Feasible Missions – Part Three

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In part one and two of this series we looked at what space missions current human technology could undertake right now, and then focused on what options Earth’s moon might provide.  So far, we have established that there are still technical challenges to overcome, but the prospect of lunar colonization has been within reach since the days of the Apollo missions.  In this part of the article, we will focus on Martian colonization options and the challenges they present.

Visiting and eventually staying on Mars has been a goal of manned spaceflight since the dawn of the space age.  Werner von Braun believed a human exploration of Mars was essential to the American space program.  Other plans to explore or colonize Mars still use many of the basic concepts from his proposed mission.

Missions to Mars do not always end as mission planners might like, lost spacecraft, landers, and rovers are more common than operational machines.  Missions from the European space agency, India, Japan, China, and Russia, have joined earlier missions by the Soviet and NASA space programs, with varying degrees of success.  The emerging private space sector also has plans for Mars missions, with SpaceX planning a permanent Mars base sometime in the 2020’s.

The first challenge Mars presents is the distance of the aptly named red planet from Earth.  The Moon is much closer and we have sent people there and back already.  Mars does not share that history.  We have sent probes and robots to Mars, even proposed a sample return mission, but we have never sent real live human beings there.

The distance is a challenge for several reasons, among them: exposure time, communications lag and self-reliance.  While all of these challenges are obvious, the impact of the inability to have real-time communication may not be.  The mission will be increasingly out of sync with mission controllers on Earth, and subsequently slower to respond to changes in mission objectives due to unforeseen circumstances.

Space travelers will also be entirely reliant on one another and whatever supplies they take with them.  While eventual resupply might be possible over the course of a long-term mission, immediate response to losses in transit or on the surface of Mars will be impossible.  The colonists will have to improvise with what they have on hand.

Most proposed human spaceflight missions to Mars expect a travel time of about nine months to and from the red planet.  This flight time introduces the next challenge to colonizing Mars, in the form of radiation exposure.  Energetic particles and ionizing radiation continually bombard Mars and the space between there and the Earth just like the Moon.  Technologies to minimize exposure during transit and while on the surface of Mars must be developed beyond our current ability for colonization.

Mars is only about a third the size of Earth and has about a third of the gravity we are used to.  The long-term effects of low gravity and weightlessness are another challenge to colonization.  A number of medical conditions could develop for colonists, and there are currently no means to combat these conditions.

Medical care in transit or on Mars is also a challenge.  Humans are prone to illness and injury, and our bodies have evolved healing strategies that work well with Earth’s gravity, air pressure, and atmospheric makeup.  Effectively treating inevitable disease or damage will require us to develop ways to recreate those conditions, especially if surgery is necessary.

Building the colony structures on Mars presents similar challenges to building on the Moon.  Underground structures versus above ground structures, radiation shielding, energy production, life support and all the requirements for a sustainable human presence are the same.  Only the greater distance or Mars from Earth multiplies the cost, the time required and the possibility of loss.

In the final part of this article, we will compare and contrast a Lunar versus Martian colony.  Which one is most advantageous for a continued human presence in space and for the continuation of our species?  Those answers and a modest proposal from the author will sum up “Feasible Missions – Part Four”.

 

Feasible Missions – Part Two

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In the first part of this series, we briefly investigated the current obstacles to space exploration.  Now we will turn our attention once again to what we can do.  We have already demonstrated our ability to go to and return from the Moon, as well as deploy robotic missions to Mars.  To colonize the Moon or Mars, we will have to do much more than that, but the technology to go there and return already exists.

From the earliest days of the space race after World War Two, the Soviet space program and their American counterparts at NASA have planned and proposed permanent outposts throughout our solar system.  Most of those plans are beyond the scope of this article, but there are a few worth looking at.  A permanent base on the Moon appeared to be the next logical step in the American space program since the Apollo missions demonstrated our ability to put astronauts on the moon and bring them home.

The Soviet space program felt the same way and devised a plan to build just such a base years before their counterparts at NASA could beat them to it.  Known in declassified documents as the Zvezda Moonbase, the Soviets intended to use the installation first as a military command post then expanded the concept for future development of their unrealized Lunar Expeditionary Complex.  The goal overall was to create a sustainable human presence on the Moon before anyone else could, this was all part of the canceled N1-L3 lunar program overshadowed by the success of the American Apollo Program.

NASA also seriously studied building lunar outposts from the Project Horizon proposal to build a US Army fort in 1959, through the similar US Air Force Project Lunex in 1961, to a sub-surface base proposed in 1962 in the Sea of Tranquility.  None of those proposals went very far, and with the cancellation of Soviet lunar exploration plans, the urgency to build an outpost on the moon waned quickly.

New interest in lunar exploration and settlement has come about slowly but surely as more national space programs and commercial interests have developed around the world.  Robotic missions and new proposals from China, India, SpaceX, and Space Adventures has spurred a reevaluation of colonization of the Moon.  Even the European Space Agency has been studying where to place permanent outposts for decades.

All of these proposals take the good with the bad when it comes to outposts on the Moon.  On the one hand, the Moon is close to Earth, and we have over fifty years’ experience visiting, orbiting and returning from the Moon.  On the other hand, as one of my favorite books about colonizing the Moon warns, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.”  The Moon has long day and night cycles, temperature changes go from about -178 degrees Celsius to over 126 degrees Celsius between day and night, gravity there is about one-sixth of what we are used to on Earth, and the surface is awash in abrasive moon dust while it is constantly bombarded by radiation and micrometeoroids.

Most modern proposals for a colony (or colonies) on the Moon advocate for some kind of underground construction, either by covering the colony in lunar regolith (dust, soil, broken rock, and other materials) or finding and building in undiscovered lava tubes left over from long-dormant volcanic activity.  These methods provide increased protection from radiation, micrometeoroids and air leaks from the colony.  The tradeoff here is in increased construction complexity and potential difficulty in later expansion.

The alternative proposals are a variety of prefabricated surface modules, locally sourced modules constructed in-situ or a mixture of the two.  Any surface structures would still require increased shielding from radiation, micrometeoroid impacts, and temperature extremes.  Both the underground and surface options still have to contend with energy requirements through either solar or nuclear power or a blend of both.

In part three of this article, we will look at Martian colony options.

Feasible Missions – What can we do now?

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I believe like many others, that if humanity is to survive, let alone flourish, we need to expand beyond our home world.  We need to push beyond Earth’s orbit, to develop the technologies to live there and embrace the incentives to reach for the stars.  We have taken some steps along that path, but there is much more to do.

With what we can already do in mind, what are some feasible objectives for our current space programs?  Governments and private groups regularly send robotic probes and satellites into space.  We also have the international space station in orbit with dozens of supply and personnel missions to keep it flying.

What we do not have is a human effort beyond the safety of Earth’s orbit.  There are practical reasons for that, but we must overcome these obstacles if we are going to become a spacefaring civilization.  In the United States, the technical challenges have kept safety minded NASA from planning such missions.

The first two problems we face are radiation and impact damage.  Earth’s magnetic field and its Van Allen radiation belts provide protection to human spacecraft from all but the strongest radiation and larger space debris.  Beyond that envelope of protection, space is an unforgiving environment.

Radiation is everywhere in our solar system.  From the constant stream of the Sun’s solar wind, to bursts of x-rays, gamma rays and exotic particles flung in our direction from distant sources, there is no shortage of sources of exposure for spacecraft and their inhabitants.  The technical problem we face is how to mitigate the effects of that exposure over the course of the months or years a mission might take to complete.

Impact dangers are also a major concern for space travel.  Even a tiny particle, traveling at great speed can do significant damage to a spacecraft and the often-sensitive instruments onboard.  There are a few more ideas about impact mitigation than radiation, but the cost of producing such protection and sending enough of it into space to be effective has presented challenges too.

Beyond Earth’s protection, there are two real candidates for human habitation, Mars and the Moon.  Humans have already been to the Moon and back, but so far, we have only sent robotic missions to Mars.  For us to colonize either there are still many technical obstacles to overcome.

In order for us to live in any semblance of comfort, we need at the bare minimum:  Sustainable habitats, life support, food, and water.  For us to thrive on a new world we must do more than the bare minimum.  Historically, a few hardy pioneers often blaze a trail for the rest of us to follow.

Habitats have to provide protection from both radiation and impact damage, as well as extremes in temperature and very low or no outside atmospheric pressure.  Habitats are more than just shelter though; they also provide a place to work, to grow food, and to raise families.

Life support has to cover not only the immediate needs of air, food and water, but also the long-term needs for health and well-being.  While we cannot plan for every contingency, there are some things people will need.  Colonists will need health care, some of them from the cradle to the grave, without ever setting foot on mother Earth.

Growing food and recycling available water will be even more important to colonists than to those of us on Earth.  In addition to plants that exchange Co2 for oxygen, livestock for food and locally sourced medicines will be essential for long-term population growth.  Also, while there may be ice deposits throughout the solar system, recycling water that is already inside a colony is far easier than harvesting and processing more.

Part two of this article will examine the two most likely destinations for the first human colonies, The Moon and Mars.  We will also look at the proposed, “Deep Space Gateway Station” and what other infrastructure might be necessary to keep those colonies growing until they are self-sufficient.  The future of humans in space is still largely unwritten, but we can guess at a few trends if we continue down the path ahead.

Three Visions of Space

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If colonizing space is the inevitable future of humanity, the vision of that future is still taking shape.  So far, we have seen three evolving versions of Humankind in space in real life.  First, we saw a military style space race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America.  Then, the United States followed with a civilian space agency in reply.  Today, we also have a growing number of private space companies competing for access to what has always been the purview of nation-states.

Each of these versions of humans in space can achieve the goal of colonization, but each is also inherently different in the details of that effort and how best to achieve it.   Military, civilian or corporate, ah that is the question.  Which, if any is best for our species?  Perhaps the answer lies in how each approaches its goal.

The military option squarely focuses on command and control.  Every sensor, craft, pilot and passenger has a well-defined purpose, position and function.  Any deviation from the plan is cause for concern and a response proportionate to the danger posed by the deviation.  If the need arises, a dispassionate response can and will be executed as quickly as possible.  Emphasis on executed.

A civilian option, the kind the United States embraced for the last sixty years, mitigates the emphasis on control with an institutionalized emphasis on safety.  Redundant systems to prevent critical failures, payload protection to safeguard equipment, and above all else, crew safety is the focus of NASA and agencies like it around the world.  The main drawbacks of this approach are overly cautious designs, missions, astronauts and the changing leadership of the government that supports the agency.

With private companies taking a greater role in government space operations around the world, the third option open to our species is still in its infancy.  SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Bigelow Aerospace, and Virgin Galactic, are only a few of the notable corporations aspiring to a greater presence in human space flight.  These companies have specific goals and react quickly to emerging technologies to help them achieve those goals.  Their main obstacle so far has been the enormous amount of funding required for sustained profitable operations.

So then, we have distilled the three versions of military space operations, civilian government space agencies and private space companies into their core principles of control, safety and profit.  Which of these is best for the future of humanity in space?  Each has strengths in comparison to the others, but no single approach seems any better overall to advancing our species along the path to a multi-planet civilization.

Perhaps, and this is entirely from my personal experience having served in the military, experienced the bureaucracy of civilian government agencies, and having run a business, all three have a place in our future.  Each will continue to evolve as we develop the technology, infrastructure and the capability to explore and live beyond Earth’s atmosphere.  What that future looks like will likely be a blend of all three approaches and perhaps something else entirely that we can scarcely imagine today.

Rushing Into Space

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The future of our species, if we have one at all, will be beyond the pale blue sky we see every day.  To make that possibility a reality, there is much work, research, and development ahead.  Those who seize the chance to do that work now will prosper in ways we can only begin to imagine.

Survival – Man-made or natural disasters still threaten our existence.  A large stray space rock, a shaky finger on a nuclear arsenal, or any number of cataclysmic events could doom our species to extinction.  Colonizing other worlds would allow us to escape that fate.

Expansion – One of our basic human impulses is to expand.  We have expanded about as far as we can on Earth, the only ways to continue expanding is down into the crust or out into space.  The challenge of moving out into the vastness of space is in part, its own reward.  Conquering that challenge will also provide tangible benefits to everyone on Earth.

Resources – Our resources on Earth are finite, our planet only contains so many chemical, mineral and biological resources.  When those resources are exhausted, the civilization they support will inevitably collapse.  We can only expect sustainable growth by tapping the infinite resources space has to offer.  Two American based companies, Planetary Resources, and Deep Space Industries are leading a growing field of international private companies who are already tackling the technical and legal aspects of mining asteroids and near-Earth objects.

Research and Development – To achieve any lasting presence in space we need better ways to do things.  We must address practical techniques for resource extraction, reliable communications over longer distances than ever before, command and control functions, crew safety and environmental controls.  We must find solutions to all this and more before large-scale industrial applications can become a reality.

Technology – The space race spurred a new age of technological growth, far beyond the direct applications developed for space travel.  More research into longer duration space travel will do the same today.  Pushing the boundaries of existing and emerging technologies will have benefits on Earth that we can scarcely imagine right now.

Colonization – Humans face a number of challenges in colonizing Mars or the moon.  Radiation shielding, low or zero gravity and sustainable habitation are all technical hurdles we need to overcome to settle anywhere beyond our home world.

Exploration – Some of the greatest moments in human history embraced exploration of the unknown.  Sailing to the New World, circumnavigating the globe, or boldly going where no one has gone before have thrilled our species for millennia.  Losing that sense of discovery diminishes us as a people.

Economics – The practical implications of harvesting materials from space to improve conditions on Earth, or sustain a new habitat on another world are no small consideration.  Precious metals, unrefined construction materials and the raw materials for life are all abundantly available and almost within reach right here in our solar system.  The people who find a way to bring those materials to market will change the future of our species forever.

The future is now – read, research, and spread the word!