Originally Published: November 20, 2015 6 a.m.
Many at a NASA Speakers Bureau event hosted at Yavapai College's Prescott campus last week were asking about the red planet.
With the recent discovery of liquid water on Mars and the even more recent release of the Hollywood film "The Martian," considerable curiosity about our relationship with the fourth planet from the sun was of little surprise to the event's guest speaker Jonathan Pickrel.
Pickrel, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Prescott campus alumnus and now an operations engineer at NASA's Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center, came prepared with a wealth of knowledge about NASA's current operations and goals concerning space exploration.
NASA is working on conducting a human mission to Mars by the 2030s, according to a recent NASA news release.
The release indicates that the space exploration agency will already begin to accept applications for new astronauts to fuel this ambition by December of this year and will announce the candidates selected in mid-2017.
"This next group of American space explorers will inspire the Mars generation to reach for new heights, and help us realize the goal of putting boot prints on the Red Planet," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement on Nov. 4.
This comes in parallel to a milestone recently passed concerning the rocket NASA hopes will one day complete the mission.
"It's the most powerful rocket ever built," Pickrel said.
Earlier this month, the spacecraft passed a critical design review, releasing the project for the beginning of
the hardware-building phase.
The first flight test will happen in either late 2018 or early 2019, said Pickrel. If all goes well, the spacecraft will operate around the moon, which hasn't been done since U.S. lunar missions were halted in 1972. It will be an unmanned mission, but the rocket will have the first deep space Orion capsule (a multi-purpose crew vehicle intended to carry four astronauts) on it.
It's easy to say that this spacecraft will be the one to safely deliver humans to the surface of Mars, but accomplishing that feat will take far more than words.
Every aspect of such a mission is tremendously complex, from takeoff to landing.
"If a spacecraft wants to land on Mars, they have to slow down from flying at eight to 10-miles-per-second to zero at touchdown," said Pickrel. "So parachutes on a very thin atmosphere like Mars just shred at those speeds."
To deal with this, NASA is currently testing technology for a re-entry device that can take on payloads large enough to support human explorations - where the weight of matters such as consumables, life support and additional propellants have to be factored in.
Despite the building anticipation within the space industry and gradual acceptance by the public that such a trip may be more than something simply portrayed on a movie screen, Pickrel was hesitant to say that the issue surrounding funding and therefore political backing will be resolved in a timely matter.
"One of the frustrating things about NASA is that it falls under the executive branch," Pickrel said. "We take orders from the president, but we get funding from Congress, and as you know, they don't play nicely."
During NASA's glory days in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the agency was receiving about 3 percent of the U.S. federal budget per year to fund its Apollo missions. Currently, it receives about .5 percent.
Pickrel said that isn't likely to change anytime soon in order to accommodate a venture as pricy as Mars.
"It's just the truth, politics affect us," Pickrel said. "When politicians hear Mars, they hear big, big, big money."
Ultimately, it comes down to public opinion. If the general public believes it's worth spending their tax dollars on sending humans to Mars, then politicians will do as they often do and go with the votes.
"The reason why Apollo is so infectious is because the nation committed at the public level, which was also reflected in politics, hence money," Pickrel said. "We currently operate on one-half of a percent and yet we're still doing amazing things every day. Imagine what you could do with another half-percent. But the public has to engage in that debate and say what is worth our tax money, what is worth our time and education of our children."
For more information on what NASA is up to, one resource easily obtained is the agency's free annual magazine, NASA Spinoff. You can request to have it sent to you in the mail by going to https://spinoff.nasa.gov/.
Follow Max Efrein on Twitter @mefrein. Reach him at 928-445-3333 ext. 1105, or 928-642-7864.