(NOTE: The pictures and information used in this article came from a mission plan ('DRM' in NASA terms) that was once available on the internet in a PDF. The link no longer works, but the plan was drawn up by JPL and two US universities, and is a basic rendition on how they will eventually get men to Mars. I was lucky enough to save a copy, which I have to this day.)
When this author contacted NASA regarding whether the dates are accurate in NASA's Mars plan, they waffled a bit, saying it might take a little longer. Still, you never know.
You just knew they had something in mind for the International Space Station besides studying the weather and sending really nice pictures back to Earth. In fact, the ISS is critical in NASA's plan to land astronauts on Mars in less than sixteen years. While space buffs have been arguing back and forth about whether we have the money (yes, they're spreading out the costs over several years) or how we should get there (NASA says 'no' to the Apollo-type 'Mars Direct' idea), there is already a solid mission plan in place. This mission plan was developed by NASA, the San Jose State University, Lockheed-Martin, and of course, The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. It generally relies on proven technologies and methods from previous Mars missions. It is an INTERNATIONAL mission, with several space agencies slated to participate, and the ISS is absolutely key to their plan.
Here are the basics:
1 - The Robotic Supply Missions - Two 'Energia Heavy-Lift' rockets (see picture) will be used to transport two separate cargo modules up to the International Space Station. One module contains the living habitat for the astronauts, three rovers capable of traveling up to 500km from the landing site, and other supplies. The second module is the Mars Ascent Vehicle, which is what the astronauts will use to return to their main spacecraft in Mars orbit once the mission is complete. The plan is to get these items to the ISS, do final assembly and testing there, and then launch them out of Earth orbit toward Mars. Before this happens, two communications satellites will be sent into orbit around Mars, to provide additional communication between the Mars crew and Earth. In the event the Energia is not available, they will use a similar rocket, or perhaps a newer design.
2 - Actual Voyage to Mars by the Crew - Two more Energia boosters will be used to get the main spacecraft up to the ISS. This main 'crew transfer' spacecraft is basically a rocket and a living habitat. Final testing and some assembly will be done on the ISS. This idea of getting the heavy-lift items up to the ISS first, and then preparing them on-site for the Mars mission solves the fuel load problem. It is much easier to send a spacecraft on to Mars if it is already in Earth orbit. These items can also be checked and tested thoroughly at the ISS, to ensure they still work after the stresses of an Earth launch. This is also the reason why NASA decided against the popular 'Mars Direct' plan, which was basically a larger version of Apollo. Too much fuel would be required to send one large spacecraft directly to Mars from the ground.
On October 17, 2024 this Crew Transfer Vehicle (with six astronauts on board) will blast out of Earth orbit for a 180-day trip to Mars. When it arrives in Mars orbit, the crew will do a rendezvous in space with one of the cargo modules, the one containing their Mars living quarters and the landing vehicle. (The other module, the one containing the craft for getting back into Mars orbit, will already be on the ground at their landing site.) They transfer to this orbiting module and make their landing on April 15, 2025.
Already waiting for them will be several items from the first cargo module: One pressurized rover (which can be used as a 'safe haven' if necessary), two smaller unpressurized rovers, the Mars Ascent Vehicle and its fuel-generating equipment, and other items. The MAV comes with a device that uses its own hydrogen feedstock fuel and carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere to create even more fuel. This methane-based fuel will power the rovers, fill the tanks on the ascent vehicle, and create as by-products - water and oxygen. The astronauts will not have to transfer this Mars-made fuel themselves. The fuel-production system is mostly automatic, for safety reasons. In case of an emergency after the landing, the astronauts will not be stuck on the surface. If necessary, they can cut the mission short and use the hydrogen feedstock fuel to launch the MAV into orbit. If everything on the ground is okay, then the feedstock fuel can be used to begin methane fuel production - enabling a much longer stay on the ground.
3 - The Surface Mission - Part 1 - NASA decided that the most historic, and the safest landing site for a first mission would be the same place where the Viking 1 lander touched down in 1976. This is Chryse Planatia, at 22.5 degrees W. and 47.8 degrees N. It is somewhat near the Martian equator, and less subject to dust storms and other atmospheric hazards. Once down, the astronauts will assess the situation at the landing site, especially all the equipment that was sent previously. There should be no surprises, as NASA will be monitoring the operations of everything on the ground long before the astronauts actually arrive. As previously noted, their Mars Ascent Vehicle would be ready for an immediate take-off, using the hydrogen fuel feedstock that is actually slated to produce more methane fuel for a longer mission. But in the event of a problem, the astronauts can still stay on the surface for about 62 days without additional methane-based fuel. If everything on the ground checks out, the astronauts will settle in for a maximum 565-day stay on the Red Planet.
4 - The Surface Mission - Part 2 - The astronauts will live in their surface habitat, a metal cylinder about 22 feet in diameter, with two floors, and 900 square meters of total size. (See picture) The first floor is mission-oriented, with a small lab, communications gear, exercise room, and storage space. The upper floor contains individual quarters for the crew and a common meeting area.
During their stay, the astronauts will be exploring the planet in the rovers, selecting soil and rock samples, looking for water and life, and performing hundreds of scientific experiments. If they are able to stay for the maximum length of the mission, they will finally board their Mars Ascent Vehicle with everything they've collected and blast off from Mars on or about October 2, 2026.
5 - The Voyage Home - After the crew makes rendezvous in Mars orbit with the main transfer vehicle, they will jettison the MAV and head for home. One hundred and eighty days later, they will either use their Earth Return Capsule to do a splashdown off the Florida coast, or rendezvous with the International Space Station. NASA is leaning more toward the second option, since they believe it is the safer method. However, they also say it is good to have a backup plan - just in case.
In a general sense, there are some good reasons for launching such a mission. The Mars Rovers, the Orbiter, and the recent Phoenix lander have all verified that Mars has water. This makes the idea of life on the Red Planet a real possibility, although it is unlikely there is life on the surface. At one time in the past, Mars was covered in shallow seas, and though they are long gone, vast ice deposits exist on the planet. Life could still exist underground. Other pictures have shown that liquid water occasionally upwells to the surface, flows for a short distance, and then evaporates into the thin Martian atmosphere. There is also weather on Mars, with clouds, wind, fog and ice all a part of the environment.
Such a mission would also encourage people to show an interest in math and the sciences again - something this planet needs to help solve its ever-increasing global problems. On a larger scale, it is historic and another step on our way to extending the reach of man beyond the home planet.
Submitted by Robert M. Blevins, author of the first-mission-to-Mars novel, The 13th Day of Christmas.