To Mars in a nutshell

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…

Hamlet was not alluding to space travel, but he might as well have been. An audacious proposal announced by American millionaire Dennis Tito calls for a man and woman to make a 501-day round trip to Mars in a spacecraft half the size of a camper van. There will be no landing – the spacecraft will simply make a fly-by, skimming past the Red Planet at a minimum altitude of 100 miles. The crew are likely to be a middle-aged married couple.

Dennis Tito first made the headlines in 2001, when over the objections of NASA he paid for a seat on the Russian Soyuz TM-32 mission to the International Space Station. He was subsequently described as the first ‘space tourist’, a rather unfortunate label in my view. Tito, now 72, shares the frustration of all space enthusiasts at the complete lack of progress with the crewed exploration of space since Project Apollo. It is now four decades since Cernan and Schmitt blasted off from the surface of the Moon. Nobody has been back; no crewed spacecraft has left Earth orbit since.

There have been innumerable proposals for an expedition to Mars, but none have got off the ground even metaphorically. It is of course much harder to mount an expedition to Mars than it is to the Moon. The most obvious problem is that Mars is very much further away than the Moon. The Apollo missions typically lasted under ten days; the duration of Tito’s mission will be fifty times longer. The next problem is that Mars, though small in comparison to Earth, is still much larger than the Moon. Furthermore, unlike the Moon, it has a significant atmosphere. To land on Mars and take off again, you need a craft that is not only built for re-entry, but is also able to escape the higher Martian gravity on take-off. This means a craft that is considerably larger and more complex than the Apollo lunar module. The fuel requirements for the mission are immense. Assuming an Apollo-type lander-orbiter configuration, you need sufficient fuel for 1) the spacecraft to launch and leave Earth orbit, 2) achieve Martian orbit, 3) the lander to land and take-off, 4) the orbiter to leave Martian orbit, 5) make any required mid-course alterations.

The crucial difference between a crewed expedition and the innumerable robotic landers and rovers sent to Mars since the 1970s is that the latter don’t have to return to Earth. To date, no unmanned sample return mission to Mars has ever been attempted, and even attempts to return samples from its moons have failed. To get round the problem, some have suggested a one-way trip to Mars. Unlike the Moon, there are sufficient raw materials on Mars to allow colonists to keep themselves alive indefinitely. 

The Tito proposal involves a fly-by rather than a one-way trip. There’s no landing, but the crew don’t have to spend the rest of their lives on Mars. The spacecraft will be launched on a so-called free return trajectory, which will return it to Earth without the expenditure of fuel. Very little fuel will be needed after leaving Earth orbit. The result is a far simpler mission profile, though this term is relative. Unlike the International Space Station, which is periodically resupplied from Earth, the spacecraft will need to carry oxygen and supplies for the whole of the 501 day round trip. Even items such as toilet paper will amount to 28kg (62 lb.) in the supplies manifest. A major complication is that the spacecraft will be travelling at 51,000 km per hour (32,000 mph) when it returns to Earth. No crewed spacecraft has ever attempted re-entry at such speed. It is likely that the spacecraft will have to slow down by aerobraking in the Earth’s outer atmosphere. The technique has been used for twenty years to slow robotic space probes, but has never been attempted with a crewed spacecraft.

Another factor is radiation from the Sun and from interstellar space. A vehicle in Low Earth Orbit, such as the International Space Station or a shuttle, is largely protected by the Earth’s magnetic field. On a short-duration mission beyond Earth orbit – such as Apollo – the dosage is not large enough to be a problem. The possible effects of exposure on a long-duration mission include sterility and an elevated risk of developing cancer in later life. That is the reason for selecting a middle-aged crew. It is further assumed that a married couple could better endure the psychological stresses of long-term confinement.

There is also the risk of a coronal mass ejection from the Sun – a massive burst of radiation occurring during a solar flare. The proposed mission will take place during a period of low solar activity, but the risk isn’t entirely absent. The radiation could seriously harm or even kill the crew. Unfortunately, there is very little that can be done with present-day technology to shield a spacecraft against radiation. Finally, there is the stark reality that if something goes wrong with the spacecraft or if there is a medical emergency on-board, there will be absolutely nothing that can be done to abort the mission.

No concrete proposals yet exist for the mission. A possible configuration would involve a Dragon spacecraft from the private US space company Space X. The Dragon is a re-usable capsule-type craft that has already carried out an unmanned resupply mission to the International Space Station. The Dragon would be coupled to an inflatable habitat module of the type under development by Bigelow Aerospace, another private US space company. The mission would be launched with a Space X Falcon heavy-lift launch vehicle. First launch of the Falcon Heavy is expected either late this year or early next year.

The next launch window for the 501-day flight occurs in January 2018. After that, Mars will not be in the right position again until 2031. This gives Tito 5 years to get his mission off the ground. At the glacial speeds which NASA has operated since Apollo, this might not seem possible. However, it should be remembered that little over eight years passed from Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital spaceflight in 1961 to the late Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap for mankind’. The entire history of powered flight from Kittyhawk to the Sea of Tranquillity took place within the lifetime of many, including my grandparents.

The cost of the mission has been estimated at between $1 to 2 billion (£660 – 1200 million). This might sound like a lot of money, but it is actually less than Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich is alleged to have spent on Chelsea FC over the last decade. In space terms, it’s peanuts. In terms of actual Mars science, the value of the mission will be far less than can be achieved with robotic orbiters and rovers. The scientific value of the mission will be in terms of what can be learned about the physiological and psychological effects of long-term spaceflight beyond Earth orbit.

The real worth of the mission, however, will be in its inspirational rather than scientific value. Nobody much under the age of 50 can remember the Moon landings. The current President of the United States was a few days short of his eighth birthday when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon; UK Prime Minister David Cameron was a 2 ½ year-old toddler. I think we’ve been waiting long enough for mankind’s next giant leap.

© Christopher Seddon 2013


One giant leap for mankind: now for Mars

Forty years ago today, on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon.

In Houston, the time was 15:17:40 CDT; in the UK 21:17:40 BST. Even aged 14, watching with my family, I was aware of how historic the moment was. I was an avid space enthusiast, my interest (like I suspect many boys of my age) having been sparked by Gerry Anderson’s TV shows such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds. With us that evening was my grandfather, Robert “Pop” Mitchell, who was born in October 1892. He had just turned 11 when the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903, a few years younger than I was in 1969. He was 19 when the Titanic sank and in his early 20s when he fought in the trenches of World War I, where he was seriously wounded in action.

As we now know, the mission came close to failure as the Eagle’s primitive computer, already overloaded, began to take the LM down towards an area strewn with boulders. Neil Armstrong was forced to take control and brought the spacecraft down safely with just 25 seconds of fuel remaining. But to those watching on TV and listening to the dialogue between Armstrong, Aldrin and CAPCOM Charlie Duke (who later went to the Moon himself), there was little hint of trouble:

102:44:24 Aldrin: 200 feet, 4 1/2 down.

102:44:26 Aldrin: 5 1/2 down.

102:44:31 Aldrin: 160 feet, 6 1/2 down.

102:44:33 Aldrin: 5 1/2 down, 9 forward. You’re looking good.

102:44:40 Aldrin: 120 feet.

102:44:45 Aldrin: 100 feet, 3 1/2 down, 9 forward. Five percent. Quantity light.

102:44:54 Aldrin: Okay. 75 feet. And it’s looking good. Down a half, 6 forward.

102:45:02 Duke: 60 seconds [at this point Eagle is down to her last 60 seconds of fuel].

102:45:04 Aldrin: Light’s on.

102:45:08 Aldrin: 60 feet, down 2 1/2. 2 forward. 2 forward.

102:45:17 Aldrin: 40 feet, down 2 1/2. Picking up some dust.

102:45:21 Aldrin: 30 feet, 2 1/2 down.

102:45:25 Aldrin: 4 forward. 4 forward. Drifting to the right a little. 20 feet, down a half.

102:45:31 Duke: 30 seconds [of fuel remaining].

102:45:32 Aldrin: Drifting forward just a little bit; that’s good.

102:45:40 Aldrin: Contact Light [these were actually the first words spoken from the Moon, not as is commonly thought, Armstrong’s famous change of call sign to “Tranquillity Base”].

102:45:43 Armstrong: Shutdown.

102:45:44 Aldrin: Okay. Engine Stop.

102:45:45 Aldrin: ACA out of Detent.

102:45:46 Armstrong: Out of Detent. Auto.

102:45:47 Aldrin: Mode Control, both Auto. Descent engine command override, off. Engine arm, off. 413 is in.

102:45:57 Duke: We copy you down, Eagle.

102:45:58 Armstrong: Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.

102:46:06 Duke: Roger, Tranquillity. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.

102:46:16 Aldrin: Thank you.

The Moon walk wasn’t actually scheduled until around 07:00 BST next day, with NASA having scheduled a sleep period first, but Armstrong and Aldrin were understandably anxious to get on with the job and having just landed on the Moon I’d imagine sleep was the last thing on their minds. So shortly before four o’clock I dragged my brother (a few days short of his ninth birthday) out of bed and together we watched as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of the Moon and fluff his lines at the same time:

109:23:38 Armstrong: I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. Ground mass is very fine.

109:24:13 Armstrong: I’m going to step off the LM now.

109:24:48 Armstrong: That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.

About 20 minutes later, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the lunar surface:
109:43:08 Aldrin: That’s a good step.
109:43:10 Armstrong: Yeah. About a 3-footer.
109:43:16 Aldrin: Beautiful view!
109:43:18 Armstrong: Isn’t that something! Magnificent sight out here.
109:43:24 Aldrin: Magnificent desolation.

That first lunar EVA lasted just over 2½ hours. In addition to collecting contingency, bulk and documented lunar samples, Armstrong and Aldrin deployed a seismometer to detect moon quakes and a retro-reflector array to reflect laser beams back to Earth and so determine the Earth-Moon distance very accurately. Also left behind was a US flag; an Apollo 1 mission patch commemorating Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee; Soviet medals commemorating Yuri Gagarin and Soyuz 1 cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov; a gold olive branch; and a plaque mounted on the LM Descent Stage ladder bearing drawings of Earth’s Western and Eastern Hemispheres with an inscription reading “Here Men From The Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace For All Mankind” together with signatures of the Apollo XI crew and President Nixon.

Finally there was a silicon disk containing goodwill statements by US Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and 73 other world leaders and heads of state. The latter detail makes interesting reading. The signatories include such notorious dictators as Nicolae Ceausescu, Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran, Chiang Kai-Shek, Park Chung-hee and Anastasio Somoza. Others perhaps more positively remembered include Queen Juliana, Archbishop Makarios, Indira Gandhi and Eamon de Valera. The only signatory still remaining in office is HM The Queen. France is conspicuous by its absence; so is the USSR and indeed all but a handful of communist countries; China was represented by the Republic of China in Taiwan.

For months afterwards the story was doing the rounds that the Chinese people had still not been told about the landing and in those pre-internet times it might have been true. By contrast, Soviet television gave extensive coverage to the event.

Before beginning preparations for blasting off from the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin took their sleep period and, following their example, my brother and I went back to bed. By the time I woke my father was waking my grandfather and telling him about the moonwalk. Six months after the landing, my grandfather passed away, aged 77. His life thus spanned the entire history of human powered flight, from Kitty Hawk to the Sea of Tranquillity.

On 24 July 1969, Apollo XI returned to Earth safely and, after three weeks in quarantine, its crew emerged to a heroes’ reception. But astonishingly, the public almost immediately lost interest. Six more crewed missions were sent to the Moon, but only the incredible drama of Apollo XIII made the headlines (and, a quarter of a century later, an excellent if not entirely accurate Hollywood movie). Since December 1972, not a single crewed spacecraft has left Earth’s orbit.

In 2002, a moon landing hoax conspiracy theorist confronted Buzz Aldrin outside a Beverly Hills hotel and called him “a coward, a liar, and a thief.” Aldrin – then aged 72 – punched him in the face. Beverly Hills police and the city’s prosecutor refused to file charges.

It is a fact that thanks to crewless space probes, we now have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the Moon; though NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will redress the balance. Already it has returned images of abandoned Apollo hardware, unseen through all these years. The photographs from the Apollo XIV site are particularly good and show footprints left by Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell on the Moon’s surface; finally burying for good the ridiculous conspiracy theory that the Moon landings were faked.

As a boy, my grandfather could hardly have expected to see men land on the Moon in his lifetime, but I never doubted I’d live to see a Mars landing, assuming then that it would happen in the 1980s. If the will had been there, it would have done, but NASA was sidetracked by the space shuttle for decades before returning to the original Apollo concept in an updated form, Project Orion. Very tentatively NASA is now talking about an expedition to Mars in 2037. I’ll be 82 that year – I might just make it.

© Christopher Seddon 2009