Space Heats Up

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

All eyes are not on Mars these days even though the recent news will buoy those interested in the red planet. Some significant events have taken place in space flight in the last two months.

Perhaps, one of the biggest is the entry into the commercial space race of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. His Blue Origin rocket engine has been successfully tested for the first time (NBC article). The November 20 test was a full simulation of blast off and entry into Earth orbit using his hydrogen-fueled rocket engine with 110,000 pounds of thrust. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a competitor.

Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Alan Bond, Bas Lansdorp.

Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Alan Bond, Bas Lansdorp.

Speaking of SpaceX, they have launched a big commercial satellite into a geostationary orbit, 22,000 miles (36,000 km) into space. The satellite is nearly 7,000 pounds (2,138 kg) and launched on December 3 at a cost that is tens of millions of dollars less than previous similar launches. The Falcon 9 rocket performed flawlessly and is the precursor for the soon-to-come Falcon Heavy rocket that will lift 116,850 pounds (53,000 kg) into Earth orbit and is likely to be the rocket used for the first manned Mars ventures.

NASA has announced the test date for its Orion manned space capsule, September 2014. Ultimately, this capsule is slated to carry humans back to the Moon. This is a larger capsule and with much more computer capability than previous manned capsules.

Another NASA announcement opens up a competition for the commercial International Space Station spaceships. These ships are due to begin transporting crews and supplies in 2017.

These sorts of competitions will lead to faster development of technologies that can make manned missions to Mars feasible. Mars One remains a long shot because of its desire to have people live out a “normal” life there. Despite Bas Lansdorp’s remark that returning people to Mars is more difficult that having them live there, the hurdles to long stays on Mars exceed those to landing and returning. Neither has been done, but the former has more unknowns; the latter mostly requires scaling some technologies and providing fuel for the return journey. While a few ideas for on-Mars fuel production have been made none have been tested outside of a laboratory.

For example, the Alan Bond concept of turning CO2 from the Mars air into CO and O2 has not been attempted with Mars air, which has 1/100th of the pressure of Earth air and some contaminants, such as omnipresent dust, that could cause problems in the real (Mars) world. The Mars Direct idea combining on-board hydrogen with atmospheric CO2 to make methane (CH4) and oxygen has the same issues. Finally, breaking water into hydrogen and oxygen means extracting water from the Mars regolith (dirt). We don’t know exactly where to find water on Mars or how to deal with the many corrosive contaminants in the ground. Until someone tests these ideas on Mars or in a very well simulated Martian environment, we won’t be sure that any will work.

See the Mars One article and spirited discussion for more on the problems of living on Mars for more than a year or so. Even a year will be tough, but should be manageable.

9 Responses

  1. Living on Mars for one year is highly problematic.

    The only way this is going to work is to plan for a round-trip with only a few days to a week on Mars. I am pretty sure this is what NASA is planning for in the 2030’s.

    A reality check is needed. The Apollo spaceships weighed about 100,000 lbs. Getting 100,000 lbs. to the moon 238,900 miles away is one thing. Getting at least 100,000 lbs to Mars 34 million miles or more away is a pipe dream. And, most likely the Mars spaceship will have to weigh at least 150,000 lbs. or more.

    Can NASA land a 150,000 to 200,000 lbs manned rocked on the moon?

    Putting a 7,000 lbs. satellite 22,000 miles above earth is nothing.

    Remember, NASA said landing the Mars Curiosity rover, which weighed under 2,000 lbs, was 7 minutes of terror.

    Nobody has a clue how to land a heavy manned rocket on Mars, nobody!

    Many years of practicing will be required, most likely on the moon.

  2. The engineering challenges are great. Returning Mars explorers at the next conjunction has the most likelihood of success because of a shorter and less fuel-intensive trip back, but you have to stay on Mars for about 18 months, which creates other problems. By sending necessary supplies and return vehicles to Mars ahead of time as well as at the same time, it could be done. As George suggests, it’s an enormous stretch at this time and no one really can predict when we’ll be ready. There’s also the financial challenge in addition to the engineering ones. The former may sink the plan more quickly than the latter.

    • Current thinking is that it will take from 6 to nine months to reach Mars; and, by that time, you will have to wait at least 18 months for a return flight to earth because the distance between both planets is too great.

      But, if you have faster rockets then that problem is eliminated. The fasted flight to Mars was the Venera 3, November 16, 1965, which took 106 days – 3 months, 14 days; actually many unmanned flights to Mars have taken under 4 months. If you build a fast enough rocketship, you could go to Mars, stay on Mars for 7 days, and return to Earth in less than one year. Actually, in my letters and email exchanges with NASA about this problem, this is one of the solutions mentioned, i.e., building faster rocketships.

      The Voyager 1 probe, which weighed 1,797 lbs., achieved an earth escape velocity of 38,600 mph. If Mars was 36 million miles from earth, it would take 932.64 hours to reach Mars or 38.86 days. If Mars was 250 million miles from earth, it would take 6,476.68 hours to reach Mars or 269.86 days. So if the trip to Mars takes 39 days and you stay on Mars for 7 days, and the return trip to earth takes 270 days, you have been in space for 316 total days.

      This would eliminate two huge problems: long-term exposure to deep space radiation and negative effects of weightlessness. I don’t know how well humans would tolerate reaching an escape velocity of 38,600 mph from Earth.

      Of course, the devil is in the details. We don’t have a rocketship capable of carrying sufficient fuel, water, oxygen, food, etc. for a 316 day mission. NASA is also concerned with being able to store rocket fuel in space for that long.

      I think everyone is being a bit too optimistic about the chances of success on the first attempt of a manned mission to Mars based on the past history of unmanned missions.

      There have been 43 unmanned missions to Mars since 1960, 2 of which are en route.
      Of those 41 finished missions, 18 failed to reach Mars or 44% failure rate. However, 6 missions failed on arrival to Mars or flew by Mars. So, there were 24 failures out of 41 missions or 59% failures. But wait, how many missions were completed but did not work, e.g., radio did not work, no useful data was transmitted, only lasted 9 days, shroud failed to jettison, etc.
      Only 14 of the 41 missions noted above were intended to land something on Mars, e.g., rover, capsule). Of those 14, 6 or 43% failed to reach Mars or failed on landing, or in orbit of Mars.

      I don’t want to sound trite, but I will quote the Chinese philosopher Laozi,

      “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

      NASA is taking a cautious realistic approach to their first manned mission to Mars, which is why they believe it will take until sometime in the 2030s. But, they premise that time frame with another cautious statement about how all technical difficulties and medical issues must first be solved.

      “NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) recently announced an agreement to send two crew members to the space station on a one-year mission…. The valuable scientific data collected will help send humans to new destinations, supporting the next generation of space exploration…. Scientists have acquired enough data to begin to characterize the effects of six-month sojourns in weightlessness on astronauts’ bodies, and some of those effects appear not to have reached a new adapted state,” said John Charles, chief of the Human Research Program’s new International Science Office. “This one-year mission opportunity will show if the trends continue as before or if we are approaching any ‘cliffs’ that will require new treatments while providing new insights.””

      We need a lot more information about deep space travel and technical advances before we risk the lives of astronauts on a manned mission to Mars.

      Let’s get real, we have had only 9 manned missions beyond LEO – Low Earth Orbit, and six of those were the Apollo missions to the moon. The longest any humans have stayed in deep space is 12 days on the Apollo 17 mission.

      NASA should probably build a small a manned space station in HEO – High Earth Orbit (22,236 miles above earth) to study the prolonged effects of deep space radiation or build a habitat on the Moon before attempting a manned mission to Mars.

      Whether we get to Mars in the next 20 years or 1,000 years is not that important to risk lives before all the technical issues are solved.

      Mankind has only taken one small baby step in its quest to land a man on Mars; therefore, why is everyone in such a big rush?

      • Yes, we do have to figure out how to get to Mars (and back) more quickly without ballooning expenses.

        The history of rocketry was similar (or worse). Failure rate overall was very high, but the learning curve resulted in better and better failure rates over time. Statistics aren’t very good with so few data points, but it looks like NASA is improving its Mars record as of late. How many Mars missions and years are necessary before failure rate is acceptable for manned missions? Don’t know. Ten years fits with Apollo experience. Will planned Mars One robotic mission to Mars succeed? May not ever get off of the ground. If it does, then may fail unless using NASA expertise. We won’t know for more than five years.

        Why in such a hurry? Not really a big hurry viewed from perspective of being on Moon in 1969, nearly 45 years ago!! Also, people are in a hurry because of finite lifespans. It’s a natural tendency that must be overcome. We should move with all deliberate speed. In other words, as fast as is safe. It’s mostly a matter of how safe.

        A journey of a thousand miles also ends with a single step. All of the steps must be sure-footed.

      • Bas Lansdorp answered this question. Here is his answer to the press conference question.

        “Given the difficulty of landing safely on Mars – and the high failure rate on previous attempts – how confident are you that Mars One can pull it off in 2018?

        “Mars missions have a reputation for a high failure rate, but this is bad statistics. Of all Nasa missions that attempted to land on Mars, one has failed and seven were successful. For our 2018 lander, Mars One is partnering with Lockheed Martin, which has a distinct legacy of participating in nearly every Nasa mission to Mars. It will be based on the very successful 2007 Nasa Phoenix. For the Phoenix mission, Lockheed Martin designed, built, tested and operated the lander for Nasa. Lockheed Martin will build the 2018 lander and our larger lander, which we will use for the cargo missions and the human missions.”

        • Not sure where Bas is getting his misinformation and why he is only talking about NASA’s Mars landing attempts. Not sure why he is not talking about all the missions to Mars by Russia and the USA: flybys, missions to put satellites in orbit, and to land rovers. All attempts at going to Mars are relevant to arriving at the probability of success.

          And, is Bas or Mars One now going to use NASA’s rocketships and NASA facilities to go to Mars?

          If not, then NASA’s success or failure rate is irrelevant. Lockheed Martin has never sent anything to Mars, so we have no statistics on their success rate. So, again, not sure what Bas is getting at.

          Not sure why he is not mentioning that the heaviest object NASA has landed on Mars is the Curiosity rover, which weighed 1,980 lbs.

          NASA called that landing “seven minutes of terror.” And, NASA said that was the most difficult landing ever attempted by NASA, more difficult than the Apollo lunar landings.

          And, this type of landing would never work with a huge spacecraft weighing as much as the manned Apollo rocket ship that weighed about 100,000 lbs. or even the Apollo Lunar Module which weighed 32,399 lbs. which is 16.36 times heavier than the Curiosity rover. And, the manned rocket ship to Mars will most likely have to weigh 200,000 lbs. Assuming that there will have to be a manned Mars landing module like the Apollo lunar module, it will have to weigh much more than 32,399 lbs. This assumes that there will be a Mars command module orbiting Mars and the Mars landing module will be lunched from that vehicle, just like in the Apollo missions to Earth’s Moon.

          This information is from NASA’s “Historical Log” on missions to Mars, which I copied and pasted into an Excel schedule and analyzed.

          NASA has had 21 missions to Mars, one is currently En route. So, let’s analyze the 20 missions that either succeeded or failed.

          There were 4 flybys, 3 were successful, and one was a failure, the failure rate is 25%.

          There were 9 attempts to land something on Mars, all objects weighing from 5.3 lbs. up to about 1,980 lbs. – The Mars Curiosity rover; most objects were less than 1,000 lbs. Two of those 9 attempts were failures, or 22.2 % were failures.

          There were 7 attempts to orbit a satellite around Mars. Three of those attempts were failures, or a 42.8% failure rate.

          Of the twenty total NASA missions to Mars, 6 have been failures, or a failure rate of 33.33%

          Russia has had 17 missions to Mars; 14 have been failures or 82.4%.

          Russia tried 6 flybys, and they all failed. Russia tried 5 missions to orbit, and they all failed. Russia tried 6 missions to land objects on Mars, 4 were failures or 67%. And, they were landing objects weighing no more than 800 lbs.

          Analyzing the 41 missions to Mars by all countries, 25 were total failures or 61%, which included two where the lander failed on decent or landing.

          Anyway Bas, “And now you know the rest of the story…Good Day!”

          • Nice analysis but meaningless if the 2018 mission never flies. :-)

            There’s a learning curve, and early missions fail. It makes most sense only to count the most recent missions. I haven’t totaled it up, but suspect that the failure rate would not be so high.

            Nevertheless, you may expect Mars One to emulate Russia more closely than NASA unless they get plenty of help from NASA.

            I give the Mars One 2018 mission maybe a 10-1 chance of flying. Successfully landing AND transmitting useful information through the separate Mars satellite that must be placed in geostationary orbit has to be more on the order of 100-1. Total mission success has maybe a 1000-1 chance. These odds could improve in the next five years. Right now, they’re only doing a design study.

            Before you jump on your keyboard, George, I have been generous in assigning odds, and I readily admit that.

            We have a broader issue regarding the feasibility of ANY Mars colonization effort. I see the potential for very long term success but some issues that could stymie the whole scheme for more than a few decades. I see the possibility of nearer term success but without a high likelihood.

            If a few breakthroughs and technical tests happen, the chances will improve. I can only cheer and criticize from the sidelines and wait.

  3. Bas is not launching anything in 2018.

    Next time you communicate with Bas, request his Mars One financials and see if he has enough money to buy a rocket ship, supplies, etc. and rent a facility to lunch. He doesn’t!

    Again, the guy is a total fraud.

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