Science Column: Earth to NASA–Do You Copy?

I became a NASA groupie at the tender age of eight. I can’t remember exactly what it was that sparked my interest, but I distinctly remember that I was obsessed. I loved my Lego “Life on Mars” kit to no end and convinced my mom to paint a massive reddish-brown Martian volcano on my wall, complete with a legion of hovering U.F.O.’s. (it went over more favorably than my original request for pitch black walls plastered with glow-in-the-dark stars). The first story that I ever wrote was a tribute to my ultimate fantasy of going to the Red Planet in a makeshift spacecraft and having perilous encounters with ray gun-wielding aliens. When I told amused adults that I would grow up to be one of the first astronauts to land on Mars, I was dead serious.

My interests swayed to a long foray with marine biology beginning in the sixth grade, but that did not change the fact that I was royally pissed when NASA put an end to its shuttle program in 2011. During my childhood, the image of the space shuttle had become synonymous with space exploration and the thrill of unfolding the secrets of the universe, so naturally my gut reaction to the news was that the legacies of astronauts like Neil Armstrong and John Glenn had come to a screeching halt. Apparently my anxiety was shared by the NASA higher-ups; former NASA administrator Michael Griffin feared that “we’re going to have a reverse brain drain. It used to be that people came from other places and other industries to work in the space program because of what it meant and what it was. And as it goes away, we’re going to lose those people because talented folks go where there are tough problems. And that’s not going to be good for the country.”

NASA has undoubtedly hit a bit of a lull when it comes to manned space exploration; after all, the last time it put a man on the moon was 1972. However, it has big plans to finally carry out that long-awaited mission to Mars in the 2030s—and discontinuing the shuttle program might actually help it make this next giant leap for mankind. The old shuttles were iconic, but they were also expensive to maintain, and they were not going to be the craft capable of shipping humans all the way to Mars. Without the burden of the shuttle program, NASA can now devote its resources to developing the necessary technology for such an ambitious project. Furthermore, NASA is now benefiting from the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative established in 2009, which permits it to collaborate with commercial American space technology companies. SpaceX, a company created in 2002 with the ultimate goal of developing technological innovations to allow humans to live on other planets, has been NASA’s most successful private sector collaborator; it has developed an unmanned craft that is currently used to transport equipment to and from the space station, and they are working on a similar model for low-Earth orbit that will hold a crew of seven people.

Maybe the headlines haven’t been abuzz with NASA news as of late, but its dreams of interplanetary exploration are anything but dead. However, if it wants to make that 2030s timeframe it’s really going to have to bust a move. According to an article in Space.com, NASA will have to be able to deliver about 40 metric tons to the Martian surface in one smooth landing; its best so far is one metric ton. Not to mention that the technology necessary to convert Martian resources into essentials like water and oxygen hasn’t been developed yet. Then there’s the issue of shielding the astronauts from harmful radiation…engineers will have to get on that one, too. Nevertheless, people are pretty stoked about the prospect of the human race setting foot on an alien planet sometime in the not-so-distant future. At a recent summit, NASA Chief Charles Bolden said “interest in sending humans to Mars has never been higher. We now stand on the precipice of a second opportunity to press forward to what I think is man’s destiny — to step onto another planet.”

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