With the success of NASA's space missions to other planets, the American space agency now plans to move forward with its "Journey to Mars" program by constructing a space station in Mars' orbit that will serve as a base camp for future explorations.
Lockheed Martin, one of NASA's private partners, recently proposed for the space agency and its affiliates in the private sector to work on a planned Martian space station. The aerospace company said this so-called "Mars Base Camp" could provide housing for astronauts who would be working on collecting data on the red planet.
"Before we send people to the surface of Mars, we owe it to that crew, to ourselves, to understand if there's life on the planet and if there's anything that's toxic to humans," Deep Space Systems president and chief engineer Steve Bailey said. "This mission will do those two very fundamental things."
Bailey and Lockheed chief engineer Steve Jolly were the ones who discussed the details of the Martian space station during a meeting with NASA planners in July.
A Base Of Operations On Mars
As part of its proposed manned Mars explorations, NASA has begun developing technologies that could be used to send astronauts to the red planet. These include a crew capsule known as Orion and a massive rocket known as the Space Launch System (SLS).
While the Orion capsule has already been flown once during an unmanned flight in 2014, the SLS rocket has yet to see some action. NASA engineers intend to have the SLS power Orion on a week-long journey to the moon and back in 2018.
Once both technologies become fully operational, Lockheed plans to use them to deliver the necessary supplies to construct the Mars space station. Two Orion capsules will be used as the orbital facility's core component along with two habitat modules or science laboratories.
Program developers expect the space station to weigh about 132 tons, making it significantly lighter compared to the International Space Station, which currently weighs 440 tons.
The Mars Base Camp's design makes it possible for it to sustain a crew of up to six astronauts, who would live and work on the orbital facility for a year.
According to Jolly, they plan to choose career scientists to man the space station instead of test pilots who were trained to do a little bit of geology work. He likened the Base Camp's ideal crew to geologist Jack Schmitt, who was a member of the 1972 Apollo 17 mission.
Aside from collecting and analyzing dirt and rock samples from Mars, the scientists will also operate various robotic assets, such as wheeled rovers and winged vehicles, designed to explore the surface of the red planet from the safety of the space station.
This will provide them with near-real-time control of the robots, something that is currently not possible given the vast distance between Mars and Earth. Jolly said this could give researchers an opportunity to make major discoveries regarding the red planet.
Feasibility Of The Mars Base Camp
As far as the feasibility of building the Mars space station goes, Jolly pointed out that it doesn't require any technological leaps in order to make it possible. He added that their plan is also relatively affordable, given NASA's budget for its proposed manned space missions to Mars.
Jolly said between the $4 billion to $9 billion NASA is expected to spend on space explorations every year, the space agency will have spent about $50 billion to $80 billion in total expenditures over a 10-, 15- or 20-year period for its manned Mars missions.
He added that the Mars Base Camp program would also make it possible to stretch NASA's budget by reusing the same architecture for a series of missions.