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  • Discussing Challenges in Making a Manned Mars Mission a Reality
    Posted by Heather Goss 5:36 PM on Apr 11, 2011

    Last week, space industry experts gathered at George Washington University for a two day conference exploring the possibilities in using the International Space Station to prepare for a trip to Mars, sponsored by the Space Policy Institute and Explore Mars.  NASA Administrator Charles Bolden set the tone in his keynote address, noting that such a venture to the red planet “will never be a low-risk venture,” but that “we have an incredible opportunity to turn the clock back” to the 1970s, when our next step after the moon landings was hoped to reach far beyond Earth.

    The dominant challenge was made clear: achieving autonomy and flexibility in space operations. While not all of the tech necessary has been developed, most panelists were confident these were not insurmountable obstacles, given the continued motivation to develop them at least.  The real issue is turning operations from one where ground control plans every minute of an astronauts’ day and is consulted on every blinking light, to one where astronauts develop the skills to make these decisions themselves, without approval.

    Developing this autonomy is critical due to communications delays once astronauts stray far from home.  Depending on the planets’ positions, this delay could be anywhere from four to over 20 minutes, one way, making it impossible for ground control to have a say in urgent situations. On this point, many panelists noted that this requires moving away from “task-based” knowledge to “skill-based” knowledge to be more self-sufficient. Unlike human physiology and much of the hardware, this is one of the more difficult things to model on the ISS.  Well, not difficult, practically speaking, but difficult in that it requires ground control to snip the umbilical cord and trust that the astronauts can fly successfully on their own.  The ISS managers are, however, planning a week-long simulated mission to Mars, which Aviation Week’s Frank Morring wrote about on our subscription site.

    Of course, there are still other challenges aside from developing a new mental space for every day operations.  One is creating a new governance platform, which policy experts from NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency and SPI tackled in the last panel of the conference.  Throughout the day it was emphasized that a Mars mission must be one embraced by Earth as a planet, and as such, the governance model needs to be inclusive and flexible.  A Mars agreement can draw much from the current ISS agreement, such as the written intent that the agreement “shall evolve” and its constructive ambiguity (e.g. “peaceful purposes”) that allows countries to take home definitions that appeal to their constituencies but still work together with the ISS partners towards a shared goal. But a Mars agreement must also go further, allowing for extremely flexible and open inclusion of new partners -- a situation that was tested to varying degrees of success when the Russians eventually joined the ISS agreement.  In a parallel to the development of the actual mission, Andreas Diekmann of the ESA noted that the “hard part is not the governance model, but developing the common political vision and will.”

    Whether it was the intent or not, our psychological will was certainly the overarching theme.  Yes, we still may face challenges in developing propulsion systems, life support, Mars’ surface mobility and resource utilization, to name a few, but these are all projects being actively worked on by numerous government and industry entities.  The difficulty is becoming ready as a people, as a species, to make the break from our home planet, even if it’s just a tiny handful of people right now.  During a break between panels, a couple of fellows near me were discussing how close they felt a Mars mission was to becoming a reality, and they noted that while R&D seems to be coming along fine, “still, look around. Look at those faces in there. These people aren’t ready.”

    Tags: os99, mars, ISS, SpacePolicyInstitute

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