Hello again. Last time out, we reminded ourselves of the increasing fascination the scientific community has with one of our closest neighbors – Mars. Plans are afoot to actually take us there. But what will that involve?
Let’s take a brief look, shall we, and examine the three main hurdles we will need to overcome to cross the gulf of space.
The journey to Mars needs to bridge three phases, each incorporating increasing challenges as mankind seeks to move farther from Earth. NASA is managing these challenges by developing and demonstrating capabilities in incremental steps:
Step 1: Earth Reliant
Here, exploration is focused on research aboard the International Space Station. It might seem odd, but the ISS contains a world-class microgravity laboratory, allowing scientists to test technologies that – eg – advance human health and performance in microgravity environments that will have a direct impact on deep space, long duration missions.
Step 2: The Proving Ground
NASA is planning ahead to conduct complex operations in a deep space environment. To do that safely, they need a staging area that allows crews to return to Earth in a matter of days.
How are they going to attain this?
Primarily by operating in what they are calling cislunar space (the volume of space around the moon) where they intend to provide a series of stable staging orbits from where future deep space missions can be launched. Through this, NASA will advance and validate those capabilities required for humans to live and work at distances much farther away from our home planet than we’re currently used to.
Obviously, living and working in space involves risks. NASA intends to reduce those risks by thorough testing and examination beforehand, and exploring the options of a new and powerful space transportation system, something that is key to the success of the overall journey.
But that will bring challenges of its own. It’s no good having a state-of-the-art engine system if the habitation capabilities aren’t up to scratch. And what about when things go wrong? The further we are from home, the more critical it is that astronauts learn to be self-reliant. For that, we will have to learn new ways of operating in space, and NASA proposes a series of proving ground missions to validate each of those different phases.
Step 3: Earth Independent
One thing we know about NASA is that they don’t do anything without an objective. And that rings true in the quest to reach Mars. By building on what they learn on the space station and from the new cislunar facilities, they’ll be able to dip mankind’s toes ever deeper into the cosmic pond. For example, our first time out in deep space will probably test mission feasibility to reach the vicinity of Mars. (Perhaps a low-orbit circumnavigation of the planet or one of its moons; a landing on Phobos or Deimos; and finally, the Martian surface itself).
Whatever the eventual decision, exciting times lie ahead as future Mars missions will represent a collaborative effort between NASA and its partners, a global achievement that marks a transition in humanity’s expansion as we go to Mars to seek the potential for sustainable life beyond Earth.
NASA is charting new territory, and we will adapt to new scientific discoveries and new opportunities. Our current efforts are focused on pieces of the architecture that we know are needed. In parallel, we continue to refine an evolving architecture for the capabilities that require further investigation. These efforts will define the next two decades on the journey to Mars.
Of course, once we reach Mars who knows where we might turn next? Well, NASA does, so next time, we’ll take a place at likely venues where further exploration might become a reality.
See you then ☺
(Source material – courtesy of NASA)