Someday soon, visitors from far-off planets won’t be the only ones piloting flying saucers.
NASA is currently developing several projects to help humans explore space beyond low-Earth orbit. One of them is a saucer-shaped craft called the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD). It’s designed to test techniques for landing a team safely – on the surface of Mars.
The trip to beat all trips
NASA has developed a spacecraft called Orion to carry a crew of up to four astronauts to Mars and back. Orion is an exploratory vehicle that can sustain the crew from liftoff to safe re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. But before humans can board, there’s plenty of prep in the works.
NASA hasn’t sent astronauts into deep space since the 1960s and 70s. Those Apollo missions concluded on the moon, which is roughly 240 thousand miles from Earth. It’s a 140 million-mile trip to Mars – equal to 293 trips to the moon and back.
That space around the moon, called cis-lunar space, contains fertile ground for experimentation. Its close proximity to Earth and access to deep space make it an ideal safety net for study. In it, NASA has been testing key aspects of a Mars mission:
ADVANCED SPACEWALKING SUITS | Space travel exposes astronauts to a wide range of temperatures. Sunlight in space can reach 250 F. The average Martian temperature hovers around -81 F. For years, NASA has tested what it calls a pumpkin suit. It was designed to protect astronauts on asteroid spacewalks, but it could also possibly be used to trek around Mars.
NAVIGATION BY GRAVITY | Orion will travel at several thousand MPH from Earth. It’ll aim to land on Mars, which is in orbit and rotation. Gravity will play a pivotal role in the spacecraft’s trajectory. A supersonic parachute is what NASA is counting on to help the spacecraft land safely. So far, NASA has tested the parachute with the LDSD, and it shredded upon deployment.
RADIATION EXPOSURE| Radiation is a threat both within the spacecraft and on Mars. A great number of factors affect astronaut exposure to it, including craft construction, altitude, interplanetary proton flux and geomagnetic field conditions. NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory has been studying space radiation for over a decade. Certain plastics are now being looked at to provide shielding and even antioxidants are being researched as a way to soak up certain harmful molecules caused by radiation.
Forward our mail to Mars, please
In 2010, President Barack Obama predicted a manned Mars mission by the mid-2030s.
Obama’s vision included a safe return to Earth for travelers, but private organizations like Mars One present a different idea. On its site, Mars One outlines one-way journeys to begin as soon as 2026. The projection: Trips every 26 months – all one way.
Return trips would be risky, according to Mars One, which seeks colonization, not vacations.
Mars One has begun a search for the first civilian astronauts not affiliated with NASA. It reports more than 200,000 people have applied for consideration. Applicants must display be at least 18 years old and demonstrate certain characteristics. From MarsOne.com:
RESILIENCY | “You have a ‘Can do!’ attitude.”
ADAPTABILITY | “You draw from the unique nature of individual and cultural backgrounds.”
CURIOSITY | “You are transferring knowledge to others, not simply showcasing what you know or what others do not.”
ABILITY TO TRUST | “You trust in yourself and maintain trust in others.”
CREATIVITY/RESOURCEFULNESS | “You are not constrained by the way you were initially taught when seeking solutions.”
Many critics have questioned the project’s feasibility and legitimacy.
Out of your dreams (and into your calendar)
Governments, industry professionals and academics share an enthusiasm for travel to Mars. What felt like a dream a generation ago now has funding, technology and projected calendar dates. Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk couldn’t be wrong on this, could they?
Mars represents the ultimate frontier for mankind. For now, it’ll remain a dream. At least until NASA and others can nail down the logistics. And make sure that darned parachute works.