Spaceflight Insider

NASA officials, astronauts outline NASA’s crewed Mars efforts at NASA Glenn event

NASA Glenn Event

Photo Credit: Michael Cole / SpaceFlight Insider

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Visitors from large and small technology-based businesses and organizations were treated to a first-hand update on NASA’s effort to put humans on Mars during NASA Glenn Technology Day at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, last Tuesday. 

“I think we are a nation of explorers and a nation of discoverers,” said Stephen Jurczyk, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “Both the robotic and human exploration of Mars is going to drive scientific knowledge, drive the limits of our engineering, and drive our technologies.”

The Mars exploration topic was of great interest to the event’s attendees—an assemblage of commercial aerospace and technology representatives, local business leaders, academic leaders, and state and local government officials from Ohio and the Midwest area. In addition to Jurczyk’s outline of NASA’s Mars efforts, attendees learned of NASA Glenn’s role in the effort from the center’s director of the Space Flight Systems Directorate, Bryan Smith, and got an astronaut’s perspective from NASA Commercial Crew Astronaut Sunita Williams.

Sunita Williams

NASA Commercial Crew astronaut Sunita Williams speaks with attendees of the “Humans to Mars” session at NASA Glenn Technology Day, held last week at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo Credit: Michael Cole / SpaceFlight Insider

“Getting to Mars is not only a destination,” Williams told the audience, “it is a process, and that process forces us to think differently.”

Jurczyk echoed Williams’ thoughts, as he highlighted how NASA’s commercial, industry, and academic partnerships have infused the agency with new ways of thinking and new ways of solving the many problems necessary to accomplishing the goal of putting humans on Mars.

“We’re trying to engage more new thinking and innovation and diversity into what we do,” Jurczyk said. “We’ve done a number of technological prizes and challenges to try to find new ideas. One example of these was the 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge, where we challenged anybody, in their garage or at an aerospace company, to use 3-D printing technology, a little bit of water, a little bit of power, inorganic trash, plastics, and Martian regolith, to print structures and components of a habitat that could be assembled robotically and by crew to make a house on the surface of Mars.”

NASA received 163 responses to that challenge. Over 90 of the proposals were deemed as technically responsive. Three of the proposals were awarded funding last year to continue experimenting with the process of printing usable structures from Martian regolith, trash, and water.

“So we are not only looking at developing new technologies,” Jurczyk said. “We are also trying to look at innovative methodologies for engaging a broader set of contributors in what we are trying to do.”

Smith, as director of NASA Glenn’s Space Flight Systems Directorate, has seen this evolution in innovation take NASA in a very positive direction. The innovation takes place at an accelerated rate while using fewer of the agency’s resources to do it. He pointed out that this approach has taken hold out of necessity.

“NASA very consciously said we can’t afford to maintain a low-Earth orbit presence and a deep space presence,” Smith said. “This is a great opportunity where, policy-wise, NASA said there is all this energy in the commercial sector. How can we leverage it? How can we use that energy and that capital to do things in low-Earth orbit? The companies are doing that, and it is very exciting. It is allowing NASA to step away and put a greater part of its investment into deep space.”

The major objective of that deep space effort is putting humans on Mars.

NASA’s 3 Steps to Mars

Glenn Event

From left to right are Bryan Smith, Director of NASA Glenn’s Space Flight Systems Directorate; Suni Williams, NASA Commercial Crew Astronaut; and Stephen Jurczyk, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. Smith, Williams, and Jurczyk spoke on NASA’s efforts to send humans to Mars at NASA Glenn Technology Day, held at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo Credit: Michael Cole / SpaceFlight Insider

Jurczyk explained that NASA has a three-phased plan for getting to Mars. It starts with the Earth-dependent phase, in low-Earth orbit (LEO), where activities and experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are advancing the research and technology development of hardware and systems necessary for journeying to Mars and staying there.

ISS is also the test bed for human health and performance challenges, and learning what happens to human physiology in prolonged zero-g. All those systems and hardware will need to be shrunk down to fit aboard a habitation module that will eventually be used for the journey to Mars.

“We’re going to be working on that for at least the next eight years,” Jurczyk said. “That’s how long we have to continue using the station for scientific and technology demonstration.”

The next phase of the effort is what NASA calls the “proving ground”. This includes missions to the vicinity of the Moon or cislunar space.

“We just got funding to develop a lunar habitat that will go into a stable lunar orbit and be our base in the lunar vicinity,” Jurczyk said. “That will include a demonstration of some of our very high-efficiency propulsion technology. We have to get a lot better at environmental control and life-support system technologies, with respect to performance with things like oxygen recovery and CO2 scrubbing. Better performance and reliability.”

The proposed lunar habitat was unveiled this year by Orbital ATK and consists of mating together two upgraded versions of their Cygnus pressurized vehicles. Orbital ATK proposes having the habitat in lunar orbit by 2020. The presence of such a habitat in lunar orbit could alter the mission plans for the first crewed missions of the Orion spacecraft in the early 2020s, and possibly expand the duration of those missions to as much as 60 days.

“We also plan to put a rover on the Moon (the Resource Prospector Rover, under development) to look for frozen water in its shadowy craters,” Jurczyk said. “We want [to] use this rover to see how difficult it might be to liberate the frozen water from the Martian regolith, for producing water, and oxygen and hydrogen for fuel, to do some in-situ resource utilization on Mars.”

Launching atop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the uncrewed and crewed voyages of the Orion spacecraft to the cislunar region will all have flight test objectives that will demonstrate technologies and capabilities for that system for use in the Mars journey architecture.

Orbital ATK lunar habitat image credit James Vaughan SpaceFlight Insider

An artist’s rendering of a Cygnus derived lunar orbit habitat. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

“Those are the things over the next ten years-plus we’ll be doing in terms of getting to Mars,” Jurczyk said. “But then we have a class of things we need to do to get us to the surface of Mars. Mars has a poor excuse for an atmosphere. It’s enough to worry about but not enough to slow you down.”

Landing on Mars is difficult. Its atmosphere is too thin to use aerobraking as a means to slow a spacecraft down in preparation for a powered descent. A combination of parachutes, retro-propulsion, airbags, and a hovering craft called a “sky crane”—which lowered a rover on cables near the ground before cutting it loose to drop the last few feet to the Martian surface—have been used to make landings on Mars.

NASA, through its landings of these rovers in recent years, has the capability to successfully land one metric ton on the surface of Mars. Jurczyk explained that they must develop the capability to land 19–23 metric tons. That is the weight of an unfueled ascent vehicle for a crew. That weight assumes they will have the capability to produce fuel in-situ on Mars.

“Then there is all the surface infrastructure,” he added. “That’s the technology we need to develop over the next ten years so that we can have people on the surface in the 2030s. We need to be able to land much heavier payloads, develop and generate surface power, in-situ resource utilization, habitation, better spacesuits, etc.”

Throughout this 10–15-year period, every 26 months, due to the relative orbital positions of the Earth and Mars, there is a launch opportunity to Mars.

“Every 26 months we will send another robot to Mars to help inform our study of the environment, the soil, the atmosphere,” Jurczyk said, “to make sure we fully understand the risks of sending and maintaining humans on the surface.”

One of these is the Mars 2020 mission, which will have on board an experiment called MOXIE, which stands for Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment, with ISRU the acronym for in-situ resource utilization. The experiment will attempt to demonstrate propellant and oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere. It will do this by collecting CO2, compressing and storing it, and electrochemically splitting the CO2 molecules into O2 and CO. Demonstrating such a capability is an essential precursor to developing the life-support and fuel production infrastructure for maintaining a human presence on Mars.

But who will be these first human visitors to Mars? And what will their experience be like?

An Astronaut’s Perspective on the Mission to Mars

Sunita Williams on an EVA outside of the International Space Station NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Sunita Williams during one of her seven EVAs at the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

“We just had a selection process open for a class of astronauts for 2017 and we got over 18,000 applicants,” Williams told the Technology Day audience. “So I think the word has been out there that we are looking for a few good men and women to join up and think about this long trip.”

From her experience on two missions into space, ISS Expedition 14/15 in 2006–2007 and Expedition 32/33 in 2012, Williams offered her opinion of what kind of people NASA is looking for to make the long journey to Mars.

“One of the biggest things is being part of a team,” she said. “We’re looking for parts of the application that show that the person has been part of a team. They’ve been leaders, they’ve been followers, and they can integrate both of those roles without any problem.”

Williams explained that the Mars voyagers will have to be a diverse and highly trained group of individuals.

“Luckily enough we have a bit of time,” she said, “because there is a skill set that is going to be required when you are taking that trip. You’re not going to have instantaneous communication back to Earth quickly to solve problems. You’re going to have to do that on your own, which means you’re going to need to have some skills in your back pocket. Everything is not going to be scripted in the way that it has been with shuttle missions and at the station.”

While aboard ISS, Williams set a world record for female astronauts, completing seven spacewalks totaling 50 hours and 40 minutes of Extravehicular Activity (EVA).

An EVA, or spacewalk, is a very hands-on, high concentration, and physically taxing activity. She spoke of the need for people with skilled hands, steady nerves, and sharp minds, to make the trip to Mars.

“We need the wrench-turners, we need the scientists, we need the people with a bit of a medical background because you won’t have access to a whole group of doctors,” Williams said.

“There is the emotional aspect too,” she added. “This new generation, especially, is used to being in constant communication with each other. Talking and texting to each other all the time. That’s not going to be the case on that long trip. They’re going to have to be able to compartmentalize and leave that stuff behind, but have a strong family or support structure to take care of things back home. They have to be able to separate themselves and focus on the mission at hand, and have their tool belt set with the skill set and mental capacity to go on that trip.”

Williams emphasized that the trip will be long and challenging and that the crew members will have to exercise a high amount of tolerance and patience for each other, living in such close quarters over an extended period of time. They will have to be able to cope with the absence of some of the creature comforts of Earth and the sensory pleasures of its varied environments and views.

“But wow!” she said. “Can you imagine looking at the Earth from that distance, as the Earth keeps getting smaller and smaller and then Mars keeps getting bigger and bigger? That is just going to be spectacular.”

What About Red Dragon?

An audience member asked Jurczyk about the plan by SpaceX to land a modified version of their Crew Dragon spacecraft, called Red Dragon, on the surface of Mars as early as 2018. The question was whether NASA viewed this plan by SpaceX as competition for getting to Mars and if the agency was worried they may be beaten to Mars by SpaceX or some other private aerospace entity.

Jurczyk replied that NASA views the proposed landing of the Red Dragon as an opportunity for both NASA and SpaceX to share the load in the effort to get humans to the Red Planet. SpaceX needs NASA’s Deep Space Network of communication stations and other space flight infrastructure to successfully make the landing, and NASA could learn very much from a successful landing of the spacecraft.

“Landing the Red Dragon there would definitely be an advancement,” Jurczyk said. “We know how to land 1 metric ton on Mars, the Red Dragon is 5–6 metric tons. We are in collaboration with SpaceX because we want the entry descent and landing data from that landing, and particularly we want the supersonic retro-propulsion data. Since 1976 we have used supersonic parachutes to get from supersonic speeds to subsonic speeds, and then used retro-propulsion to get further down, and later we also used airbags and bounced to a landing, and most recently sky crane landing. But we’ve never used supersonic retro-propulsion to get a craft from supersonic speed to subsonic speed for landing on Mars. So we really want that data.”

NASA Glenn Technology Day was part of a yearlong celebration of Glenn Research Center’s 75th Anniversary, which has included an open house event May 21 and 22.

The celebration will continue June 11 and 12 with another open house at NASA Glenn’s sister facility, the Plum Brook Station testing facility in Sandusky, Ohio, where testing on the Orion Service Module is currently underway.

Red Dragon spacecraft on the surface of Mars image credit SpaceX posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: SpaceX


Michael Cole is a life-long space flight enthusiast and author of some 36 educational books on space flight and astronomy for Enslow Publishers. He lives in Findlay, Ohio, not far from Neil Armstrong’s birthplace of Wapakoneta. His interest in space, and his background in journalism and public relations suit him for his focus on research and development activities at NASA Glenn Research Center, and its Plum Brook Station testing facility, both in northeastern Ohio. Cole reached out to SpaceFlight Insider and asked to join SFI as the first member of the organization’s “Team Glenn.”

Reader Comments

Clive Bashford

This all looks quite reasonable except that a habitat in lunar orbit seems like an expensive diversion, rather than a stepping stone to Mars. When it comes to testing their ‘very high efficiency propulsion technology’ one bit of space is much the same as any other I would have thought.

Wonderful report, Michael. Thanks!

NASA’s plan? Where is the political support for this plan and where are the funding budget lines? So far these appear to be MIA? The timelines are so long that I can’t see this being a sustainable effort. Administrations come and go and the last few Congress have been at loggerheads with the WH. Then there are continuing external issues and the economy. So many possible roadblocks for what is in essence a political effort.
Sorry, just can’t see this panning out. Nice to talk about but execution is going to be a bummer.

Bill Simpson

You could be right, but consider that Elon Musk will disclose his Mars colony plan this September. His billionaire investor friends will continue to get richer and richer, unless we have a global depression that lasts a long time. So a lot of money might flow his way.
I think that governments will create a lot of money out of thin air, before letting a depression happen. Inflation is a lot less bad than deflation. Governments will create ‘helicopter money’ to spend, before letting a deflationary spiral become established. NASA would get a cut of that cash.
And the largest population States in Congress will soon be the space infrastructure states of California, Texas, and Florida. They will virtually run the House of Representatives, so they could keep the NASA money flowing home.
Finally, we have the pride factor. Politicians might just sit around and passively watch a Chinese astronaut plant the first flag on Mars while saying, “Today, Mars is Red.” But I doubt they will. I can guarantee Elon Musk and his thousands of employees won’t like it one bit. Nor will Jeff Bezos, with his constantly expanding Amazon empire. Imagine how big that could be in 10 years. Bezos might be counting in trillions of dollars, instead of billions. Guys like him, and Musk want to be #1, not come in second.
So don’t get too depressed. NASA is no longer the only game in town.

Thanks Bill. I’m well aware of SpaceX, Blue, Bigelow, et al, and was just commenting on the NASA Mar’s plan.
Personally So far as Congress and NASA goes, I don’t think pride will cut it these days but hey, I could be wrong.
Perhaps it’ll go something like SpaceX et al actually look like making a human trip,to Mars a reality such that NASA and Congress will decide they have to get on board.

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