Getting From Earth-Dependent to Mars-Ready Requires Team Effort

8 August 2014, 2:45 p.m. EDT
by Lawrence Garrett, AIAA web editor

Greg-Williams_Earth-Dependent-to-Mars-Ready_Panel_7Aug2014

“The wonder of the universe around us connects us and builds a better global society, and we believe the human exploration of space does likewise," said panel co-moderator Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, during the panel discussion, "From Earth Dependent to Mars Ready," Wednesday at the AIAA Space and Astronautics Forum and Exposition (SPACE 2014), in San Diego.

To achieve a manned mission to Mars, it’s going to take countless new technology developments, innovative strategies for coordinating NASA’s inter-agencies, and increased collaboration with private industry and international partners. That was the message delivered by NASA representatives during the “From Earth Dependent to Mars Ready” panel at the AIAA SPACE 2014 Forum Thursday in San Diego.

“The wonder of the universe around us connects us and builds a better global society, and we believe the human exploration of space does likewise," said panel co-moderator Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate. "It’s an endeavor in which we can all rally around and engage people in the public and private sectors -- the young, the old, citizens from [many] nations around the world who are inherently excited about exploration.”

Within NASA, “a tighter connection between Human Exploration, Science Mission Directorate, the Technology Directorate and even Aeronautics” is needed, he said, as is closer collaboration with the private sector. As commercial industries grow in their ability to operate in space, NASA is engaging more with them and hopes to establish a more effective public and private partnership in the exploration of space. “Ours is an exercise of achieving alignment among a variety of players in order to undertake this grand endeavor of pioneering space,” he said.

Williams also said that the recently approved extension of the International Space Station until at least 2024 “will enable us to accomplish much of the work we need to do to move into the solar system beyond.” NASA’s “first foray” as it moves beyond the ISS and into the proving ground of cislunar space, will be the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which Williams called an “essential mission” on the long-term journey to Mars.

Describing current, “earth-reliant” capabilities, Sam Scimemi , NASA's International Space Station director, said, “today we’re basically car-camping in space,” citing the less than two-day transit to the ISS and back, near real-time communications, regular crew exchanges, and supply and hardware deliveries. But “going to Mars, we’ve got none of that. It’s a completely independent life to go to Mars.”

Echoing Williams’ praise for the ISS extension, Scimemi said the additional 10 years will enable “the research and technology development [necessary] to get people beyond low earth orbit.” He also said it will provide “an extra 10 years to develop the commercial demand and the commercial supply in LEO.” There’s a natural connection, he said, between deep space and the commercial market in LEO, as many of the same systems needed to go to Mars “are the same systems and capabilities needed to maintain human presence in low earth orbit.”

Michele Gates, NASA's senior technical adviser for human exploration, discussed some of the key activities surrounding the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Gates called ARM “a compelling mission,” one that is expected to provide “substantial contributions to our future human endeavors at Mars.”

High-power, long-life solar electric power propulsion is one of the primary technologies under development, Gates said, calling it “critical for achieving success” on longer-duration missions such as Mars. She called ARM technologies part of “a sustainable exploration strategy” and reported that the Science Technology Mission Directorate has made “substantial progress this year” in solar electric propulsion technology development.

William Hill, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, provided an update on the Space Launch System and Orion, the launch vehicles expected to carry NASA into the proving ground of cislunar space and eventually onto Mars. He described Orion as the “first spacecraft in history capable of taking humans to multiple destinations in deep space” -- an “Apollo-like vehicle” only much bigger. Orion's initial test flight is scheduled for December, with primary goals of testing the heat shield, separation events, recovery capabilities, and command and control.

Briefing the audience on some of the advanced technologies and approaches NASA expects to take to Mars, Jason Crusan, director of the agency's Advanced Exploration Systems Division, discussed the Evolvable Mars Campaign, which is slowly helping to develop the capabilities needed to get to Mars.

“We’re not developing a single plan from here to the surface of Mars, but rather analyzing and understanding all of the potential options with the goal of getting a very solid near-term execution plan, while exploring how those near-team plans may effect and follow through all the way to the surface of Mars,” he said.

“There’s going to be a lot of changes both technologically and [with] capability advancements, along with policy changes, between now and the surface,” he added, so it will be important to “maximize our near-term execution.”

Panel co-moderator Jeff Sheehy, senior technologist at NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, told the audience that “we’re all pursuing the same bold missions and visions; we’re all pursuing the development and capabilities” needed for a successful manned mission to Mars.

A lot of new technologies are going to be needed to move from the earth-reliant space exploration stage through the proving ground and into deep space operations, Sheehy said. One of those technologies that made a successful test flight in June is the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), which Sheehy called “a centerpiece technology.”

Summarizing the overall challenges a successful manned Mars mission entails, Sheehy said, “You’ve got to get there, you’ve got to land there, you’ve got to live there, and you will want to leave there, probably, so you need to return.”

To view the entire session, visit AIAA's livestream channel.
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