The Path to Manned Flight to Mars

Scientific American has a pretty fascinating article by a NASA mission architect and mission analyst discussing NASA’s future and how to, eventually, put humans on Mars. In 2009, a group of NASA scientists began brainstorming how to move forward with human space exploration, in light of the ending of the Space Shuttle program and, in 2010, the cancellation of the Constellation program that was meant to replace it. 

After some years of plotting:

We have now combined the most promising proposals with tried-and-true strategies to develop a plan to send astronauts to the near-Earth asteroid 2008 EV5 as soon as 2024 as preparation for an eventual Mars landing. This approach is designed to fit within NASA’s current budget and, crucially, breaks the overall task into a series of incremental milestones, giving the agency flexibility to speed up or slow down depending on funding. In a nutshell, the aim is to apply lessons from the robotic scientific exploration program to renew the human exploration one.

The article is rather extensive, but worth the read if you want to see what goes on in the imaginations of rocket scientists tasked with dreaming up all things awesome. It’s also a nice primer on the kinds of techniques and technologies involved in space travel, something we don’t generally think about too much. They also have a video of the authors discussing their idea, or as a shortcut to all of this, a pretty cool graphic explaining how this manned space flight is going to work.

Two things to note are that 1) instead of using space suits outside of the ship as we’re used to, with all their limited mobility, they’d instead want the astronauts to command little vehicular pods when on the asteroid surface (and presumably Mars, later). 2) is that they want to use an ion drive instead of rockets to travel through space, for weight and energy reasons. Ion thrusters basically create charged atoms (ions) and shoot them out using an opposite electric charge, creating thrust that will push the ship in the opposite direction.  

The most important point underlying these ideas, as they said above, is that progress towards landing on Mars will be incremental, involving a number of shorter trips in the meantime. In an ideal world they’d have the funding to go for broke, but they’ll have to make do for now. 

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