A Bold Vision for Mars and the Moon Will Yield Big Technology Advancements

November 6, 2018 Updated: November 7, 2018


The Trump administration wants the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to focus on deep space exploration, a departure from the prior administration’s focus on remote observation of the Earth and precise climate measurements.

This shift calls for an increase overall in NASA funding by $350 million and defunds the International Space Station, while calling for “development of new commercial Low Earth orbital platforms and capabilities for use by the private sector and NASA.”

It seems, at least, that this strategy paves the way for “CubeSats” or “SmallSats,” which are small spacecraft with similarly precise instruments as traditional crafts but can be launched as “ride along” payloads for existing launches deployed in constellations or solo.

CubeSats are already on the way to Mars: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Mars Cube One (MarCO) is a twin pair of CubeSats set to monitor NASA’s upcoming InSight landing on Mars. InSight is the next NASA Mars mission, designed to study the geology of the red planet.

CubeSats are one of the fascinating and essential technological developments that the United States needs to continue to be able to execute upon the administration’s bold goals. Moving away from drawn-out mission timescales and traditional craft, vehicles, instruments, and even launch types that partner NASA with the commercial sector is precisely the type of strategy and policy decision that will necessitate the development of technology to meet these gaps.

New Technology

We are at a significant stage in the history of the space program, and the shift toward the moon—and ultimately toward manned planetary exploration to Mars—reminds us of the first moon landing and the requisite revolution needed to get there in the 1960s.

Other technology investments to be made include the use of “drone-like” technologies to explore other planets, such as the JPL Mars Helicopter Rover Scout (Mars Heli) designed to demonstrate the viability of heavier-than-air vehicles on remote planets. Mars Heli will fly along with the Mars 2020 rover and is to be deployed in tandem on the ground with it, providing potential surveying capabilities and access to terrain and areas of scientific interest not otherwise possible to visit.

Other innovations needed to realize the administration’s vision include the development of new high-performance spaceflight computing (HPSC) capabilities. Imagine that all of the innovations we are seeing on our desktop computer from innovative web platforms, social media, automatic image understanding, voice recognition, and intelligent assistants, and so on, would not be usable as capabilities on spacecraft. They can’t be because modern spacecraft are dependent on a flight computer developed nearly 20 years ago called the RAD 750, based on long-outdated PowerPC architecture.

Basically, spacecraft are running a very early version of the first iPhone and, as such, all technology advances occurring today using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning will only be available to spacecraft when the HPSC capabilities are available on board. In 2017, NASA selected Boeing Company to develop the new HPSC for future missions, expecting it to deliver the new flight computer by the end of 2020.

Having a powerful flight computer will be a necessity as humans go to the moon and to Mars. In addition, it will be a key enabler for the agency’s autonomous capabilities, including its rovers, planetary drones, and other assets.

Another key capability for NASA is the Mars sample-return mission, which would jettison rocks from the red planet up to an orbiter that then sends those rocks on a galactic journey back to Earth. Having the ability to send back the rocks would provide much needed understanding at a micro-scale that could pay big dividends for macro-scale Mars-to-Earth transit and transfer.

Deciphering the Rationale

Critics are quick to point to the NASA budget request, and claim that we tried to go to Mars with humans before and failed, so we should give up on that. The original date for human-oriented Mars exploration was 1975, then 2019, and now it’s 2035—so we will never get there and it will keep getting pushed out, they say. This short-sightedness neglects commercial visionaries such as SpaceX’s Elon Musk, who has said his goal is to put humans on Mars by 2024.

The commercial sector has been eyeing placing humans on Mars as a big opportunity as of late. For example, the National Academies of Sciences, which will hold the Humans to Mars Summit in May 2019, has also met previously to discuss the topic at George Washington University in May 2018. Critics have also called for additional investment and for Trump to “open the money spigot.” They are not entirely off-base—the investment made in NASA during the 1960s by President John F. Kennedy was nearly 4.4 percent of the overall budget, compared to today’s 0.4 percent investment, a factor of 11 difference overall.

The president’s own party hasn’t fully aligned with the space policy shift; its budget requirements have been met with some stern comments made by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and also by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Getting humans to Mars is fraught with tremendous technical challenges, not the least of which is the exposure to cosmic radiation, but additionally, constructing a habitat for the planetary explorers to live in, and also providing a means to generate food, as so famously shown to the world by Mark Watney’s character in “The Martian,” played by Matt Damon.

Other criticism centers around the conflation of this new strategy with the famous “Space Force” declaration by President Donald Trump to create a new branch of the military to deal, in particular, with threats from space. The Pentagon has already warned that satellites and GPS may be fair game for our adversaries and that we need to be concerned and ready to respond; the new space policy of the administration would provide critical capability to help prepare the United States in the case such a service is in fact created.

Having a lunar capability and long-term presence no later than 2020 would prepare the United States to deal with the potential threat of space as a war theater. While pundits claim that Secretary of Defense James Mattis opposes the Space Force creation, Mattis has recently clarified that his initial opposition was due to budget concerns and that he now supports Space Force and its creation.

Commercial Investment in Space

The new space policy marries the private sector as a platform for taking risks, and for moving with agility, with government plans, and big entrepreneurs have bought on in full force.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is selling $1 billion of his own stock per year to fund Blue Origin, a space “startup” with a focus on low Earth orbit and other enabling technologies needed to realize the president’s vision. Likewise, other space tycoons include billionaire Musk of SpaceX, whose plans to create a Big Falcon Rocket supply system, enabling transit between Earth and Mars, are also doubling down on the bold space vision.

Considering that the United States’ own deficit continues growing upwards of $1 trillion, partnering between NASA and commercial space companies seems to be the only way to truly yield the technological advantages required to get to the moon and to Mars, and to do so without continuing to break the bank.

Doing so will help to keep pace with the rest of the world, including China, whose plans include dropping a rover on the moon’s dark side in December 2018. Russia also plans to similarly land its Luna-25 lander on the Moon’s south pole to explore chemical compositions of the lunar surface. India is planning to land a rover on the Moon’s south pole to search for water and perform energy mining, and Israel also plans a lunar rover in partnership with Space X in February 2019.

Considering these clear moves by leading nations in space to establish a presence on the moon and likely beyond, the United States should move quickly and boldly to implement the administration’s vision and to invest in the technologies to get us there, and to Mars, sooner rather than later.

Scientific and commercial opportunities, national pride and security, and our understanding of the universe depend on it.

Chris Mattmann is a principal data scientist and associate chief technology and innovation officer in the Office of the Chief Information Officer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.