Making the Trip to Mars: Are we there yet?

Some say it might happen as early as 2030.  Others, even sooner.  But are we really that close to sending humans to Mars?

Photo credit: courtesy of Annie Caraccio

In search of answers, we invited Dr. Paul Hintze of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to the program.  One of the greatest challenges of reaching Mars, explains Hintze, is the distance itself.  After all, it is a whopping 140 million miles away (click here for a visual).  On a trip that long, communication with mission control would likely grow increasingly less frequent and delayed the farther the shuttle moved away from this charming little Blue Marble we call home.  And such a journey would surely demand more fuel than missions of the past and present.

With these inherent challenges, it’s not just the crew that would have to become more self-sufficient.  A trip to Mars would require that the shuttle, too, depend less on Earth support.  And that is where Hintze’s work comes into play.  He has devoted considerable effort to a project called “Trash to Gas,” and yes, that is its official name.  The objective…other than evoking the occasional chuckle?  Well, the primary goal is to develop technologies that will enable astronauts to recycle trash accrued over the course of the flight into something useful like fuel.  For starters, this would help keep the shuttle from becoming a high-speed waste bin after months of travel.  Secondly, and more importantly, the crew would have an additional source of power.

Quite remarkably, Hintze and his colleagues have already developed a device, but it still has some ways to go, notes chemical engineer Annie Caraccio, who has worked closely on the project.  And regrettably, any improvements will have to wait, as funding for the project is currently on hold.

Annie Caraccio on the right, Photo credit: courtesy of Annie Caraccio

“Many times trash is not the top priority for space missions because topics such as propulsion, radiation, and human health issues understandably trump trash conversion,” says Caraccio.  Nevertheless, she is optimistic that their efforts will resume shortly.  “As we continue to look more and more into a long duration human mission, this funding and focus will pick back up,” insists Caraccio, who hopes to further advance the project if and when that time comes.

Prior to the funding setback, Caraccio had an opportunity to test out the device and where else other than the Mars-like habitat on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii.  That’s right.  Caraccio was one of five crew members selected to spend 120 days in a 1,000-square-foot dome.  While the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation might not be your idea of a holiday in the sun, it proved especially valuable for the Trash to Gas project.

The HI-SEAS 1,000-square-foot dome, Photo credit: courtesy of Annie Caraccio

Over the course of four months, Caraccio detected clear patterns in how the crew generated trash – and not simply the kind, but also the amount and periods in which it was most frequently accrued.  Riveting?  Maybe not, but her observations will be key when Hintze and his team finesse the design and functionality of the Trash to Gas device.

So, to review, what have we learned?

First, we now know Mars is very, very far away.  We also know that scientists are coming up with creative ways to tackle the problems associated with that distance.  But after all this talk of trash and gas, have we answered the initial question?  Are we really less than a couple decades away from sending Homo sapiens to the distant Red Planet?

According to Caraccio, “that is a fair and accurate estimate…perhaps sooner.”