Welcome to Mock Mars, Utah

Paul Raven @ 29-09-2010

Reminiscent of the gang-in-a-can experiment in Russia (I wonder how that worked out in the end?), Wired UK reports briefly on six aspiring Mars missioneers (missionaries?) living in a cylindrical habitat out in the Utah desert to simulate the trials of daily human existence on the surface of the Red Planet, should we ever make it there. There’s another “Mars Analag Research Station” (see what they did there?) in the Canadian Arctic, and the Mars Society – unwilling to wait for beleaguered nation-state space budgets to recover sufficiently (if ever) to send out a manned mission – has plans for another in Iceland.

It strikes me that the obvious flaw with the MARS set-ups and the Russian mission sim linked above is that the participants know that it’s a sim; clomping around in spacesuits and eating spacesnax is all well and good, but if you know that you can remove the helmet or open the hatch in an emergency, you’re not really stress-testing the psychological issues properly. Ballard thought it through (of course), in a short story whose name I am presently unable to recall (or locate in a book, as my Collected Short Stories appears to be on vacation somewhere other than my bookshelves at present); anyone remember the one I’m thinking of? It featured a small (fake) generation ship rather than a Mars station, but the whole cabin-fever psychology thing felt spot-on during a recent re-read (no Suck Fairy damage in that one, though not all of Ballard’s early short stuff fares quite so well)…

Bonus content! Talking of Ballard and space, how’d you fancy seeing some Cold War dreams of space dominion decaying in a post-Soviet junkyard [via SlashDot]? How the mighty have fallen… but before you get too hubristic, that’s not far from the fate the Space Shuttles will suffer as museum pieces. Yesterday’s technological marvels and dream-vehicles are today’s salvage-hunt relics; this is something we’d all do well to remember, but will probably all forget.


Ice Fracture Explorer: theoretical model for a mission to Europa

Paul Raven @ 16-08-2010

Joseph Shoer of Quantum Rocketry doesn’t post all that often, but every now and again he puts out a gem. Here he is imagining what you’d need to do to put together a robotic mission to explore Europa, the Jovian moon that’s mostly ocean with a thick icy crust, complete with little diagrams of what the modules might look like:

As Jupiter rises overhead, its tides will pull apart the two sides of the ice fracture. The IFE will be suspended in the middle as the crack opens, with nothing below it until the ocean 1-10 km down! At this point, the IFE will drop its deflated cushions and begin to deploy a smaller penetrator vehicle from its underside. The penetrator is a small, two-stage vehicle with two instrument packages, a hard-shell body, and a data line connecting it to the IFE’s main bus.

Pure hard-SF space geekery of the best type. As Shoer points out, manned missions to Europa are pretty much a non-starter; even if we could get people there, the radiation would roast them pretty quickly. But throw some transhuman moravec explorers into the mix, and you’ve got the start of a great story…


Karl Schroeder deflates further Mars FUD

Paul Raven @ 02-11-2009

After dismantling the suggestion that a Mars mission is too inherently dangerous for humans to undertake, Karl Schroeder has a new targetScience Daily announces a paper that claims that we can’t go to Mars because the spacecraft will fill up with nasty bacteria and make everyone sick [via SlashDot]:

Frippiat and colleagues based their conclusions on studies showing that immune systems of both people and animals in space flight conditions are significantly weaker than their grounded counterparts. They also reviewed studies that examined the effects of space flight conditions and altered gravity on virulence and growth of common pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli and Staphylococcus. These studies show that these bacteria reproduce more rapidly in space flight conditions, leading to increased risk of contamination, colonization and serious infection.

The basic facts there are quite true, but they’re being deployed alongside some invidious assumptions, as Schroeder points out:

This doesn’t mean that space flight is intrinsically dangerous.  It means that badly shielded tin-can environments that aren’t spun for gravity are a bad idea.  And that is quite a different conclusion.

Prolonged exposure to zero gravity weakens the immune system, so don’t expose astronauts to prolonged zero gravity.  Invest in some research into how to spin the spacecraft.  Then spin the spacecraft.

Secondly, shield the damn things.  The only reason why radiation is considered an issue is because it’s expensive to transport heavy shielding into orbit. One solution would be to use lunar water; simply put bags of the stuff around the ship.  That makes it heavier and hence requires more fuel… but now the problem can be seen for what it is, a simple problem of launch costs.

Spaceflight is not bad for our health.  Cut-rate spaceflight that avoids the obvious solutions is.

Those obvious solutions are, of course, a function of the launch cost issue – there’s a solution for pretty much everything if you can just get the necessary hardware up into orbit, but that’s not an option while we’re constrained by the limitations of rocketry.

I suspect that we’ll get there eventually, provided we survive our short- to medium-term future. After all, sailing ships were almost impossible to keep disease-free at first, until some smart minds got focussed on fixing the problems – and the motives for those fixes were profit and colonial expansion, which are likely to be exactly the same factors that propel us out of the gravity well. Perhaps the commercial space operators will break out of the rocketry box, given the chance.


UK government to part-finance manned Mars mission?

Paul Raven @ 21-07-2009

marsI know, it sounds pretty far fetched – but evidently all this stirring talk of great achievements has gotten someone hot under the collar, as Wired UK gives the (apparently exclusive) news that the UK government may change its policy on funding contributions to the ESA in favour of supporting manned missions, possibly someday sending a Brit along on a manned mission to Mars:

… Drayson said that the review would not result in a larger budget for space research in the UK, but could reverse the country’s refusal to fund manned missions. He said the European Space Agency’s (ESA) selection of a British astronaut, Tim Peake, for its astronaut training programme and the agency’s work towards a mission to Mars would help to capture the public imagination.

[…]

To date, the UK has only supported robotic explorations in space, and stipulated that the £180 million that it pays towards the work of ESA is not used for manned space programmes. As a result, the first Briton in space, Helen Sharman, travelled to the Mir space station on a Soviet rocket in 1991 as part of a privately funded mission. Other Britons who have also reached space did so by changing their nationality to become American or by going as space tourists with Russian space shuttles.

Drayson hopes to change this stance, but acknowledged that any UK manned mission would be the result of a collaboration with other nations. “Reaching Mars will be a huge scientific challenge but it won’t be done without a global effort,” he said.

The consultation will also look at whether the current UK space body, British National Space Centre (BNSC), should be replaced by a new British space agency. Drayson suggested that the new agency will be called Her Majesty’s Space Agency.

HMSA… sounds like something from an as-yet-unwritten Warren Ellis comic. Who knows what will actually come of it – the UK government will say anything that they think has a hope of raising a smile at the moment – but it’s quite gratifying to think that we might get involved more seriously with space exploration. Sadly I’m now way too old and unfit to even consider revitalising my childhood dream of being an astronaut… I doubt they’d need a blogger, anyway. *sigh* [image from Physorg]

But hey, I’ll bet Paul McAuley’s pretty stoked by the news; only yesterday, he was suggesting that a Mars mission should be reinstated as a long term goal for human space exploration:

Not because it’s easy; because it’s hard. Not because the Russians (or Chinese) might get there first. Cold War imperatives like that died when the Berlin Wall came down. No, we should send an international mission, for all humankind.

[…]

Impossibly ambitious? Foolishly optimistic? Maybe. A waste of money better spent on problems right here on Earth? These guys don’t think so. And hey, there are always going to be problems here on Earth, and most of the money will stay right here, employing an army of specialists and engineers, stimulating new technologies. There’s been a large amount of looking back, these past weeks, and regret for what might have been, if the Apollo programme hadn’t been abandoned. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

And, as pointed out at The Guardian, there’d be no shortage of volunteers for a manned Mars mission, even if it were made plain that it was a one-way ticket:

“You would find no shortage of volunteers,” said John Olson, Nasa’s director of exploration systems integration. “It’s really no different than the pioneering spirit of many in past history, who took the one-way trip across the ocean, or the trip out west across the United States with no intention of ever returning.”

[…]

Nasa is currently bound by Kennedy’s directive to bring its astronauts home, Olson said. But the other nations rapidly developing space programmes may shed the constraint, as could the commercial companies that may supplant national efforts. “Space is no longer for power and prestige; it’s truly for economic benefit,” the Apollo 11 flight director Eugene Kranz said. “The technology that emerges from high-risk, high-profile, extremely difficult missions is the technology that will keep the economic engine of our nation continuing to go through the years.”

With currently foreseeable technology, a round trip to Mars launched from a lunar outpost would take two to three years – a journey of six to nine months each way and a year-long mission on the surface.

If I was even close to meeting the selection criteria, I’d volunteer without a second thought.

But in the meantime, while we’re stuck here on Earth, how about a little mood music, eh? This video features a bootleg recording of Pink Floyd’s lost “lunar landing jam”, which they played out live as part of the BBC’s covergae of the Apollo landings [thanks to DailySwarm]. Get yer interplanetary blues on…


Travel to Mars… without ever leaving the parking lot

Paul Raven @ 31-03-2009

MarsSo, do you think you could cope with the cramped conditions and prison psychology that would be an inevitable part of a manned mission to Mars and back?

Well, here’s the test – we’ll lock you in a fake space capsule that’s sitting in a parking lot somewhere outside of Moscow for about a hundred days with five other people and watch you through cameras to see how you get on.

The idea is for the 550 cubic-metre “ground exploration complex” (GEC) to recreate as closely as possible the atmosphere of a spacecraft racing through the solar system, bombarded by cosmic radiation. Any return flight to Mars – at least 34 million miles from our planet – would take between 18 months and three years, including landing and exploration.

The volunteers – four Russians, a French airline pilot and a German army engineer – will be kept under constant camera surveillance to record the physical and psychological impact of their time in the isolation chamber.

Isn’t this lifted wholesale from a J G Ballard story? You’re surely going to get some industrial-grade cabin fever going on…

Mark Belokovksy of the IMBP admitted the psychological pressure of living in close quarters with five other human beings could crack even the toughest guinea pigs.

“Tension is inevitable,” he said candidly. The fact the 105-day “flight” will be a single-sex trip on this occasion may be a blessing. During a similar experiment in 1999 the participants were given vodka to celebrate New Year’s Eve: two members then got in a fist fight after one tried to kiss a female volunteer from Canada.

Yeesh; the green-eyed monster in outer space, no less. I wonder where I can find details about that Canadian experiment – I’m curious to know whether the women fared any better at the isolation than the men did. Would an all-female crew be more stable, or less? How about a crew of eunuchs?

But if you’ll permit me a brief flight of fancy, mashing up this story with that half-remembered Ballard piece and the Moon hoax conspiracy theories: I wonder if it would be possible for a government with sufficient space capability to run an entirely faked CGI Mars mission that fooled everyone, even the cosmonauts themselves? [image by jasonb42882]


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