A new generation of spacecraft lifts off
The nose of the rocket rises 98 m into the air. When the countdown reaches zero, there is a huge roar, and the rocket lifts off in a blaze. Four minutes later, the rocket separates, and the small space capsule continues on its own. In the mid-2020s, when NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), launches the Orion space capsule towards the Moon, it will be the first time in more than 50 years that humans have travelled more than about 1,300 km away from Earth.
Initially, the aim is an unmanned mission to the Moon in November 2018, but later, the Orion capsule will be going to an asteroid to bring a fraction of it back to the Moon, where astronauts will take a closer look at the rock. And finally - sometime in the 2030s - Orion will set out on a manned mission to Mars. NASA is not the only agency renewing its ”hardware”. Other space organisations and several private companies are busy developing an entire army of new rockets, space capsules, bases, and spaceplanes. Together, the new vehicles will take humans millions of km into space and allow us to stay in the hostile environments of foreign worlds for months.
OLD TECHNOLOGY IN NEW ROCKET
Since NASA’s famous Apollo programme (1969-1972), which sent 12 astronauts approximately 400,000 km to the Moon, all manned space missions have gone no further than the Low Earth Orbit - the International Space Station (ISS) at an altitude of some 400 km being the most frequently visited destination.
The most recent long mission was Apollo 17, which landed on the Moon in December 1972, and whose astronauts remained on the Moon for no less than 75 hours. NASA had three more lunar missions coming up, but had to abandon them due to lack of funding.
NASA’s new huge rocket, SLS, resembles its predecessors from the Apollo era very much, and the fact is that NASA intentionally improved familiar, thoroughly tested technology, allowing cheaper development and faster completion of the rocket. It is fair to describe the SLS as a crossbreed between NASA’s most powerful rocket, Saturn V, and the space shuttles, which were retired in 2011. Physically, the SLS rocket resembles the 10-m-taller Saturn V, but just like it was the case with the space shuttles, two powerful solid-state rockets are mounted on the side of the fuel tank. The four engines under the SLS rocket’s main stage are also inherited from the space shuttles. Both have been updated with new systems to make the engines more efficient.
Today, we know how to land something on the surface of Mars. Over the years, NASA has sent four rovers - small cars with cameras and measuring equipment - to the planet.
Most recently, Curiosity landed in August 2012, and began sending lots of data and images back to Earth. The real challenge arises, when “something” becomes “somebody”. A manned mission to Mars will take 2-3 years, making great demands on the astronauts’ health during the 6-8 month voyage and their stay on the surface of the planet. The rocket, which launches astronauts towards Mars, must not only be able to lift the space capsule, the service module, and the upper rocket stages, but also a separate habitation module. The space capsule is a great place to stay during the launch, but it will be too small for six astronauts during the long journey. So, NASA is developing a larger habitation module, which can be attached to the Orion capsule during the journey to Mars.
TO MARS VIA THE ISS
The trips to the space station during the past four decades have been an important preparation for long voyages to Mars. The ISS was launched in 1998, and ever since, it has functioned as a space laboratory, in which 200+ astronauts have stayed over the years, carrying out 1,700+ scientific experiments. The experiments have provided us with new knowledge about how the human body, plants, and bacteria react to long periods in space. In August 2015, the ISS crew tasted vegetables - lettuce - that had been grown from scratch at the space station. The experiment is the first important step to growing vegetables on Mars, which would ensure long stays. In 2014, NASA decided to continue its missions to the ISS until at least 2024, four years longer than originally anticipated.
During the period, NASA will carry out experiments on the physical and psychological consequences of long space missions. Since the space shuttles were pensioned off in 2011, NASA has depended on the Russian Soyuz capsule, but the agency would like to avoid this.
Earlier this year, NASA signed contracts with three private companies - SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada Corp. In a few years, the companies will deliver equipment and lab tests - and over time also astronauts for the space station aboard the new spacecraft. The size and weight of the small craft will be custom-designed to dock with the space station.
COLONIES MADE OF MARTIAN GRAVEL
Everything about the space programmes may seem huge. Structures weighing thousands of tonnes, which are to travel at speeds indicated in km per second. This also makes it extremely expensive. So, some of the most spectacular plans of bases on Mars involve using local raw materials. In this way, engineers save both money for materials and space at the top of the rocket.
To involve new, wild visions, NASA in 2015 invited participants to enter a contest to design an innovative Martian base, which can be built by robots, before astronauts arrive. One of the best designs involves robots building a 93 m2 base made of regolith - the loose soil covering the surface of Mars. The new spacecraft are all part of a major plan to send humans further into the Solar System than ever before. Once we are back on the Moon and have conquered an asteroid, the way to a base on Mars has hopefully been paved. And in a distant future, we may build a permanent, selfsufficient colony on the Red Planet.