NASA Considers The International Space Station As a Base For Trips To Mars

NASA will change things in Earth orbit a bit to prepare for the giant leap to Mars. The agency has considered the International Space Station (ISS) as a key training ground for farther trips since the first astronauts visited the orbiting laboratory in November 2000. But NASA plans to reinforce this role for the station in the future. next, treating the IEE more explicitly as a "transit analogue to Mars" to prepare manned missions to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

“We could really do much more,” said Julie Robinson, NASA's chief scientist for the EEI Program, on Saturday, November 2 at the first Space Health Innovation Conference. "We are ready to do more, because we have 20 years of very good data sets."

Robinson led a multidisciplinary team that recently identified a handful of changes in the use of IAS that could help pave the way for NASA's crew to the Red Planet. One of these “use cases” is the accomplishment of more missions of a year in the laboratory in orbit.


Crews usually spend about six months on board the ISS before returning to Earth. But that's much shorter than a mission on Mars would be; The trip to the Red Planet takes eight to nine months in one direction with current propulsion technology. Therefore, NASA wants more data on the effects of long-term spaceflight on the physiological and psychological health of astronauts. (The IEE is not a perfect Mars analog in this regard, of course; it resides within the Earth's protective magnetosphere and is therefore exposed to less harmful radiation than a Mars vessel would be.)

To date, the agency has launched a one-year mission of the IEE, sending Scott Kelly to live in the laboratory in orbit from March 2015 to March 2016. Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko also participated in this flight , spending 342 days in space, just like Kelly.

NASA has also extended the stays of two other IAS astronauts within the “transit on Mars” range: Peggy Whitson accumulated 289 days of continuous flight in 2016 and 2017, and Christina Koch, who arrived at the orbiting laboratory in March, It is scheduled for February 2020.

But these three data points are not enough, Robinson said.

"What we are saying now is that we really want to raise that level and add 10 more points to the United States database," he said.

The EEI Program has approved that plan, which NASA can begin to implement once a private astronaut taxi is operational, Robinson added.

The NASA Commercial Crew Program has financed the development of two of these capsules: SpaceX Crew Dragon and the Boeing Starliner CST-100. Both could start flying people next year. But until that happens, NASA will continue to rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to take and bring astronauts to the orbiting laboratory. And that poses a planning problem.

"We have to have control of our lifeboat in order to control the crew's schedule," Robinson said.

"And we are still working with our Russian colleagues to define if they will have the participation of some cosmonauts as well," he added. "Because that is the strongest option, it is if we have both entities collaborating, as we did with Mikhail and Scott."

The second use case also depends on the availability of a private vehicle – specifically, Starliner. NASA wants to learn more about the capabilities of astronauts "unconditioned" by long-term space flights, to see what they can do immediately after landing on Mars after their long journey. For example, will they have enough fine motor skills to exchange power cables in their landing module or perform other complicated tasks if necessary?

It is not a silly question. Consider how helpless astronauts seem after returning from the IEE missions; They are taken from their Soyuz by recovery teams, wrapped in blankets and curled up in comfortable chairs to wait for full medical exams.

And there are logistical concerns that go hand in hand with health problems. For example, previous studies conducted with NASA's Mars architecture team showed that if you couldn't expect the pioneers of the Red Planet to do something for a week, you would have to build much more battery power in your landing module , doubling its mass, Robinson said.

NASA conducted a 10-hour sensorimotor test on newly landed members of the ISS crew last June and would like to make a one or two-day version with astronauts coming down at Starliner, Robinson said. The Boeing capsule is the one chosen because it lands on the mainland, like the Soyuz (and as a landing module on Mars), while the Crew Dragon sinks into the ocean.

"The landings in the water are not really good as an analogue of Mars, because one takes something that was already quite bad and makes it horribly worse when bouncing in the ocean," said Robinson.

If the IEE Program approves this plan, in-depth tests could theoretically be carried out – whose nature is still being developed – as early as 2022, on the third Starliner crew landing, he added.

Astronauts traveling to Mars will not have access to all the comforts offered by the IEE, which has approximately the same internal volume as a 747 jet and is regularly replenished from the ground. These off-limits services also include real-time advice from ground controllers, given the delay in communications caused by the large distance between a ship bound for Mars and Earth. Therefore, the pioneers of the Red Planet will have to be more self-sufficient, especially when it comes to emergencies.

This leads us to two other use cases: simulate a serious medical problem that arises during the trip to the Red Planet and impose a time delay similar to that of a mission on Mars in communications with mission control. NASA plans to do a medical simulation in the ISS next spring. The EEI Program has agreed to plan a two-week communication delay experiment, Robinson said, and it is possible that longer periods will occur in the future.

However, SSI cannot accommodate all cases of potential use. For example, it would be good to restrict available space to 880 cubic feet (25 cubic meters) per crew member, because that is more or less what is expected to provide a ship bound for Mars, Robinson said. But that modification cannot be done in the well-packed IAS; There is simply no way to move things to get the desired effect.

However, space restriction experiments could be carried out in commercial modules that dock with the IEE in the future, Robinson said, or with free-flight space stations that are installed in low Earth orbit. Such work could also be done at the Gateway, the small lunar orbit outpost that NASA plans to start building in 2022 as part of the agency's Artemis lunar exploration program.

And Artemis itself is a step towards Mars, NASA officials stressed. The agency wants to establish a long-term sustainable presence in and around the moon by 2028, thus learning the skills and techniques necessary to bring astronauts to the Red Planet.