Ad Astra, Per Latrina


NASA is considering using the International Space Station to practice for a trip to Mars, officials said …

“Clearly, in order to be able to explore beyond low-Earth orbit, we’re going to have to stay in orbit for longer than six months,” space station program manager Mike Suffredini said during a news conference today.

Suffredini said NASA is exploring the possibility of setting up a mock journey to Mars aboard the space station, where astronauts would stay for longer than the usual six months, and would be subject to other conditions that such a trip would impose. …

“It won’t be in the near future,” he said. “It’s probably not reasonable to expect us to be able to do this sooner than two or three years from now.”

First, let me say, I’m for it.

NASA’s lead up to the Apollo program was a perfect example of space exploration done right — test it at home, then do it for real. In order to successfully put footprints in the lunar regolith, certain capabilities were going to have to be developed and demonstrated, including increased spaceflight duration, rendezvous and docking, and extravehicular activities.

The moon is about four days from Earth. Low Earth orbit, on the other hand, is minutes from the surface. So rather than doing all of these for the first time when we went to the moon, all of them were first tested in Earth orbit, where, if something went wrong, home was just a stone’s throw away.

About four years ago, a toilet on the International Space Station failed. NASA took a lot of ribbing for it in the press, but I said then, and maintain now, that if the only thing that happened on the International Space Station was its toilet failing, it would still be worth doing.

Mars is about six months away. And that’s just one way. A mission there would involve a trip of six months out, six months back, plus whatever time is spent on the surface, which arguably should be long enough to justify the travel time.

Someday, humanity will go there. If I were an astronaut, and the toilet for that mission were going to fail, I would sure rather it be during an Earth-orbit test of the equipment than on the way out to Mars, leaving the crew without a toilet for months. Every single system and procedure needed to go to Mars should be tested in Earth orbit, broken, fixed and tested again, so astronauts heading to the Red Planet will know everything that can go wrong, and what to do when it does.

Right now, we have a spacecraft in Earth orbit that is capable of supporting tests the duration of a Mars mission. (I will note, however, that I don’t believe that should be step one — I think it would be much more responsible to first double the current seven-month record of ISS increments, and then move up from there.)

While the details are uncertain and constantly in flux, for the last eight years, the goal of American human spaceflight has been exploration.

It’s high time we can began fully utilizing the assets we have to support that goal.


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