NASA official shares plans for human exploration of Mars

November 4, 2016

NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman outlined the agency’s plan to put humans on Mars in a seminar hosted by the Department of Aerospace Engineering on Wednesday.

The plan has three phases and focuses on collaboration and intellectual diversity. The first phase, which is currently underway, involves testing long-term space flight and its effect on astronauts. The next phase is venturing out into deep space, such as with missions to the moon and to test life support and propulsion systems. These missions will be within a few days of Earth in case something goes wrong, but they will be practice for the third phase, which involves actually sending humans to Mars. This phase must be completely independent of Earth, Newman said.

“Thinking about Mars as a horizon goal, what do we have to learn?” Newman said. “What technologies can we invest in today to demonstrate what we need to learn for future exploration? There are a lot of challenges — that’s why we don’t just go there right away.”

The goal is to keep sending robotic explorers, such as rovers, during the 2020s in order to gather as much data as possible to prepare for sending humans to Mars in the 2030s, Newman said. She said the first human mission to Mars will cover more range in the first month than all of the U.S. rovers and landers have explored in the past 50 years of Mars missions.

Ryan Russell, UT associate professor of aerospace engineering, said there are still a lot of developments necessary before humans can go to Mars, such as technologies to protect astronauts from radiation exposure in space. Space flight is also risky, even for robots, and many robotic Mars missions have failed, such as when the European ExoMars lander crashed on Mars last month, he said.

“The batting average is not a thousand, so anytime you talk about putting humans in the loop, you have to spend the extra investment to increase the likelihood of success,” Russell said.

Electrical engineering sophomore Michael Koenig, who attended the talk, said he finds the idea of exploring Mars interesting.

“I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know before about NASA and space exploration,” Koenig said. “As far as whether we can do it or not, it hasn’t been done yet, so I’m not sure about that. It sounds like a good thing to pursue.”

Russell said in the short term, the biggest benefit of sending people to Mars is for scientific discoveries and exploration.

“In the here and now, I think the main advantage is inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers,” Russell said.

Newman said that in order to meet these challenges, the traditional focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics needs to be expanded to include art and design to look at problems more holistically. She pointed to the artists who have created images of the moon and, more recently, newly discovered exoplanets, as examples of ways that artistic fields have helped the spaceflight industry.

“The artists have always been with us at NASA,” she said. “Art and science go together hand-in-hand, and engineering and design go together hand-in-hand. Our problems and our challenges are so large that we need everybody.”

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