Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin recently outlined its technological road map to Mars, detailing the precise steps required to send a manned science lab from Earth into orbit around the red planet, via the Moon, and as early as the year 2028.
At the same time, Elon Musk’s SpaceX presented its own longer-term goal of establishing a permanent Martian outpost on the planet’s surface. Faced with the most ambitious and challenging space exploration project ever undertaken by humankind, it’s hard not to feel a smidge incredulous about the whole thing. Public interest in space exploration hasn’t been this high since the Apollo missions, but it’s also never seemed like such brazen science-fiction.
“It’s really real,” says Rob Chambers, who’s worked at Lockheed Martin since 1993 on a variety of Space Systems Company programs. “It’s important to remember that we’ve been at Mars since 1976 [the year Viking 1 touched down], and Lockheed has worked with NASA on every orbiter and lander that’s gone there. So Mars is in our DNA, and we firmly believe we can set up an orbital base camp in ten years. All of the technology required already exists – we like to say we’re closer to Mars today than we were to the Moon in ‘61.”
Central to Lockheed Martin’s grand mission is the Mars Base Camp, an orbital laboratory that will serve as home to a crew of interplanetary scientists, and act as a jumping off point for later explorations of the surface itself. From orbit above Mars, scientists can assume near-instant control of rovers and flying drones, allowing them to do exponentially more science and research. Our current methods of remotely piloting these robots from Earth involves a 20 minute time delay and slow, meticulous planning.
“From orbit you can cover a lot more ground each day,” says Chambers. “You can drop a relatively cheap UAV into the Martian sky, and just skirt over to a different part of the continent to follow your learnings in real-time and immediately react to new discoveries. The potential of having scientists in orbit is immense.”
Mars Base Camp will be comprised of four main sections, powered by four large solar arrays and propelled into a stable orbit by two cryogenic propulsion stages. On board will be six scientist-astronauts who, over the course of a three year mission, will obliterate the record for most time spent in space. “If you look at the orbital mechanics of it, the best route to Mars will take about six to nine months,” says Chambers. “And once we’re there we’ll spend about a year or two in orbit, and then another six to nine months coming back.
We can achieve more in this one mission than we have in the 40 years leading up to it.
“We refer to the whole thing as a three year mission, or a 1000-day mission, depending on whether we want it to sound short or long. In either case it’s an unprecedented amount of time to have this many highly trained scientists in space. We can achieve more in this one mission than we have in the 40 years leading up to it.”
By a very long margin, this would be the longest space mission ever undertaken, and as such the adverse physical effects of life in zero-gravity are expected to be pronounced. Though, as Chambers points out, decades of experience and research in Earth orbit has prepared NASA and its contractors for most of the weirder side-effects. “One of the biggest ones you hear about is the eye-shape changing and affecting vision, but NASA is working on a few ways to mitigate that,” says Chambers.
Interstellar-inspired, spinning spaceships would actually work and have been considered, he says, though the benefits outweigh the costs. Zero-gravity, it turns out, just isn’t that bad for you. “You could always, if you chose to, put a little bit of a spin on the craft during deep space travel in order to generate apparent gravity, but we’ve had several astronauts in low Earth orbit for over a year with no serious consequences to health. We’re more worried about solar radiation. We’re protected from solar flares in low Earth orbit by the planet’s magnetic field, but in deep space we need specialised radiation storm shelters for the astronauts to retreat to.
“Of course, what we’re going to find over the course of this mission is a bunch of stuff we didn’t think about. That’s where the engineering challenges will come in,” says Chambers, “and that’s what will make things fun as opposed to a boring slam dunk.”
The roadmap to Mars involves one important pit-stop along the way, as NASA plans to use the Moon as an effective training and staging area for extended missions to Mars and beyond. The Deep Space Gateway is the proposed cislunar (ie. the space between the Earth and the Moon) station on which both NASA and Russia’s Roscosmos agency can build and test the systems they’ll need for longer-term missions, including Mars Base Camp and the next-gen Orion capsule that Chambers helped to design.
As for Elon Musk’s idea of a village on Mars? Most would doubt it becoming a reality, but folks like Chambers says it’s a matter of when, not if.
“Eventually we’re going to have to get off the planet. As humans we have a powerful impulse to explore, and if our planet faces an existential threat it will pay to not have all of our eggs in an Earth-basket. It’s definitely a horizon goal, but it’s going to happen eventually.”