The Space Review

 
ISS illustration
Rather than being an impediment to future human exploration of Mars, there are ways to use the ISS to help support that long-term vision. (credit: NASA)

Why ISS can advance Mars exploration


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When Explore Mars first decided to begin the International Space Station and Mars Conference series, I was quite skeptical. Like many others in the Mars community, I didn’t see how ISS could be of much value to Mars exploration. Truth be told, I thought it served as nothing but an obstacle to Mars exploration.

However, after running several ISS and Mars programs, including conferences in Washington, DC, and in Strasbourg, France, I have come to realize that ISS can potentially be extremely valuable in advancing the cause of getting humans to Mars. However, this value will not necessarily happen automatically. While some of the essential utilization decisions have already been made, decision makers at NASA, as well within the international partnership, need to embrace some specific concepts if ISS can truly help advance the goal of sending humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO)—specifically to Mars.

If we get into the position where we are saying, “One day, we’ll be able to utilize ISS to pretend we are going to Mars,” then I fear that we will never get to Mars.

ISS and Earth-Based Analog by 2015: An ambitious Mars analog program utilizing ISS is essential. A mission where astronauts spend six to eight months on ISS and then go immediately to an analog base on the surface should be accomplished by 2015. We have known for a long time that microgravity has negative effects on the human body, but returning crews are always sent off for medical examinations and other post-mission activities. Short of going to Mars, we will not have solid data on how crews will perform after a six- to eight-month mission unless we have them perform a ground analog immediately after their return from ISS. At an analog base, which could potentially be built in Kazakhstan (or the Mars 500 facility in Moscow could be utilized), crews could perform many of the essential tasks that they will need to perform in the first few weeks after landing on Mars. At the end of this ground simulation, the crew (or a subset of the crew) could be sent back up to ISS for another six months.

Under the ISTAR program (ISS as a Testbed for Analog Research), NASA has already started engaging in analog activities at ISS and is planning Mars analog time delays and other programs to perform additional analog activities over the upcoming years. However, the planning for Mars analog activity should be started immediately in order to be able to accomplish such a mission by 2015. For ISS to be of real value for this cause, a full analog mission cannot be delayed indefinitely. One of the most damaging potential risks from a policy perspective is that an ISS/Mars analog becomes almost as politically challenging as actually going to Mars. In my discussions with various people in the ISS community, I will often hear, “Why the hurry?” I can say without hesitation that there is need to hurry.

We have never been under as much pressure to show results and can no longer live in a world of “One day, we’ll do this mission,” or “One day we’ll do that mission.” If we get into the position where we are saying, “One day, we’ll be able to utilize ISS to pretend we are going to Mars,” then I fear that we will never get to Mars.

Policy aside, it makes sense to move sooner than later from an operational perspective as well. We are not sure that ISS will have a life beyond 2020. To push this mission toward the end of the decade risks dooming the project to cancellation. Any delays could render this mission impractical to perform before the station is decommissioned. We need to do it by 2015 and show that astronauts are actually training specifically for a Mars mission. This type of analog not only has true value for Mars exploration, but it also can excite the public. If we hope to go to Mars, we can’t be timid in LEO and at Earth analog bases.

ISS has provided a sustainable model based not only on shared costs and labor, but also on international agreements that are not as easily abandoned as an exploration program based exclusively in the United States or other countries.

Technologies and Operations: ISS can also be used to work on specific Mars mission technologies and capabilities. The technologies, capabilities, and programmatic structure needed to execute a Mars mission can be built upon the continued operation of the ISS as well as its unique technology demonstration capabilities. From evolving regenerative environmental control systems, crew exercise equipment, environmental monitoring, human robotic assembly and maintenance, EVA technology, propulsion technology, to power conversion and generation technology demonstration, can all be executed onboard the ISS. The strategic partnerships that the ISS Program has built with commercial industry, academia, defense and international partners can also be leveraged to craft the policy and programmatic structure that will be necessary over many years.

The ISS and Mars program of the past year and a half (as well as other programs) have shown that there is a lot of planning being done at NASA, industry, and within the international partnership to move many of these concepts forward. Some of this work is already planned at ISS, but the rest will still require greater commitment to focus much more ISS activity toward preparations for missions beyond LEO.

International Model: The ISS international partnership has not been perfect, but despite political, budgetary, and technical challenges, this partnership has held together. In fact, if it were not for this international partnership, it is highly likely that the ISS would have been cancelled years ago. In an era where it has been difficult to keep new space initiatives alive for more than four years, ISS has survived, and will likely survive into the 2020s. Whether you are a supporter of ISS or not, one can’t ignore the potential of this model. A sustainable human exploration program is an absolute requirement if we are ever going to leave LEO. ISS has provided a sustainable model based not only on shared costs and labor, but also on international agreements that are not as easily abandoned as an exploration program based exclusively in the United States or other countries. The ISS partners have an opportunity to start planning for missions beyond LEO.

It is a commonly held belief that because of budget constraints in most national governments, a Mars mission will need to be an international mission. If this is correct, we would be foolish not to adapt an existing model. If this were to happen, rather than hindering Mars exploration, ISS could actually enable human Mars exploration.

Commercial Catalyst: When assembly of ISS began in in the 1990s, very few people believed that it would serve as a key catalyst for a new commercial launch industry. But now, it has become the centerpiece of public-private efforts to develop new launch systems and find ways to reduce launch costs—and of hopes to stimulate a new commercial launch industry. If SpaceX successfully docks with ISS this month, ISS will have helped enable what could be an historic new model for space exploration, and could have a significant impact on our plans to move beyond LEO.

We can either complain about ISS for the next ten years, or we can find ways to use ISS to advance the cause and, in doing so, get more of the personnel working on ISS to also become focused on the goal of sending humans to Mars.

Conclusion: Over the next decade, ISS will be used for many worthy projects. Focusing a significant percentage of ISS projects on Mars exploration will not only help advance the long-term goals of NASA, but it will also help glue the international partners even closer together and can help to advance the potential for an international mission to Mars and other intermediate destinations. Linking ISS to Mars can also provide stronger political backing for ISS as well as a future Mars mission by associating the preparation for a Mars mission directly to near-term programs and activities. This approach is easier to understand by elected officials and the general public than some other proposed projects that are defined by some for other missions and architectures. Additionally, if done correctly, ISS utilization can help reduce the cost and technical risk in Mars mission planning because utilizing ISS relies on existing hardware and processes that are well understood. It also provides a “ready-made” platform for expanding partnerships with commercial entities, academia, and other governmental and international agencies for future Mars missions.

It is time to put aside unrealistic arguments that ISS is going to magically disappear allowing us to instantly head to Mars. This is not likely to happen. We can either complain about ISS for the next ten years, or we can find ways to use ISS to advance the cause and, in doing so, get more of the personnel working on ISS to also become focused on the goal of sending humans to Mars.

The bottom line is this: could ISS end up being an obstacle to exploration beyond LEO? Yes. But, if we decide to make full use of the potential of this orbital facility, it not only could advance the cause of Mars exploration, but might finally be a source of excitement and inspiration around the world.


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