13 Jul 2016

Dr Dava Newman: Humans on Mars

From Nine To Noon, 9:38 am on 13 July 2016

“Boots on Mars” - That's the motto of NASA at the moment and the agency's second in charge, Dr Dava Newman, says we'll get there by the year 2039 - 70 years on from the first moon landing.

Dr Dava Newman modelling her Biosuit. The biosuit is a tight, form fitting spacesuit with a clear bubble helmet.

Dr Dava Newman modelling her Biosuit Photo: Douglas Sonders/NASA

And NASA's been making some strides towards that goal.

It recently completed a critical test of the Space Launch System - a next-generation rocket that's set to take humans into deep space for the first time in decades.

Even further afield its Juno probe went into orbit around Jupiter last week.

Dr Newman has also been instrumental in research to make life in space easier on astronauts.

In her previous job with MIT she designed the Biosuit - a new, sleek kind of spacesuit that makes it easier for astronauts to move around while walking on the surface of the Red Planet.

Kathryn Ryan talks to Dava Newman who is in the country for the New Zealand International Science Festival.

Read an edited excerpt of the interview below:

Explain the sort of strides you are taking towards getting people to Mars

Well, our journey to Mars is already well underway. There are three phases – so there will be what I call “Boots on Mars” in 2030, [it will be] the farthest humanity would ever travelled and explored.

First [is] why? Why travel? And asking the enduring questions: Are we alone in the universe? Are there other habitable planets? And particular to Mars – did Mars once have life? We think the evidence is mounting.

So a three-phase plan. So the first phase starts closer to home on the international space station. For 16 years we’ve had astronauts working together in the lower orbit and were learning about their physiologies and we’re learning about their technologies.

Second phase is the 2020s…. that’s called the space launch system with the Orion capsule on top that will harbours the astronauts. All of the 2020s will be taking humans a next step further than humans have ever been. So that’s earth moon orbit and we call that deep space beyond, and we will be trying to test the technologies that only we have to test in deep space to get to Mars. We have a list of 85 top technologies we have to get to mars, but 4-6 we call prove out, so that will be the proving ground in the 2020s.

Phase three: Mars orbit, then Boots on Mars. So we are closer than humanity has ever been to standing on the Red Planet, but as you know we have been exploring for 50 years with orbiters and landers and landers on Mars. So every day I check the Martian temperature. The warmest it gets is freezing and it gets right down to -200 degrees Celsius.

So there’s the plan, but what are the biggest barriers to this happening?

Launch capability, first and foremost, because we need heavy lift launch system. So our space system needs to be more powerful than the Saturn 5. So we’re testing the pre-ambles, we’re testing the solids, we’re testing the engines and we’re putting it on the stack in 2018. That’s its first mission and we call the Exploration Mission One. And it won’t have astronauts on board. But that’s just around the corner so all the milestones we’re testing for 2018 and the launch of Exploration Mission One. Then early in the 2020s there will be exploration mission two, then three, four, five and we just keep going through that decade. So we will have that heavy launch capability that the world doesn’t have at this time. So that’s our major development programme that we have at this time at NASA. And when we get into orbit we will need in space propulsion, so that means solar-electric propulsion.

Of course [people] are living on space stations, but we need to close the loops. So for the air loop it has to be completely closed and you have to recycle all the water, all of the liquid. We need closed loop systems and we don’t have them yet.

And we do that third phase to Mars, [the astronauts] have to be completely autonomous, and completely independent from Earth.

How accurate was the movie The Martian?

It was excellent, we consulted with them. First of all [Andy Weir] wrote a great book, and really did his research. They really wanted to portray that they were using the correct technology. We say at NASA “We’re the real Martians, and we’re walking on all those technologies.” And they did a really great job to get it right.

The support system shown in that movie, and the entire self-sufficiency entirely feasible though. And understanding the science in order to do so.

That’s right, it’s completely autonomous. All of our life support systems, but growing your own food, so on the space station today we’re growing lettuce and vegetables and the astronauts are harvesting…We really have to have our own life support system on Mars. Mars has an atmosphere, but it’s only one percent and it is carbon dioxide so there will be a pressurised habitat, and there will be exploring abilities and the astronauts will need a lot of mobility. Because why are we going there with humans? We’ve been there with rovers and landers for 5 years. But the first human mission, for say the first month, they will cover more territory than we have covered in 50 years.

And we work in teams. So astronaut explorers with my robots with path planning. I’d love to send astronauts out there to find out:  where is the evidence of life? The “why” for Mars, which they didn’t really portray as well in the movie as I would have liked. Why are we going? We are going to look for any signs of the history of life. Mars and Earth are sister planets – 4.5 billion years old each. About 3.5 billion years ago we think Mars harboured like, it was probably wet, and wonderful. Today we don’t see life on Mars, it is pretty cold. I wouldn’t say it’s a dead planet. We see methane coming up and some of the characteristics that could harbour life. But essentially we are going there as fossil hunters. To find out about past life. Because whatever we find out about Mars will tell us about life here on Earth.