I had the pleasure this evening of meeting Mark Lee, retired USAF Colonel and former NASA Astronaut.  Colonel Lee, a veteran of four Space Shuttle missions, presented an overview of the US space program and his astronaut career for my local chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Colonel Lee’s space resume includes such feats as the launch of the Magellan Venus probe, repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, and he and his wife N. Jan Davis became the first married couple in space.  Of particular interest to me, though, was his untethered EVAs and jetpack flights.  Exciting stuff, whether on Mars or 250 miles over our heads.

Those Suicidal Pilgrims

Fox News recently ran a piece on plans by Mars One to launch one-way missions to Mars, with the first arrival in 2023:  Mars One Plans Suicide Mission to Red Planet for 2023.

The idea is that the astronauts are emigres, and not just visitors.  This removes the need for return spacecraft and the associated fuel, tremendously reducing the cost and complexity of the missions.  It also eases the concern that the early Mars missions, like Apollo, might eventually lose support and result in another dead end. 

Hyperbolic headlines aside, I agree with Brian Enke that “extended stay mission” is a more appropriate name.  The early settlers in North America arguably faced tougher physical and psychological hurdles, yet I doubt many would refer to their journey as a suicide mission.

A major theme of In the Shadow of Ares is the role of private enterprise in Martian development and settlement, though we initially expected government-led missions to open the frontier before “getting out of the way”.  Mars One proposes to conduct their missions completely independently, though it remains to be seen if they can obtain the required funding, estimated at $6 billion for the first mission.  I, for one, would love to see them pull it off.

I look forward to learning more, though an initial perusal led me to a few concerns, not least of which is Mars One’s stated intent to rely entirely on solar power on the Martian surface.  I believe their concerns regarding nuclear power are severely overstated, and smack of politics trumping science.  Readers of In the Shadow of Ares may recall politically-motivated power choices having deadly consequences for a group of settlers at Tharsis Station.

A New Era?

Friday’s ISS docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule received a good bit of media attention, but likely not anything near what it deserved.  Much of the public was at least peripherally aware that a private spacecraft (albeit heavily subsidized by NASA) had successfully launched and docked with the orbiting outpost, but aside from the delivery of needed supplies, most could probably not articulate the true significance of the mission. 

Besides reducing our reliance on Russia for access to space, this mission hopefully represents the genesis of a vibrant space-based economy dominated by private enterprise. 

And in my lifetime no less.

 If that vision comes to pass, May 25, 2012 could become nearly as significant as  July 20, 1969.  Or not.  Will the fledgling industry be crippled by excessive regulation?  Will shortsighted policy decisions gut the exploration programs that are arguably a proper role for public-sector programs?

Combined with last month’s announcement by Planetary Resources, I’m hopeful.  This despite the recent, foolish decision by the Obama Administration to abandon future robotic Mars missions.

Obama Abandons Mars

The Administration’s proposed budget cuts include abandoning upcoming Mars robotic missions in 2016 and 2018.  While it appears that NASA might be able to salvage a 2018 mission by extreme cost cutting and siphoning money from other programs, the damage could be irreparable.  The US Mars exploration program is a pipeline of projects scheduled at approximate 2-year intervals.  Cutting that pipeline could set back Mars exploration by decades, and is a betrayal of commitments to our international exploration partners.

Some cost cuts are certainly justified in the current climate, and the shift to private launch systems could pay off in the long run.  However, there is no reason to expect private interests to take up purely scientific endeavors like Mars exploration, at least anytime soon.  Planetary exploration is and should be a core function of NASA, and a setback of even a couple of years cannot be justified.

No Need to “Fall Back” on Mars

If you remembered to set your clocks last night to “fall back” for the return to standard time, then you enjoyed an extra hour of sleep this morning.  ABC News makes some  dubious claims in a recent article, Daylight Savings Time Ends This Weekend, and It’s Healthy:

…many doctors say the return to standard time — and the extra hour of sleep you get in the morning — can be healthy.

Uh, we’re talking about one morning, right?  Or are the authors under the impression that we get an extra hour every morning that standard time is in effect?  Of course, the extra hour in the fall (and the corresponding loss of an hour in the spring) is the function of the switch from one convention to the other, and is not inherent to either.

Personally I prefer daylight savings time, as I find an hour of sunlight more useful in the evening than in the morning.  Who works in the yard or plays catch with the kids at the crack of dawn, versus after work?  My preference would be to go with DST year around.

The article did provide me with an insight for getting the perceived benefits of additional sleep every day, regardless of the timekeeping convention.  According to Steven Feinsilver, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, we have difficulty with the “spring forward” time change due to biology:

…our basic circadian rhythm (the ‘body clock’) actually seems  to be programmed for a longer than 24 hour day.  It runs a little slow.

Every day on Mars (its rotational period) is 24 hours and 37 minutes long.  Sign me up for that.

Still a Jerk

Over the last couple of weeks a video of a marriage proposal at the Chicago Comic Con got a lot of hits.  That’s because the couple was blessed by none other than Patrick Stewart, the actor who made quite a career out of playing USS Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard.  A cute (if nerdy) moment, and good for them:

However, for me the video brought to mind something less pleasant.  Back in 2004 the same actor took the time to poo-poo human space exploration in a BBC Interview:

I would like to see us get this place right first before we have the arrogance to put significantly flawed civilisations out on to other planets.

Stewart repeats one of the oldest and most flawed arguments against human spaceflight.  Exploration, and especially exploration that challenges us as a trip to the Moon did (or as a trip to Mars would), provides tremendous benefits here at home.  At the same time, it is ridiculous to expect a time when there won’t be problems on Earth.  Who will be the judge as to when we are good enough that we can go out and play?

Seven years later I’m still irritated when I see him.  Maybe I need to get over it, but in this case it’s not just what was said, but who said it.

Concrete-Forming Robots for Mars

It may not be intended for use on Mars, but this is what we had in mind when we wrote about teleoperated “formers” building the foundations for the Green’s agricultural domes.

Well, not exactly for Mars, but this is what we had in mind when we wrote about teleoperated “formers” building the foundations for the Green’s agricultural domes – Buildings Made with a Printer:

Some areas would have strong, dense concrete, but in areas of low stress, the concrete could be extremely porous and light, serving only as a barrier to the elements while saving material and reducing the weight of the structure. In these non-load bearing areas, it could also be possible to print concrete that’s so porous that light can penetrate, or to mix the concrete gradually with transparent materials. Such designs could save energy by increasing the amount of daylight inside a building and reducing the need for artificial lighting. Eventually, it may be possible to print efficient insulation and ventilation at the same time. The structure can be complex, since it costs no more to print elaborate patterns than simple ones.

Other researchers are developing technology to print walls and other large structures. Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor of industrial and systems engineering and civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California, has built a system that can deposit concrete walls without the need for forms to contain the concrete. Oxman’s work would take this another step, adding the ability to vary the properties of the concrete, and eventually work with multiple materials.

We devised a similar idea for In the Shadow of Ares as a means of building large structures on Mars without the need for a large construction crew and the sorts of construction equipment, specialized forms, etc. used to cast concrete on Earth. In our case, it was a reasonable application of the speculative technology already established in the novel (specifically the simulacrum intelligence used in MAs and the robotics employed in diggers).

Fog on Mars

This report on a newly-released analysis of data from the Phoenix lander pretty closely describes what we had in mind for the “yardang” scene…only in reverse.

This report on a newly-released analysis of data from the Phoenix lander pretty closely describes what we had in mind for the “yardang” scene…only in reverse – Martian-Fog Study Finds Thick Haze, “Diamond Dust”:

“Heat from the air is lost to the ground, so the air close to the ground gets colder, and as that pocket of [cold] air gets larger,” more water vapor in the atmosphere condenses into ice crystals, and the fog gets thicker, Moores said.

“The fog starts closer to the ground and rises in height over time, so the cloud gets thicker and thicker and higher and higher as the night goes on,” he added.

Eventually the icy haze begins to shower the ground with a light sprinkling of snowlike particles. The shower is not quite snowfall, the scientists say, but is perhaps more akin to the “diamond dust” that falls from the skies on some cold nights in Earth’s Arctic regions.

Some 0.0001 inch (2.5 micrometers) of frost coats the Martian surface by the time the sun begins to rise in the morning. That icy layer then sublimates—turns directly from a solid to a gas.

In our case, the resulting frost at first sublimates into a fog as sunlight hits it, then rapidly dissipates. It may be a bit of literary license (or not — there’s no saying that what we described doesn’t happen), but it’s not far off from observed reality.

Suits for Mars

They’re not quite skinsuits, but someone is thinking ahead to what sort of suits future Mars settlers will need.

Wikipedia has a useful backgrounder on the skinsuit (aka “mechanical counterpressure suit” or “space activity suit”), which includes the basis for several details of how the concept is applied in In the Shadow of Ares. But if you’re more into a retro-look, Jeff Foust reviews of a new book on the development history of the Apollo lunar spacesuits.

Farming in Space

Whether it is the fresh atmosphere of a small homestead garden or the large park tucked into one corner of an industrial-scale agricultural bubble, greenhouses will offer settlers a reminder of Earth and a break from their otherwise wholly artificial surroundings.

Popular Mechanics takes an ever-so-brief look at farming in space.

Gene Giacomelli, a University of Arizona agricultural researcher and the lead investigator of a NASA-funded growth chamber for the moon, envisions a multiarmed, inflatable greenhouse building staffed with robots that do the bulk of the work. “Astronauts should not have to be farmers,” he says.

Nor (more to the point) should settlers.

The settlers in In the Shadow of Ares make extensive use of this combination of inflatable greenhouses and robotic technology, in the form of the bubbles at the Green and the Jacobsens’ Ares IV homestead and their respective semi-autonomous gardener ‘bots.

While the article mentions food and oxygen production, it does not mention one of the important benefits such greenhouses would offer: enhanced morale. Whether it is the fresh atmosphere of a small homestead garden or the large park tucked into one corner of an industrial-scale agricultural bubble, greenhouses will offer settlers a reminder of Earth and a break from their otherwise wholly artificial surroundings.