Scientists and engineers gathered together to figure out what would make a good Martian landing site and what hurdles they’ll have to overcome for a 2035 launch.
. . . and the mining equipment, the spacesuits, and the fertilizer, not to mention the two decades of research and development it’ll take to get us there.
But NASA and a whole lot of other dreamers (who have labs and PhDs to back them up) are determined that, as Yoda would put it, get there we will.
To start the ball rolling, dozens of scientists and engineers met this fall to hash out what they’ll need in order to successfully establish a human presence on Mars. This endeavor isn’t like the rover missions, where we pick an interesting site, plop down a robot, and roll from one curiosity to the next. Instead, workshop attendees were evaluating what NASA organizers called the exploration zone concept — in essence, a field station.
As presented at the workshop, here’s a rough cut of what a crewed mission to the Martian surface would look like: a four-person crew would set up shop in an exploration zone roughly 100 km (60 miles) in radius. In that zone would be various things of scientific interest. The astronauts would also have a habitat, resource mining equipment, and a couple of pressurized rovers, able to go on adventures lasting maybe 10 to 15 sols (Martian days). Due to how the orbital mechanics work out, the crew would spend 300 to 500 days on the planet. Between two and five crews — and, due to the investment involved, probably the higher end of that range — would, one after the other, use the same exploration zone as home base, building up its infrastructure over time.
Some asked, why a single landing site? Why not drop each crew somewhere new? The problem is, it takes a whole lot of resources to support a crew. They’re going to have to produce their own air, food, and fuel. Air, because Mars’s thin atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide. Food, because packaged food loses its nutritional value after a couple of years, and we don’t want pioneers depending on a nutritionless stockpile. Fuel, because two-thirds of the mass of a four-person vehicle launching from the Red Planet’s surface will be propellant. Mission planners would rather not have to bring all that mass from Earth. Instead, the goal is to manufacture the propellant needed for all five crews’ departures right on site.
Investing in one location will give humans a foothold in the most unforgiving landscape we’ve ever explored. The model NASA planners are following is the successful, albeit slow, buildup of human presence in Antarctica: a half century passed between the first expedition hut and McMurdo Station, but since then McMurdo has been a hub of scientific research on the frozen continent. NASA doesn’t just want to go to Mars, plant a flag, and go home. It wants to go and stay there.
Water on Mars