To the moon, Mars and beyond

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During the 32nd Space Symposium, business networking and deals transpired while industry professionals discussed the latest news in the aerospace industry — unpacking the question: How much closer are humans to visiting the Red Planet?

The Next Generation of Space Leaders: Human Space Flight Panel included leaders from NASA, Boeing, SpaceX and The European Space Agency, who discussed international collaboration, as well as the private and public partnerships needed to overcome the Mars challenge.

Other challenges to be faced: perform further biomedical research to explore the effects of extended time in space on the human body, create advanced environmental control systems for long-duration human missions and Solar Electric Propulsion engines to reduce fuel mass and provide robust power for robotic and crewed missions past low-Earth orbit.

But why Mars?

William Gerstenmaier, administrator of human exploration and operations at NASA, pointed out that the carbon dioxide and radiation levels on Mars are good; its geology is significant; and it’s the first opportunity to see if humans can live away from Earth. NASA is already preparing for its first human mission to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

One huge challenge: breathable air.

“A crew would need 20 tons of oxygen from the atmosphere,” he said.

Water might not be a problem, however. Last year NASA confirmed evidence of liquid water flowing on Mars, detected from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, using an imaging spectrometer.

Other reasons for exploring away from the home planet would be to grow the economy, create jobs and find a second home in case of a crisis on Earth.

“We can explore with business underpinning it,” said George Whitesides, chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic. “There are commercial markets we can support each step of the way. There is a huge market for people who want to go to space, whether it’s for the view or to go into orbit.”

At least 18,000 applications have been submitted for astronaut positions, according to Laurence Price, Orion deputy program manager at Lockheed Martin.

But should the moon be a pit stop before the nearly 34 million-mile journey to Mars?

NASA seems to think so, as well as other organizations such as XPRIZE and the European Space Agency.

One argument is that space agencies and private businesses shouldn’t put all their money and resources on a single prize: Mars. Instead, they should conduct testing on the moon first, which is a three-day trip from Earth, opposed to a six-month expedition to Mars. That way, crews would use less fuel and make sure hardware is reliable.

On the flip side, some think a lunar mission would be a waste of time — there are few resources and little to be gained, so the argument goes.

NASA’s next destination is apparent — the far side of the moon — with officials reiterating plans to move out of low-Earth orbit and allow commercial industries to take control of it.

Boeing is building a commercial human spacecraft called “Starliner” at the Kennedy Space Center and is expected to begin hauling astronauts to the International Space Station within two years.

Aside from differing opinions and developments, panelists were in consensus about the excitement for young professionals surrounding the space industry.

“We’re living in a unique time for space exploration,” Lockheed Martin’s Price said. “Things are developing in parallel, and companies want to push the envelope. There is stability in the field, with government confidence in companies to explore the solar system.”

Whitesides added that competition is driving more access to space and lowering costs for space travel.

“There will be a time when there are more people living off planet Earth,” he said.

In the meantime, leaders at the symposium focused on conserving resources through collaborating for future space exploration.

Gerstenmaier reminded the audience of the need for partnerships with a Nelson Mandela quote: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” n CSBJ

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