NASA Astronaut Hints at Space Program’s New Ambition: Mars

Category: Science / Aug 18, 2011 11:44AM EDT
With the space shuttle program now fully drawn to a close, it seems plans of a much more ambitious nature are taking shape and likely have been for a while. With future low-orbit endeavors slated to be farmed out to private companies, NASA may be embarking on a whole new adventure in the very near future that may very well involve a manned mission to Mars. And according to NASA astronaut Rex Walheim, who was the mission specialist and flight engineer aboard the final space shuttle mission, a trip to the Red Planet is necessary to truly determine if there has ever been life on Mars. At a community event held by NASA in New York City on Wednesday, Walheim explained to the Huffington Post how clues pointing to the potentiality of life on the planet have been adding up and that those clues coupled with the fact that Mars has a very similar planetary system to ours is making a trip of this nature almost an inevitable looming reality. While missions of this magnitude may still seem more science fiction than fact to some, the latest talk certainly seems to be blasting a Mars mission much closer into view, and the fact is that preliminary work for missions of this type have been in the works since the 1950s. And in a speech delivered in April of last year, President Obama confidently proclaimed the likelihood of a new era of spacecraft designed for deep space exploration by 2025 as well as the probability of humans orbiting Mars by the mid-2030s, though the way NASA has been talking we may see this eventuality much sooner than later. That being said, certain key challenges will have to be overcome before plans are set in motion and the majority of them are related to the human experience in deep space. They include issues such as the physical effects of exposure to high-energy cosmic rays and other ionizing radiation, the physical effects of a prolonged low-gravity environment, the physical effects of a prolonged low-light environment, the effects of isolation from Earth, the psychological effects born out of an absence of community and real-time connections, and the inaccessibility of terrestrial medical facilities. A host of technical issues will also need to be overcome related to fuel, propulsion, and the energy required to transfer between orbits. And according to the experts, a round trip expedition to Mars would likely span somewhere between 400 and 450 days, which would certainly take a toll on astronauts.