Editorials

Humans can reach Mars in small, Apollo-like steps

Photo taken by an instrument aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows dark, narrow, streaks on the surface of Mars that scientists believe were caused by flowing streams of salty water. Researchers say the latest observations strongly support the longtime theory that salt water in liquid form flows down certain Martian slopes each summer.
Photo taken by an instrument aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows dark, narrow, streaks on the surface of Mars that scientists believe were caused by flowing streams of salty water. Researchers say the latest observations strongly support the longtime theory that salt water in liquid form flows down certain Martian slopes each summer. NASA

NASA, unsurprisingly, has been putting a lot of thought into a putting boots on the Martian ground. A report it published last week makes the idea look doable in not too many years.

Perhaps in the 2030s. “Journey to Mars” lays out a detailed but flexible plan for getting to the red planet in careful stages. It doesn’t hurt NASA’s cause that Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is flying high right now.

Stage 1 of the plan looks a lot like what we’re doing now: developing technology in low earth orbit, where the International Space Station hangs.

Stage 2 would involve years of experiments and experience a lot farther out, roughly where the moon orbits, in what NASA calls the “proving ground.”

Stage 3 would take astronauts all the way to Mars in missions that would last a minimum of three years. It would take months just to get there with current technology; at its closest approach, Mars is 33.9 million miles away.

This is reminiscent of the plan that took American astronauts to the moon in the 1960s. NASA accomplished that triumph in cautious, incremental steps: initially with brief missions by single astronauts in the small Mercury capsules; later with extensive low-orbit practice and docking maneuvers in the two-astronaut Gemini capsules; finally with the complex, three-astronaut moon voyages in the Apollo spacecraft.

Pushing toward Mars would again stretch human ingenuity to its limits.

NASA’s plan envisions the creation of a permanent base in the lunar regions and a mission to capture and explore an asteroid fragment – excellent experience for Mars. The agency would manufacture equipment in space with 3-D printers. It would have to develop radiation shielding to protect humans in deep space, where cosmic rays and solar flares aren’t blocked by the earth’s magnetic field.

The logistical challenge is exciting. The United States and its partners will need boosters capable of lifting 70 metric tons into orbit. Their cargoes would sustain the lunar-orbit base and lift the components of Mars-bound spacecraft. These would include high-efficiency, solar-powered rockets that would ferry supplies and shelter to Mars in advance of the astronauts’ arrival.

All this is within the reach of existing science.

Then there’s the task of surviving on Mars. Astronauts would have to melt Martian ice or tap into the planet’s newly discovered salty underground lakes. They’d have to extract fuel and oxygen from Martian rocks and water. NASA would have to develop descent vehicles to get the astronauts to the surface and ascent vehicles to return them to Martian orbit for the return trip. Scott’s scientifically grounded “The Martian” depicts what the venture might look like.

NASA may not return to the moon for many decades – there’s a certain “been there, done that” after the Apollo missions. But humans haven’t staged a comparable space adventure in 44 years. Even a manned Mars mission in 2032 – a very optimistic goal – would fall 60 years after the last moon landing. It’s time we got moving again.

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