1969 was a big year for the engineers and scientists at NASA; the year they enabled humans to reach the Moon. Next year, it will be 50 years since Apollo 11 touched down on that lunar surface.
This year the goal is Mars, although the players look a little different to 50 years ago. Now it seems that billion dollar private companies and government agencies are all competing in the space race.
SpaceX, the aerospace engineering company headed up by Elon Musk, is soon to launch their BFR (Big Falcon Rocket); the test before sending astronauts to Mars.
SpaceX has been innovating feverishly in the aerospace engineering industry. They have perfected the landing of rockets after launch, and they have mastered the reusing of previously launched rockets. They have also been firing rockets into space at almost a tenth of the cost of those sent by NASA.
Instead of remaining the stuff of dreams and science fiction tales, Elon Musk believes that a human colony on Mars will become a reality one day. He predicts SpaceX will be sending spacecraft to Mars in 2019.
Getting spacecraft to Mars is one thing, but getting humans there is quite another. At the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), in the small US town of Hanksville, in Utah, engineers and scientists are collecting data that will be used on future Mars missions. The research station and program were set up by the Mars Society.
Zac Trolley is a Canadian Electrical Engineer and future Mars settler. Since childhood he has dreamed of reaching the Red Planet. He has been close; he was part of a two week Martian Simulation at MDRS in February 2018. During this time his engineering skills were used to help the team prepare for a future Mars mission. Zac tells us:
“Mars was the original target for the consecutive missions after Apollo, but that all got canceled. So, the architectures are all there, what’s missing is political will and funding. A lot of that political will is coming from the private sector, you know, with these billionaire entrepreneurs who are bringing their billions of dollars with them.”
He says that the conceptual ideas are finally moving into the engineering feasibility phase; these were missing from the science fiction pipe dreams of the past. Zac worked as the Crew Engineer for the project; he was tasked with maintaining the infrastructure of the Habitat. The Habitat (or Hab) is a two story 8 meter cylindrical building that houses the spacesuit simulators, has an exterior airlock, offers a shower room, toilet room and rear airlock. The rear airlock opens up to tunnels that lead to other structures at the research station.
During the two week simulation he also assisted others in their research projects. He explained:
“We conducted research on NASA plant growth systems, dust accumulation, material abrasion for space suits, and participated in many outreach activities including recording 360 video for VR applications.”
Donning some Hollywood-prop-esque space suits, Zac and his fellow team members navigated the desert areas of Utah, pretending to be astronauts. The location was picked due to its geology - it is similar to Mars’ dusty surface.
Everyone should be an engineer
Zac was part of the 188th iteration of the Martian simulation. He says that the knowledge being harvested from the Mars simulations will be invaluable to future missions. He explains:
“When a Mars mission happens, the engineers, the assembly team, and all the people that are involved, all the surrounding teams; they’re going to have to have an intricate knowledge of the mission as well. The more people that go through these simulation missions, and get an idea of how they operate and the mindset of the crew, even if they don’t go to Mars, their designs and their decisions regarding the rockets and the Habitat are going to be influenced by that. And it makes a better mission.”
Zac, as the Crew Engineer, had to keep the power grid working, the water system functioning, and all the other “bits and bobs and bolts” maintained. Nonetheless, Zac stresses that everyone who travels to Mars will need basic engineering knowledge so they can troubleshoot any on-board technologies. They will also have to master first aid training!
He believes that the first mission to Mars will need to be made up of members who are well-versed at working as a team. Zac noted that the MDRS simulation mission focused on the social aspects of working in a team more than the technical engineering feasibility.
Zac may be a little more conservative than Musk, he believes that aerospace engineering is still two decades away from putting humans on Mars. He believes firmly, however, that when a mission is at last undertaken, the technical and human elements must be aligned.
When asked what engineering education can do to fully equip engineers for future Mars missions, Zac said that engineering education should inject creativity and risk tolerance into the curriculum. He said:
“When I was doing my engineering degree, one of the most valuable things to me was extracurricular activities. I joined some clubs and I did some things outside of class and that was where I was able to really show my creativity.”
Applied Futurism, zactrolley.com/.
“Mars Desert Research Station.” Mars Desert Research Station, mdrs.marssociety.org/.
“There's a Starman, Sitting in a Car ... and It's All to Do with Elon Musk.” ABC News, 7 Feb. 2018, www.abc.net.au/news/2018-02-07/spacex-rocket-takes-sports-car-into-space/9403618.