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August 9, 1996

UW researchers helping NASA plan affordable missions to Mars

When NASA officials announced in 1989 that a manned mission to Mars would take 30 years and cost more than $400 billion, the large sucking sound you may have heard was one of two things: Congress quickly siphoning money out of NASA’s budget or the incredulous gasp of Adam Bruckner, professor of aeronautics and astronautics in the UW College of Engineering and author of a Mars mission plan that is as innovative as it is affordable.
The United States could put four astronauts on Mars within 15 years using existing technology and at a fraction of the cost proposed by NASA, under a plan devised by Bruckner and his students. Major elements of the plan are expected to receive close scrutiny as exploring the Red Planet soars to the top of the world’s science agenda following Tuesday’s announcement that a meteorite that fell to earth from Mars 13,000 years ago bears evidence of primitive life.

Four years ago, Bruckner anticipated this discovery and stressed the importance of continued space exploration: “We have pondered the possibilities of life on Mars and there is still the chance of finding primitive life forms — bacteria or viruses — or finding the fossils of life that once existed on Mars,” Bruckner said in August, 1992, after unveiling a detailed plan for a manned Mars mission. “We are at heart explorers. We have covered every last corner of the Earth and the human spirit needs to go out to be challenged.”

NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said the recent meteorite finding may accelerate plans for a robotic mission scheduled in 2005 to retrieve geological samples from Mars for further study. Manned mars missions are at least 20 years away under current NASA projections.

Bruckner and his students are among five research groups nationwide that are working on Mars mission plans. They have met regularly with officials at NASA’s Johnson Space (more) Center in Houston, NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif. The UW group recently updated its manned Mars mission plan and presented it in July at the Case for Mars VI Conference at the University of Colorado. The plan — dubbed Project Ares Explore — calls for sending four astronauts to Mars for 500 days of exploration for the bargain-basement price of less than $50 billion.

The key to the plan is that it takes advantage of existing technology and saves money by flying directly to Mars rather than relying on a yet-to-be-built space station, and by manufacturing fuel for the return voyage from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere. The largest cost of previous Mars mission plans was the need to carry enough fuel from Earth for a round-trip voyage.

Project Ares Explore would begin with the launch of two unmanned rockets — each with 35-ton payloads — directly to Mars. One rocket carries a fuel production factory, power supply, storage tanks, rover vehicles, and support equipment. The other rocket carries an empty two-stage booster vehicle that is used to return the astronauts to Earth at the end of their mission. After about a six month trip, the unmanned craft land on Mars in close proximity to each other and the fuel factory goes to work. For 17 months, it collects carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and separates it into carbon monoxide and oxygen to fuel the return voyage. After the rocket propellants have been manufactured, one more rocket is launched, containing four astronauts and the living quarters and life support system for the entire mission. Following a six month voyage, the crew lands on Mars close to the unmanned vehicles sent two years earlier and begins a year and a half of exploration using manned and robotic rovers. For the trip home, the refueled manned vehicle and the separate two-stage booster vehicle lift off the surface and dock in low Mars orbit. The upper stage of the booster vehicle then returns the manned vehicle and its crew to Earth, where the astronauts make a water landing in an Apollo-like capsule.

“Project Ares Explore is not only a viable option; it may be our only option,” Bruckner said. “Officials at NASA have abandoned the idea of massive operations with numerous launches to assemble materials in space and build a large fleet. They have awakened to this idea of using materials on Mars to produce fuel for the return voyage and are working with us and with other researchers on designing affordable, feasible Mars missions. Mars is attainable with our current technology. The question is what is the best way of doing it.”

For more information, contact Bruckner at (206) 543-6143 or