Hot on the heels of Elon Musk and his SpaceX company’s grand plan to inhabit Mars, President Obama and NASA reminded the scientific world it too has a designs to inhabit the red planet – though at perhaps a far more deliberate pace than Musk wants.
“We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America's story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time. Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we're already well on our way. Within the next two years, private companies will for the first time send astronauts to the International Space Station,” Obama wrote in an editorial for CNN this week. “The next step is to reach beyond the bounds of Earth's orbit. I'm excited to announce that we are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space. These missions will teach us how humans can live far from Earth -- something we'll need for the long journey to Mars.”
The White House pointed to a couple key activities already taking place or soon will
The first is that NASA has asked the private sector how it might use an available docking port on the ISS. One of the potential uses of such a port would be preparation for one or more future commercial stations in Low Earth Orbit, ready to take over for the Space Station once its mission ends in the 2020s.
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“The private sector responded enthusiastically, and those responses indicated a strong desire by U.S. companies to attach a commercial module to the ISS that could meet the needs of NASA as well as those of private entrepreneurs,” Wrote John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and NASA chief Charles Bolden in a NASA blogpost today. “As a result of the responses, this fall, NASA will start the process of providing companies with a potential opportunity to add their own modules and other capabilities to the International Space Station. While NASA prepares for the transition from the Space Station to its successors, the agency is also working to support and grow the community of scientists and entrepreneurs conducting research and growing businesses in space.”
The second is the development of deep space habitats. In August NASA picked six companies -- Boeing, Bigelow, Lockheed Martin, Orbital, Sierra Nevada and NanoRacks -- to develop prototype deep space habitats that astronauts could somewhat comfortably live in on long space journeys – particularly to Mars. The habitats are part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, which is developing all manner of deep space systems from advanced propulsion to satellites.
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According to NASA, an effective habitat contains “pressurized volume plus an integrated array of complex systems and components that include a docking capability, environmental control and life support systems, logistics management, radiation mitigation and monitoring, fire safety technologies, and crew health capabilities.”
NASA said the six companies would have about 24 months to develop ground prototypes and/or conduct concept studies for deep space habitats. NASA has estimated the combined total of all the awards, covering work in 2016 and 2017, will be approximately $65 million, with additional funding continuing into 2018. Selected partners are required to contribute at least 30% of the cost of the overall proposed effort, the space agency said.
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“NASA is on an ambitious expansion of human spaceflight, including the Journey to Mars, and we’re utilizing the innovation, skill and knowledge of both the government and private sectors,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems in a statement. “The next human exploration capabilities needed beyond the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule are deep space, long duration habitation and in-space propulsion. We are now adding focus and specifics on the deep space habitats where humans will live and work independently for months or years at a time, without cargo supply deliveries from Earth.”
Indeed Bolden’s comments somewhat reflect what Musk said in announcing his Mars plan. “The goal is to make going to Mars seem possible, something we can do in our lifetimes,” Musk said.
The details of the SpaceXmission, known as the Interplanetary Transport System are much more daunting than the plan NASA puts forth. First, Musk’s said the mission needs a massive booster system and spacecraft (think a ship north of 416ft tall and 55ft in diameter – NASA’s Apollo mission rocket, Saturn 5 was 363 ft. tall) that would be capable of carrying about 100 people and their luggage to the Red planet. Musk ultimately wants to send 200 people per flight to eventually lower the cost which could start at $200,000 per person. He also envisions thousands of space trips that would ultimately colonize Mars with 1 million people.
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