempt to justify past expenditures and accommodate other, irrelevant initiatives. The role of ISS is certainly larger than it needs to be, asteroid capture is unnecessarily included, and apparently Solar Electric Propulsion will be playing a role. Too many things that don’t have a lot to do with getting to Mars.
There’s also no mention of a Mars fly-by mission. Such a mission would be achievable within NASA’s current budget and more importantly within two presidential terms. It would also significantly advance and provide a real “proving ground” for many of the critical technologies mentioned in this document. Maybe more important, it would likely boost the political and public support for a full blown Mars landing and settlement program in our lifetimes. Hopefully a future version of this plan will move in that direction.
Robert Zubrin’s latest op-ed piece, published here in the National Review, invokes the pioneering and resourceful spirit of Homer’s Odysseus in advocating Humans-to-Mars. In addition to tying in the recent NASA announcement about liquid water on Mars and the movie The Martian, Zubrin gives the back of his hand to Ed Regis, philosopher and author of a recent New York Times op-ed piece rife with inaccuracies about the hazards of a mission to Mars.
I finally got to check out The Martian this afternoon. I thought it was fantastic, as did the family members with me, young and old. It has all the great imagery and action sequences that I go to the movies for.
It’s a while since I read Andy Weir’s book, but based on my recollection I felt the movie was true to the story in all the right places, and better in some. Mark Watney is MacGyver on Mars. The detailed technical exposition is largely gone, but that would have bogged down a film that was already 140 minutes long. For the most part the profanity was limited, probably another good change to increase the broad appeal of the film. Drew Goddard’s screenplay also did an adequate job of fleshing out the secondary characters, something on which I felt the book fell short.
As far as accuracy goes, just as in the book the effect of winds on Mars was completely unrealistic. The author admits as much, using it as a necessary plot device. I was a bit disappointed in the surface suits. They are visually appealing, and they look more like a next generation suit than a standard pressure suits, but they were clearly not as tight fitting as a true mechanical counter pressure suit (as we depict in In the Shadow of Ares) would be.
For a couple of extra space-centric reviews you can check out Keith Cowing’s review here (with a NASA-focused perspective) as well as Sarah Lewin’s review on Space.com here.
As for my previously expressed concerns regarding what kind of a message The Martian would have, those were put to rest. By necessity the movie focuses on the hardships of living on Mars, and surviving in space in general, but it’s also a celebration of exploration and challenge. In one scene, while resigned to his own death, Mark Watney asks that his family be told that he died doing something he loved, for a cause that was bigger than himself. Amen.
The winning design in the first stage of NASA’s 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge competition was a structure made out of water ice. Apparently the translucence was part of the appeal, although the on-line summary doesn’t detail structural considerations for pressurized applications.
At least future Martians will know where to go to grab a cold one.
I recently finished The Martian by Andy Weir. I knew little about it, hadn’t read any reviews, and wasn’t expecting much. In fact, I was ready to be disappointed.
When we decided to write In the Shadow of Ares, we intentionally set it on a developed Mars. For my part, I thought the story of a few astronauts and a dead planet had been done to death, with predictably mediocre results.
I’ve never been so wrong. This book is fantastic.
Mark Watney is stranded on Mars when the rest of the Ares III crew have to evacuate for Earth shortly into their mission. He is thought to be dead, and with no functioning communications and almost no food, his prospects are bleak. What he does have, though, is a mountain of ingenuity and a great sense of humor that give him a fighting chance.
The Martian is highly technical, but so funny and suspenseful that it should be accessible to nearly anyone (the language is genuine—and salty—so it’s not for all). Despite the bulk of the story consisting of the narration of the protagonist, the voice of that character is more than strong enough to carry the story along, and it doesn’t hurt that the pacing and suspense are outstanding. I did have a few technical and editorial criticisms, but they are too insignificant to describe in detail here.
This is one of the most creative and enjoyable books I have ever read, and I recommend it highly.
4Frontiers Corporation recently launched an initial private placement offering to finance the first phase of INTERSPACE Florida, a space and science themed destination to be located in Florida, eight miles from the Kennedy Space Center.
INTERSPACE will immerse its guests in a dynamic, visceral, hands-on adventure, training with high-tech tools of the space frontier and glimpsing into the future by visiting the largest indoor Mars simulation in the world. Guests themselves will become Explorers and Settlers, bringing visions of our future into current reality.
Space tourists will be able to choose a day pass for a “trip” to Mars, including views of the Mars simulation. Those willing to be “settlers” could spend multiple days playing key roles in the settlement. Given the tremendous interest in the Mars One and Inspiration Mars missions, including over 200,000 applicants for a one-way trip to Mars, it’s not hard to conceive of tremendous interest in “trying out” Mars for a few days.