Mars Direct:

A $20-billion plan to conquer the Red Planet

"We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. This is in some measures an act of faith and vision, for we do not know what benefits await us. But space is there and we are going to climb it." John F. Kennedy, 1962

John F. Kennedy sparked the imagination of a nation and indeed the entire world. His dream came true on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. Along with the financial and technological benefits that the Apollo mission brought to the world, the sense of accomplishment greatly increased morale. Americans were excited; they had reached the moon, and before the communists. It was this excitement that drove the United States to continue pushing forward towards Mars.

The 1970's saw the successful Mariner and Viking missions explore Mars by robotic means. In the 1980's the shuttle program came into full swing. On July 20, 1989 (20 year anniversary of the moon landing) George Bush stood outside the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC and vowed to "commit the nation to a sustained program of human exploration of the solar system and even the permanent settlement of space. First, for the coming decade [the 1990s] Space Station Freedom. Then for the new century, back to the moon. And then, a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet, a manned mission to Mars."

Bush's plan became known as the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). Three months later, NASA created a document, "The 90-Day Report" that outlined the plans for SEI, at a cost of $450-billion. The outrageous cost led to the demise of SEI and the creation of a new plan, Mars Direct. Mars Direct will cost an initial $20-billion, and $2-billion for each subsequent trip, only 7% of the United States space budget. In comparison, the Apollo program cost $70-billion (amount adjusted for inflation).

The problem with SEI was that all the required supplies (tools, water, breathing air, and propellant) would board a massive "Battlestar Galactica" type space ship and head for Mars. Its size and complicated structure would have required numerous launches into earth's orbit, where parts would be individually delivered and assembled using the yet to be built International Space Station. Mars Direct, on the other hand, will travel light, bringing only the essentials and making intelligent use of resources local to Mars. The mission will be, believe it or not, 'living off the land'.

Mars Direct will require a rocket with approximately twice the power of the shuttle. The mission will make use of current shuttle technology by simply using four main engines and two solid rocket boosters. Using these hydrogen and oxygen burning engines seems ancient compared to some of the space travel technologies proposed by other plans: nuclear propulsion, solar electric ion drive propulsion, solar and magnetic sails, fusion (plasma) rockets, and even anti-matter rockets. But Columbus didn't wait for the invention of the steam engine to venture into new territory; he used vessels designed for Mediterranean travel. We have the technology to go to Mars today. It may not be the most elegant approach, and it will take a long time, but if we want to go to Mars, we can go to Mars.

All together, two launches will be required. The first will send the Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) to the Mars surface. As the name implies, the ERV will bring home the crew at the end of the mission. The next launch will carry the astronauts, and will occur 13 months later. It takes six months to reach Mars from earth and it will take the ERV seven months to complete its propellant production.

The ERV is the key cost cutting facet of Mars Direct. Six tonnes of liquid hydrogen, a small nuclear reactor, and a chemical processing unit (CPU) will be carried by the ERV to Mars. The nuclear reactor will supply the 100 kilowatts of power required by the CPU to convert the Martian air into propellant and water. Martian air is 95% carbon dioxide gas. The CPU will suck up the carbon dioxide and combine it with the stored supply of hydrogen. The reaction will produce drinkable water and methane gas, which will be used as fuel by the ERV and ground rovers. After six months of operation, the CPU will have turned its initial six tonnes of hydrogen into 108 tonnes of methane and oxygen according to the chemical equation: CO2 + 4H2 → CH4 + 2H2O

A fully fuelled ERV will await the crew when they arrive on Mars. Rather than extraneous initial orbiting missions, characteristic of the Apollo program, the crew will land and immediately begin ground work. They will study the land, searching for minerals, fossils, ice deposits, and other resources. As well, many scientific experiments will be performed that will help us better understand the possibility of life on Mars. This information will result in a deeper understanding of the red planet, and will give us a clearer picture of the requirements for long term stay and, eventually, permanent habitation.

Anthony Cutrona is the president of the Queen's Space and Astronomy Club (Q-SAC). For more information, visit Q-SAC on Clubs Night October 3 and 4.

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