Imagine stepping out into a red vista, no blue sky, no trees. Just you with a bulky suit between you and the red planet. Imagining is where things are somewhat stalled. There have been space-related stories over the past few weeks about the beginning of construction on the new CHIME telescope in Penticton, B.C. This radio telescope will be used to construct a 3D map of the universe that will look back 11 billion years. At Christmas, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield on board the International Space Station (ISS) recorded the first song in space and uploaded it to YoutTube. In a few months, Hadfield will be the first Canadian to command the ISS. This is all fun, but what’s the status of humans leaving low-Earth orbit and in the words of a favourite television teacher: getting out there, getting messy, and having fun?
NASA has had plans to plan for a human mission to Mars for years, but they’ve changed and changed again and the timeline is not firm. In 2010 Obama said that the goal was to land on a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, and Mars by the mid-2030s. The U.S. is currently relying on Russian Soyuz craft for trips to and from the ISS (launching from Kazakhstan). The current NASA project is the building of a new Space Launch System (SLS). On Jan. 30 NASA announced grants for universities working on advanced developments for the new vehicle. The idea is that the SLS will be multi-purposed, used to launch payloads, spacecraft, and the new Orion crew vehicle. The first SLS launch is planned for 2017.
Orion is the next human spacecraft currently under development at NASA, and if it looks like a blast from the past…well, it is. Orion is a call back to the Apollo capsules and NASA is currently updating on Orion’s progress with monthly newsletters charting progress on the project. Orion was announced in 2011 and won’t fly until after 2020 and is intended to take humans on those journeys to an asteroid, and eventually Mars.
In Nov., China announced its plan to launch its fifth manned space flight this June, and has plans to build its own space station by 2020. Will the Chinese upsurge prompt the U.S. to step up its space game? It’s hard to say. The rapid developments and launch of the Apollo missions in the 1960s was largely thanks to the Cold War and an inspiring speech from JFK, convincing the nation to get behind the project. Without that same kind of competitive political pressure, the public and political will isn’t strong enough to compress this timeline. We do not need 20 years to plan a trip to Mars, but the Chinese space ventures likely won’t spur on the U.S. in the same way that the Soviets did. Instead, private companies are setting out to prove that they can ferry us forth to our future in space, in partnership with government agencies.
In 2013, private space technology companies look to be our fastest route to the solar system. Organizations, such as Space X, are able to work on their technologies and missions alongside governments, without being tied up in political tape. In 2010, SpaceX was the first private company to return a spacecraft from low Earth orbit and has since made two supply trips to the ISS. They are currently on contract with NASA to continue making deliveries—they’re presently the UPS of space; however, with the partnership of NASA they are in the process of turning their main spacecraft, the Dragon, into a vehicle for astronauts.
On Jan. 22 Deep Space Industries announced plans to send three “FireFlies” to evaluate near-Earth asteroids for their resources and mining potential. Deep Space Industries’s mandate sets out that they are the dreamers of building the future. Their website features an image not of this current mission, but an ambitious science fiction–inspired design that says that they want to bring about our dreams through mining in space and, by use of their 3D printer technology, be the first to build in space as well. The potential for this is extraordinary; the ability to build in space would drastically reduce environmental effects of space travel here on Earth. The goal of the FireFly project is to determine what can be mined from asteroids, so that, eventually, we can start building orbiting platforms from scratch in space—which would also provide a drastic cost reduction compared to assembling large components of a space station on Earth and launching them. The second goal is to find fuel sources that could be used to refuel satellites and other spacecraft. Each of the FireFlies is the size of a laptop and the best part? They plan to launch in 2015 with follow-up missions in 2016. Deep Space Industries is highly innovative and appears to have the willpower and the resources to push human exploration forward, but we can only watch and see if this pans out. This may not be settling humans in space yet, but finding resources and building from them in space would present a great leap forward in the potential for us to spread further out into our solar system, and missions during the next ten years will give us a strong indicator of how soon that can happen.
Another company, SpaceLiner, currently has plans to stay close to Earth, but at high speeds. Associated with the European Space Agency, they plan to build a craft similar to the space shuttle, but it will shuttle people between Europe and Australia in just 90 minutes (for a hefty price tag). However, they have a number of factors to contend with before this can happen, including the problem of sonic booms.
Mars One, a not-for-profit, claims that it will have humans on Mars by 2023, founding the first permanent human settlement using current technology. Mars One intends to fund the mission by setting it up as a reality show—by broadcasting every aspect of the mission to a world-wide audience with financing through licensing exclusive media rights to the for-profit Interplanetary Media Group who would in-turn sell broadcasting and advertising rights elsewhere. The first step is selecting and training astronauts, and we’ll see where it goes from there.
In Moscow, an experiment called the Mars 500 was recently held to determine the psychological effects on a crew for a trip to Mars: one of the biggest problems is the isolation of the mission. An international crew of six spent 520 days (June 2010–Nov. 2011) locked in a capsule where they were monitored constantly. The data from the experiment is still being analyzed and there are some concerns relating to sleeping and exercise, but the results are promising: the crew didn’t try to kill each other and came out of the capsule at the end in more-or-less good spirits.
In the meantime, Curiosity roams the surface of the red planet and we can hope for more exciting discoveries over the coming year as we continue to contemplate the biggest challenges of getting there ourselves. The problems are currently what vehicle will get us there, dealing with the risks of the trip (radiation and isolation), the cost, and the willpower. When the fourth piece falls in place, the other three will come into line as the funds and public will are funnelled towards solving the other problems—and as seen from some of the corporate ventures and projects of various agencies, these problems are being working on, but it’s a matter of us all coming together to make it happen. One of the most exciting aspects of a mission to Mars isn’t the journey itself, but the global cooperation to make it happen, and make it a truly human accomplishment that we can all take pride in.
While we wait for the above projects to progress, here are a couple of science fiction titles to take you to the stars:
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.
A radio signal is detected coming from Alpha Centauri prompting a private space flight to that system, funded by the Vatican. The select few travel in a fusion propelled hollowed out asteroid to get there.
Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons.
An epic philosophical and interstellar adventure, travel includes “farcasters” (gates between planets), and FTL travel that kills all passengers on a ship until they are resurrected at the other end of their journey.