Monday, April 18, 2011

Why Is It So Hard to Travel to Mars?

The Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters were perhaps two of the most prominent reminders of how crucial it is that everything work just right for a spacecraft to travel to space and successfully return back to Earth. Whether it was the failure of the seal used to stop hot gases from seeping through, or a piece of foam insulation that damaged the thermal protection system, scientists and engineers must make thousands of predictions of all the things that could go wrong during flight.

NASA's human Mars mission presents even more challenges of sending humans safely to a farther distance and to a more dangerous environment. Designing an aircraft that can safely enter and exit Mars' unpredictable atmosphere is a big challenge. "Each time we fly to Mars, we learn a little more and get a little smarter," said Walter Engelund of NASA's Langley Research Center. "One thing we have learned is that the Mars atmosphere is certainly a big variable. It is much more dynamic than our own Earth's atmosphere." For missions that require entry and re-entry into an atmosphere, the design of the spacecraft is typically guided by its EDL system.

Engelund, along with several other NASA colleagues, published a review of the EDL systems currently being proposed for a future manned mission to Mars in a recent book titled "The Human Mission to Mars. Colonizing the Red Planet." The book is a compilation of studies written by a team of more than 70 scientists, including four astronauts (two who walked on the moon), offering a detailed guide of how to successfully accomplish a human mission to Mars. Engelund is the lead author of the EDL study.

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