Ladies and gentlemen, strap yourselves in because Kansas is about to go bye-bye – Blue Origin is ready to send paying travelers into space by 2018 and Boeing is convinced that people will get to Mars on its rockets. But first, an explanation on this quote from The Matrix: by “Kansas” we mean this pale blue dot we live on and by “bye-bye”, we are referring to US President Barack Obama’s announcement that the US government will partner with private industry to send people to Mars. As for the “about to” part, well that is harder to pin down, depending on if you mean just space travel or getting to Mars.
Speaking of which, this story is partially inspired by the ExoMars spacecraft from Europe and Russia, which are about to make history over the Red Planet. The Schiaparelli lander may have already made planetfall by the time you read this. [Update: News sites are confirming that Schiaparelli did indeed crash on Mars, smashing into the surface at 300kmh]
At the same time, coincidentally, China sent its first crewed mission to the Tiangong 2 space station at 2330 GMT, October 16 (the taikonauts have successfully docked with the space station and will spend 30 days aboard). The next day, October 17, the delayed launch of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket went ahead successfully, marking the first flight of the Antares since October 2014. It is indeed a good time for space exploration! And now, back to our regular programming (we’ll update on this Mars mission and the Tiangong 2 mission right here).
The timeline given by Obama mirrors closely Elon Musk’s own Mars pledge; Musk wants us on Mars by 2030 (his precise arrival year is 2025) and the US government puts it down as the 2030s (NASA plans to get to Mars in 2034). That’s his SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket pictured above by the way.
Now that Blue Origin, another one of those private enterprises the US presumably wants to work with, has successfully tested its in-flight escape system, it seems all systems are go to send the most precious cargo of all into the Great Beyond – us. Ok, we are still talking about low-earth orbit here but this is the kind of trip that has the potential to change your life forever – even it is only hypersonic flight. If we can send people into space reusable rockets or vehicles, we could potentially send them anywhere in the world within 45 minutes. In the aforementioned Blue Origin test for example, both the capsule and the booster rocket survived intact.
As for that actual Mars journey, the next step will be NASA’s own plans and, by extension, what the United Launch Alliance (that’s Boeing and Lockheed Martin) are doing. NASA is developing a powerful rocket known as the Space Launch System (SLS) and a deep space capsule, Orion, expressly to get that mission to Mars off the ground.
The ULA, for its part, is convinced we could send hundreds of intrepid explorers into space, using currently available technologies. This means that people could be living and working in the space between the moon and earth in the next 30 years or so. To go beyond this space, NASA thinks we need the SLS.
The first launch of the SLS – with no people on board – is planned for 2018. A US mission to send humans into the area of space beyond the Moon, but not as far as Mars, is planned for the 2020s. This trip is clearly meant to lead to the Mars trip because, billionaire enthusiasm aside, lots of practical questions have to be answered before we can risk such a trip.
“I’m excited to announce that we are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space,” Obama said in a written essay posted by CNN.
“These missions will teach us how humans can live far from Earth – something we’ll need for the long journey to Mars.”
The issue of getting enough food and water into space to feed astronauts on a months or years-long mission to deep space has been a key logistical problem, and little research has been done to show how this might work. Also, as we have noted repeatedly, space travel is extremely expensive, with some estimates putting the cost of sending a group of three to six to Mars at between $80 billion to $120 billion.
Ever since taking office eight years ago, Obama has said the United States wants to send people to the Red Planet, Earth’s neighbor, by the 2030s so everything from Musk’s target and Obama’s latest statement are nothing new. Also, China…
Musk also said SpaceX would send an unmanned vehicle to Mars in 2018 – that’s the Dragon 2 craft – so again there are parallels between private and public enterprises here. We wouldn’t make too much of these connections though because any Mars-bound trip, from any earthly power – private or public – has launch windows to take into account. You can’t just blast off to Mars at any old time, you see. Just as the mariners of old had to consider prevailing winds and such, we too have to mind certain limitations.