Starting Monday November 14, The National Geographic Channel is airing a 6-part miniseries about the first human mission to Mars in 2033. You can set your DVR and wait, or watch the first episode on-line now, in addition to related digital shorts.
Based on my initial screening it appears to be a mix of documentary–including interviews with the likes of Elon Musk, Robert Zubrin and Andy Weir–and dramatization.
Barrack Obama has been busy writing OpEd pieces lately, including one in my favorite magazine, The Economist, and an extremely curious one published October 11 on CNN.com.
While I might take issue with a few of the assertions in the piece, I certainly don’t disagree with the overall message that we will go and that this time it is to stay. However, the timing is bizarre, and the message odd from a President that hasn’t displayed an overwhelming interest in space exploration. I do not tend to be cynical, but to me this screams of a transparent attempt at legacy building on the cheap.
On a curious note, right below the President’s piece is another by Michelle Obama advocating improving access to education for girls the world over. Right now the link is titled “Michelle Obama: Let’s get girls to school”, but here’s what it looked like earlier today when it was originally published:
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.
Robert Zubrin was quick to post some suggested improvements to Elon Musk’s recently announced Mars plans (quicker than I was to post this follow-up):
The key thing I would change is his plan to send the whole trans Mars propulsion system all the way to Mars and back. Doing that means it can only be used once every four years. Instead he should stage off of it just short of Earth escape. Then it would loop around back to aerobrake into Earth orbit in a week, while the payload habitat craft with just a very small propulsion system for landing would fly on to Mars.
Used this way, the big Earth escape propulsion system could be used 5 times every launch window, instead of once every other launch window, effectively increasing its delivery capacity by a factor of 10. Alternatively, it could deliver the same payload with a system one tenth the size, which is what I would do.
So instead of needing a 500 ton launch capability, he could send the same number of people to Mars every opportunity with a 50 ton launcher, which is what Falcon heavy will be able to do.
The small landing propulsion unit could either be refilled and flown back to LEO, used on Mars for long distance travel, or scrapped and turned into useful parts on Mars using a 3D printer.
Done in this manner, such a transportation system could be implemented much sooner, possibly before the next decade is out, making settlement of Mars a real possibility for our time.
Reuters reports that SpaceX apparently plans to send an unmanned Dragon capsule to land on the Martian surface as soon as 2018.
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.
I recently attended a presentation about the BoldlyGo Institute, hosted by the Rice University Space Institute. BoldlyGo is a “non-governmental, non-profit organization founded to address highly compelling scientific questions through new approaches to developing space science missions while engaging the global community in the quest.” As presenters Dr. Laurie Leshin (Worcester Polytechnic President) and Dr. Jon Morse (BoldlyGo CEO) put it, they are trying to fill the science and exploration gap resulting from stagnant NASA funding.
Their first proposed mission, surprisingly, is a Mars sample return mission. Sound too ambitious? Maybe not. I’ve posted about the welcome reset of expectations for Humans-to-Mars, with a shift to focusing on a Mars flyby as the initial near-term goal. Similarly, BoldlyGo’s SCIM mission (“Sample Collection to Investigate Mars”) is a fresh alternative to the standard sample return missions that have never gotten off the drawing board.
With a baseline launch opportunity in August 2020, SCIM performs a daring high-speed atmospheric pass down to below 40 km altitude timed to coincide with seasonal Martian dust storms, collecting thousands of Martian dust particles from the atmosphere. After the sample collection pass at Mars, the spacecraft returns directly to Earth, where its precious, sterilized samples descend by parachute to the ground.
While the sample size will be small, it is anticipated that the particles collected will be representative of the ubiquitous Martian dust, and that back on Earth the dust can be subject to intense examination not foreseeable on a near-term robotic mission. For the relatively low price of perhaps $300 million, that’s a lot of scientific bank for the buck.
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.
On Thursday NASA released a plan for getting humans to Mars, the 36 page Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration.
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.