Despite hurdles, human missions to Mars are in the works

May 10, 2005
Despite hurdles, human missions to Mars are in the works

Rovers setting the stage

While all the excitement on Mars focuses on the amazing durability and discoveries of two robotic rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, two Mars Exploration Rover (MER) scientists remind Mars aficions that the rovers are part of a coordinated plan to put humans on the Red Planet some day.

Image: Mars Exploration Rover mission scientists remind us that the amazing success of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity is a harbinger for the day when humans inhabit the Red Planet.

The major drawback to a human mission to Mars is preparing for the one to two years of radiation and microgravity exposure that astronauts must endure. While that is a large hurdle, enabling technologies are emerging that should be able to make this goal a reality over the next couple of decades, and America should go for it.

That's the theme of a report from NASA's 2002 Astrobiology Academy appearing soon as a paper in Acta Astronautica. Bethany Ehlmann, MER scientist, 2004 graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and current Rhodes scholar, is the lead author of the paper, which features ten other authors who were undergraduate and graduate students at universities nationwide.

Ehlmann, advised by Raymond E. Arvidson, Ph.D., James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of Washington University's earth and planetary sciences department in Arts & Sciences, worked with Arvidson on the rovers Spirit and Opportunity in the winter and spring of 2004 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"President Bush has announced a long-term vision for space exploration, one focused on exploring our solar system and universe and understanding if life started and evolved elsewhere," said Arvidson. "A central theme is whether or not Mars has or had life, using robotic exploration first, followed by detailed study using humans and robotic systems in coordinated ways. Bethany's NASA Astrobiology Academy study is very nicely aligned with the President's vision and forms a basis for thinking about how to implement an exciting exploration strategy over the next several decades."

Ehlmann and her co-authors state that a decision to explore Mars with humans will be a political one, driven by three factors: economics, education and exploration.

"A human mission to Mars would bring back immense amounts of scientific data, and serve as inspiration for the next generation of space scientists to enter critically needed science and engineering disciplines," the authors write. But, "Exploration alone cannot justify the increased risk."

The present human Moon-Mars initiative needs to be very careful about not draining funding from basic astronomical research and earth observation systems, Ehlmann said.

"We need to strike the right balance between human and robotic, and I'm worried that the right one is not being struck," Ehlmann said. "My co-authors and I weren't arguing for a zero sum game (sacrifice basic science for human spaceflight) but rather additional funding for human Mars mission planning. We were arguing this should be added to the list of society's priorities — behind AIDS research and poverty eradication, of course.

"Working on MER, I was continually blown away by what those little robots could do. They're amazing pieces of engineering, a testament to human ingenuity, and have a lot of discoveries left to go. But they have limitations. It took 56 days to explore a 20-meter crater (Opportunity), a year to travel 4 kilometers (Spirit) — something you can leisurely run in a half hour. It always left you itching to go a little further, wondering what's over the horizon, what the rovers might not reach."

Ehlmann said that the human touch to space exploration is a driving force of discovery.

"Would the underwater world have been so appealing without the visionary human touch of Jacques Cousteau?" she asks. "Exploration and curiosity are in our blood. In my lifetime, I hope we take the leap to Mars and really see what's out there."

Explore further: Innovative use of pressurant extends MESSENGER's mission, enables collection of new data

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Mars mission boost welcomed by scientists

Dec 15, 2014

University of Leicester scientists, who are closely involved in the European mission to Mars –ExoMars- have welcomed support from the Government for the project.

The technological path to Mars

Dec 11, 2014

Can the just-flown Orion spacecraft truly get us to Mars? NASA has been portraying the mission as part of the roadmap to the Red Planet, but there are observers who say a human landing mission is an unrealistic ...

Lessons learned from Orion's first test flight

Dec 10, 2014

With the successful flight test of NASA's Orion spacecraft on Dec. 5, a new space era for has started for America and its aerospace industry. Companies engaged in space exploration like Lockheed Martin, which ...

Researchers look at Oort cloud asteroids

Dec 09, 2014

Sky & Telescope reports on "A fresh look at a nagging problem—asteroids moving in comet-like orbits" where the research "concludes that asteroids must make up about 4 percent of the vast, distant Oort C ...

Recommended for you

The top 101 astronomical events to watch for in 2015

Dec 24, 2014

Now in its seventh year of compilation and the second year running on Universe Today, we're proud to feature our list of astronomical happenings for the coming year. Print it, bookmark it, hang it on your ...

NASA image: Frosty slopes on Mars

Dec 24, 2014

This image of an area on the surface of Mars, approximately 1.5 by 3 kilometers in size, shows frosted gullies on a south-facing slope within a crater.

Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?

Dec 24, 2014

Bright stars top Christmas trees in Christian homes around much of the world. The faithful sing about the Star of Wonder that guided the wise men to a manger in the little town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.