Things have been going swimmingly at NASA of late.
On top of the triumph that was NASA's Pluto fly-by last month (New Horizon got a nice haul from that, collecting data that will take months to transmit and sort) last week NASA conducted another successful test of the RS-25, the engine designed for NASA's Space Launch System, the system that NASA plans on using to take us to the holy grail of space exploration: Mars.
The developmental test firing of the rocket's engines went off without a hitch at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi last Thursday. When this SLS thing is all set up, four RS-25 engines and two solid rocket boosters of five segments each will power the 70-metric-ton rocket configuration into deep space. This was a crucial step forward because these sort of rocket engines aren't exactly what you'd call easy to make. "It is the most complicated rocket engine out there on the market, but that's because it's the Ferrari of rocket engines," Kathryn Crowe, RS-25 propulsion engineer, stated in a release.
Word of the successful test got us pondering what else it will take to actually make the classic sci-fi concept of people going to Mars into a reality. It turns out there are still a lot of steps. Right now, the plan is to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to see astronauts on the red planet by the 2030s, according to goals outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010.
So what happens next? Well, since we've been to the moon and have astronauts currently working on the International Space Station, the next step is deep space, where NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. Then astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples. This experience in human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit will help NASA test new systems and capabilities, according to the good folks at NASA, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, which they'll need to send cargo as part of human missions to Mars. Beginning in 2018, the SLS will enable these “proving ground” missions to test new capabilities. Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flow, according to NASA.
Sounds cool right? So far NASA ran a successful test of Orion in December. The plan is to use the Delta IV Heavy Rocket to tote astronauts to an asteroid and then eventually to Martian land. Then in June NASA conducted another test of its very own flying saucer, the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, a crucial piece of the Mars puzzle since the LDSD is how astronauts will eventually get from Orion to Mars itself.
Meanwhile, NASA officials haven't forgotten the people component of space exploration. In fact, astronaut Scott Kelly is currently up in the International Space Station doing his part to help NASA scientists understand what happens to a body that's in space for a long time compared to how it would do on Earth. While Kelly is being the space guinea pig his twin brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly, is here on Earth doing the same tests. By the time the brothers are reunited scientists will have all kinds of data to look at when it comes to what happens to a person in space. That's information that can't help but be useful — it's most likely going to be a very long trek to get to Mars. (A "star trek" if you will.)
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At the same time, NASA is also doing its best to do all the remote examining of Mars that's possible. A fleet of robotic spacecraft and rovers already are on and around Mars, dramatically increasing our knowledge about Mars and paving the way for future human explorers, according to NASA. (The probes and spacecraft are also simultaneously increasing the fodder for those who are searching for signs of life and government conspiracies with every new photo that shows what looks like a coffin or a figure standing on Mars.) The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover measured radiation on the way to Mars and is sending back radiation data from the surface. This data will help NASA plan how to protect the astronauts who will explore Mars. Future missions like the Mars 2020 rover, seeking signs of past life, also will demonstrate new technologies that could help astronauts survive on Mars.
So there are lots of things being done and there are still questions about how astronauts will do in space, how much of the trip they'll be awake (it's an impressively long trip). Even more than the question of logistics though there's another factor that no one should overlook, the government funding.
See, a lot of the emphasis on NASA funding and space exploration depends on who is in the driver's seat over at the White House. For instance, George W. Bush kicked a lot of funding toward the space program and sending astronauts back to the moon, but most of that funding dried up when W. left office. When President Barack Obama came in, initially he was focused on the Great Recession and not so much worried about what NASA's mission would be, which was part of the reason that NASA funding was constantly getting cut. Now Obama seems like he's gotten into the whole space exploration thing, but he's a president on his way out and there's no telling what the next person to be elected to the top spot will think about the final frontier, let alone the Martian adventure.
So, aside from all of these other logistics, it's the funding that's going to determine whether the 2030s are the age where we take a shot at going to Mars or the years where we, well, don't.