Ending the reliance on Earth for resources during space missions is essential for the success of the manned Mars mission, according to Sam Scimemi, NASA’s director of the International Space Station.
Introduced as “Mr ISS” this morning at the final day of the Humans 2 Mars conference in Washington DC, Scimemi explained how several logistical and technological issues needed to be tackled and tested before such a mission could take place.
“There are no flowers on the road to Mars,” said Scimemi, adding that parties with a vested interest in the Mars mission needed to be careful about what they wanted from it.
“If the goal is getting to Mars, and eventually getting to the surface… how we actually do that is a matter of how much money we have and what are our technical and human health risks,” he added.
At present we are “earth reliant”, meaning that all space missions are tied to the earth for communications, crew supplies, hardware, emergency return on crew and, of course, rubbish disposal.
“The simulations that we do on station are all reliant on these things,” explained Scimemi. “And we’re trying to learn how to break these connections to the earth in our simulations, in our research, in our technology development.
The aim is to go from a situation where we are “car camping in space” to a scenario where the only connection the spacecraft has to earth is a communications link with a delay of up to 42 minutes.
The key to breaking this reliance is the research and development being undertaken at the International Space Station.
“The two major things we have going on is our life support system, and the upgrades to that to be able to build the next Mars life support system, and our crew health research and our crew performance systems development,” said Scimemi, adding that crew support activities and vehicle activities such as rendez-vous and docking were also being researched, alongside Mars simulations.
From here, NASA is looking to break the chain of logistics and, as a result, reduce the day-to-day reliance on Earth. This should mean that the time spent out of communication with Earth should grow, which in turn should enable further distances to be travelled.
The challenge of maintaining crew health and performance is essential to this. In particular, issues such as food supplies and health assistance need to be addressed carefully, and NASA needs to develop an effective system to provide emergency care if it is required.
Other factors include the development of reliable and low-maintenance life support systems and ensuring adequate performance from the crew throughout the mission time.
For Scimemi, all of these factors must be resolved before a Mars mission can be tackled.
He believes the best way to ensure that the space agency is ready for such missions beyond low-earth orbit is to combine the technologies and solutions developed to break ties with Earth in a shakedown cruise: a test run in cis-lunar space (the area the moon’s orbit covers) where any issues can be safely resolved.