17–19 September 2018
Hyatt Regency Orlando, Orlando, Florida

Humans Aren’t Yet on Mars, but Small Steps Are Happening Now

Posted: 16 September 2016, 3:50 p.m. EDT

Panelists: Moderator Frank Morring Jr., senior editor for space, Aviation Week and Space Technology; Michael Barratt, flight engineer, Expedition 19/20, and mission specialist, STS-133, NASA; Guy Beutelschies, director, Space Exploration Systems, Lockheed Martin Space Systems; John Elbon, vice president and general manager, Space Exploration, Boeing Defense, Space and Security; William H. Gerstenmaier, associate administrator, Human Exploration and Operations, NASA; Julie Van Kleeck, vice president, Advanced Space and Launch Business Unit, Aerojet Rocketdyne; Abhishek Tripathi, director of certification, SpaceX

by Hannah Thoreson, AIAA Communications

Many of the smaller pieces needed to eventually achieve the goal of landing humans on Mars are already in progress.

“There are probably more human spaceflight vehicles in development than there ever have been in one time, and a lot of them are pointed to Mars,” said Frank Morring Jr., senior editor for space with Aviation Week and Space Technology, kicking off the “Next Stop Mars” panel Sept. 15 at AIAA SPACE 2016 in Long Beach, California.

William H. Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations, described a strategic pivot toward a journey to Mars.

“We are starting to see low Earth orbit taken over by the private sector, and that frees the government up to move further out,” he said, emphasizing that the international space station has been a necessary learning environment for NASA. “The station is really the first piece of exploration. We’re learning how to do long-term life support; we’re learning how to keep crews healthy. We took life support systems that work fine on the ground and moved them to the station, and they work for a week.”

Those type of problems can be overcome where there is close access to supplies from Earth, but astronauts going to Mars will not have an entire planet full of redundant capabilities nearby.  

NASA’s Michael Barratt also stressed that the ISS has been a good proving ground for eventually sending humans to Mars.

“One of the big things is just the practical operations of living in space,” he said. “We have a clear understanding of how to do that now.”

Barratt, an astronaut and medical doctor, said research has helped mitigate some of the health problems that result from spending time in space.

“One of our big enemies was always musculoskeletal decrease,” he said. “We are now preserving bone and muscle fitness better now than any other time in history.

“We’ve learned a tremendous amount about spaceflight nutrition and metabolism,” Barratt noted.

NASA has had to change its mindset in order to adapt to longer spaceflight missions and the reality of humans living in space on board the ISS.

“The astronaut office has radically changed in the last 20 years,” Barratt said. “We have shifted paradigms from the short-duration shuttle flights to long-duration station missions.”

Participants in the panel discussion "Next Stop Mars," on Wednesday, 15 September, at AIAA SPACE 2016, which took place 13–16 September 2016, in Long Beach, CA.

Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of the Advanced Space and Launch Business Unit with Aerojet Rocketdyne, said advanced propulsion technologies could be valuable in pursuing a human presence on Mars.

“If you look at the [communications satellites] industry, you see electric propulsion has got its way into a number of commercial satellites,” she said.

Aerojet Rocketdyne has 5-kilowatt Hall thrusters already in production and is looking at developing that capability to 15-20 kilowatts. Van Kleeck also mentioned that nuclear propulsion would have some potential application for a Mars mission.

SpaceX Director of Certification Abhishek Tripathi emphasized the need to consider safety aspects for human exploration of Mars.

“SpaceX has been very committed in our conversations with NASA to making sure that we fly the safest vehicle ever made for humans,” Tripathi said.

Indeed, while Mars has orbiters and rovers, putting a human there is challenging. Tripathi said NASA astronauts interact with SpaceX engineers to help accomplish that goal.

“That pool of four crew members comes to SpaceX all the time,” he said. “And we make it a point of having those crew members meet every part of our company. We want our culture of our company to understand that there are people who are going to be riding on our rockets and spacecrafts.”

Guy Beutelschies, director of space exploration systems with Lockheed Martin Space Systems, and John Elbon, vice president and general manager of space exploration with Boeing, both sounded optimistic in their comments.

“I think sometimes there’s a tendency to look at Mars exploration as a thing we are about to do — we’re going to put a plan in place, and we’re going to go explore Mars,” Beutelschies said. “From my perspective, we’re in the middle of it. We’ve been doing this for decades now.”

Indeed, there have already been a lot of missions from different space agencies to Mars, just not missions that have involved humans.  

Elbon said that although the panelists spoke casually about going to Mars, it’s anything but casual.

“It’s interesting that we just talk about we’re going to Mars like it rolls off our tongue,” he said. “We have a panel of seven people here talking about going to Mars like it’s no big deal, but it is a big deal. Mars is a long ways away. There’s a lot of technical challenges that have to be solved, a lot of political challenges that have to be solved for us to go on that journey. So it’s just an exciting thing to think about.”

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Dates to Remember

  • Abstract Deadline: 08 Feb 2018
  • Manuscript Deadline: 16 Aug 2018
  • Early Bird Reg Deadline: 27 Aug 2018
  • Cancellation Deadline: 04 Sep 2018

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