Planets

This Is How NASA Hopes to Voyage to Mars: Photos

There are many facets to traveling to and exploring the Red Planet, so NASA is asking for proposals in an effort to make our interplanetary dreams become a reality.

It's no secret that NASA is investing in long-duration exploration missions. The agency just completed a one-year human mission on the International Space Station, where Scott Kelly wowed the world with his social media posts and his ability to save zinnias on the verge of succumbing to space mold. But getting into deep space takes time -- a lot of time and discussion -- and NASA has many projects that are supposed to help it explore the moon and Mars in the coming decades.

One of those projects is creating a habitat that will allow humans to live in space beyond the Earth-moon system. This isn't as easy as it seems, because there are a lot of things you need to consider once you get far out from Earth. If there is a time delay in communications, how will humans work without constant support from Mission Control? How to manage for problems such as radiation, or needing to repair spare parts? These are all things the agency must think about.

A new solicitation asks interested parties to outline their ideas for deep-space habitation concepts. Proposals were due in on June 15, and the projects awarded will be publicized on the website for NextSTEP (Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships). These are some of the areas NASA is thinking about.

Image: NASA's phases of Mars exploration. Credit: NASA

NASA is counting on the International Space Station being available for when these first deep-space sorties start up. So any prototype should have the capability to dock with the ISS to do any of several things, such as further development and testing.

The transportation system should also be able to operate in what NASA calls distant retrograde orbit (DRO) by itself, or with a crew. DRO is a type of orbit around the moon, which would give crews practice in working away from home while still being only a few days' drive back. The system should also be able to move independently or in combination with the Orion for systems such as attitude control or power.

Image: Artist's impression of the Orion spacecraft making a final approach for docking with the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Anybody cooped up with family for a long car trip knows how old it gets to sit in a small space for a few days. The Apollo astronauts did slightly better, but this was probably due to huge amounts of training and knowing the eyes of the world were watching them.

So any future habitat should be comfortable enough for the crew and its equipment to survive and thrive for however long the mission would be (initially, a stay of 30 to 60 days). The habitat should also be robust in terms of providing life support systems such as fire detection and lighting, because a repair job is not so easy to achieve that far away. Just ask the people who saved Apollo 13 in 1970.

Image: Artist's impression of the inside of the Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA

It's best if a habitat can do multiple things and work for many years, because it's so expensive to build the habitat. In this case, NASA would like the habitat to be ready for at least 15 years of working in space.

The habitat should also be able to allow other vehicles to dock (such as Orion or something on the way to the asteroid mission) and support two crew members at all times, whether or not another crew is present. This includes being able to do eight-hour EVAs without depressurizing the whole thing, which is quite different from the Apollo missions.

Image: Artist's impression of an astronaut doing a spacewalk at an asteroid, as part of NASA's proposed asteroid redirect mission. Credit: NASA

Like the International Space Station, this future habitat would serve as a testbed for research. So the astronauts -- in between entertaining visitors and maintaining their habitat -- would be doing a variety of experiments to make sure that humans are as ready as possible for deep space.

NASA specifically asks for "validation of elements, systems, operations and human health and performance for missions beyond the Earth-Moon system." Because if there's anything that Mark Watney from "The Martian" showed us, life in space is tough. Practice will be needed to keep everybody as safe and productive as possible while working far from home.

Image: Mark Watney takes a break from his horrible stay on Mars in the movie "The Martian." Credit: Giles Keyte/NASA