The nation’s space agency is gearing up to put humans on Mars within the next two decades. NASA is testing a supersonic lander that can carry heavy loads, and just signed a 20-year lease on a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center.
Mike Gazarik is associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and he tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson that going to Mars is part of Americans’ pioneering spirit, and will also have benefits for life on Earth.
Interview Highlights: Mike Gazarik
On the unknown cost of getting to Mars
“If you look at the history of NASA, a way to get there is a stepping stone approach. We’re going to develop the capabilities and the technologies as we can, as we can afford. … Given the budget environment and trying to be responsible, really, and be efficient with the taxpayers money, I think the approach we have now is to go as much as we can. Use the international space station. Then go out into the lunar orbit space and then work our way to Mars.”
On why it’s important to get to Mars
“Part of it is kind of philosophical, I think in a way. It’s the pride, it’s the destiny that a lot of us feel — a lot of Americans feel — to explore, to pioneer. But there’s also a practical aspect. A lot of the technologies and capabilities we need to get to Mars benefit life right here on Earth. So as we get there and as we do that exploration, there are direct benefits to us living on this planet.”
On the risks of sending humans into space for several months
“So when we’re in that space environment, what we don’t have unfortunately is the protection that Earth provides with its magnetic shield. So radiation — those cosmic rays, those solar flares that we see — all have detrimental impact on the crew. So we gotta figure out how to protect the crew as we get all the way to Mars. Once we get to Mars, then the challenge also begins. You’re coming in very fast to Mars, often over 7 kilometers a second, and you have just a couple minutes to fly through the Martian atmosphere, which is very thin, and then land safely on the planet.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NEIL ARMSTRONG: It's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
HOBSON: That sound, of course, from the moon landing in 1969. But how likely is it that in the next 20 years or so, we'll have something similar from the surface of Mars? That question will be discussed at a conference this week in Washington. And right now, on this program, NASA's Mike Gazarik is associate administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate. He's with us from NPR in Washington. Mike, welcome to HERE AND NOW.
MIKE GAZARIK: Oh, thank you very much. Glad to be here.
HOBSON: Well, where are we with this at this point? Is it still going to happen in the next 20 or so years?
GAZARIK: That is our plan, announced by President Obama and just a few years ago laid out a vision to get to Mars. Now it's a stepping stone approach, but we're working on the capabilities and the technologies to get there.
HOBSON: And how much is it going to cost?
GAZARIK: So that's - don't have a firm number for that, but there's a reason why for that. If you look at the history of NASA, a way to get there is a stepping stone approach. We're going to develop the capabilities and the technologies as we can, as we can afford.
HOBSON: So no guess at this point about what the ultimate price tag will be?
GAZARIK: No, not at this point. I mean, there's been a number of studies and road maps that talk about how to get to Mars. We think we know that challenges to get there. But again, given the budget environment and trying to be responsible, really, and be efficient with the taxpayers' money, I think the approach we have now is to go as much as we can. Use the International Space Station, then go out into the lunar orbit space and then work our way to Mars.
HOBSON: Well, isn't this always, though, one of the problems at NASA, which is that these missions that take so long to develop end up passing through president after president who come in with their own priorities for the space program, and then sometimes it's just hard to have these things that take 20 years to do actually come to fruition?
GAZARIK: It is hard, I would say, in the environment we're in. And this is true, I think, you know, in general, for society, right? It's a very short term, a short-term focus. So when you're trying to do something that is a longer term, it takes some skills, some luck, you know, to continue to get that continued support.
HOBSON: Well, why is sending humans to Mars so important for NASA and for the United States?
GAZARIK: You know, that's a great question. There's a number of reasons, I think, for that. I mean, part of it is kind of philosophical, I think, in a way. It's the pride, it's the destiny that a lot of us feel - a lot of Americans feel - to explore, to pioneer. But there's also a practical aspect. A lot of the technologies and capabilities we need to get to Mars benefit life right here on Earth. So as we get there and as we do that exploration, there are direct benefits to us living on this planet.
HOBSON: You mean the technology that we would need to build the spacecraft that'll take us there might help us here on Earth, with nothing to do with Mars?
GAZARIK: That's correct. I mean, we've seen this from previous exploration, from Apollo, from Mercury, from Gemini, from things that were developed in the shuttle, from technologies and work we're doing on station. We see direct benefits to here on Earth, examples in computing, examples in - leading to some support of the GPS system and things that we use today.
HOBSON: How long would it take to get there?
GAZARIK: So that's - depends on the propulsion system. But basically, on the systems we have today and when the planets align in the right way - remember the distance between Earth and Mars actually varies considerably. So if you line it up right, with today's conventional - what we have for propulsion or our ability to get there, somewhere on the order of six months. Six to nine months would be the travel time to get to the planet.
HOBSON: And there are big risks when it comes to sending humans into space for that long. Talk about some of those.
GAZARIK: Right. So when we're in that space environment, what we don't have, unfortunately, the protection that Earth provides with its magnetic shield. So radiation - those cosmic rays, those solar flares that we see - all have detrimental impact on the crew. So we got to figure out how to protect the crew as we get all the way to Mars. Once we get to Mars, then the challenge also begins. We have - you're coming in very fast to Mars, often over seven kilometers a second, and you have just a couple minutes to fly through the Martian atmosphere, which is very thin, and then land safely on the planet.
You may have seen when we landed the Curiosity rover a year ago, August, it's a metric ton. It's a size of a Mini Cooper. Well, we call it - there's a movie out there called "The Seven Minutes of Terror," and it talks about the seven minutes that you need to slow it down from that very, very high hypersonic speeds to land softly on the planet surface.
HOBSON: Well, so then they kind of wrapped that thing in an inflatable - like an inner tube, right? So it could just bounce around - a bouncy house.
GAZARIK: So there's been a couple of ways to slow down on Mars. When you look at Spirit and Opportunity and the previous smaller rovers, they could put it in that bouncy ball, that inflatable system. It turned out for the Curiosity rover - like I said, the size of a Mini Cooper car - you can't do that. That would not work.
So what they did is - the JPL team came up with a series of parachute, a heat shield that uses friction and heat to slow down, and then - believe it or not - a sky crane that use chemical rockets to slow it down, and then gently lower the rover on, in essence, a bungee cord to the surface. That's the most that we can do. So what we're working on today is advanced technologies to slow down because we know we need more - if we're going to explore Mars, we know we need something bigger than a Mini Cooper. So we need more cargo, we need to be able to land on Mars. And so we're working on better ways to do that.
HOBSON: In addition to the challenges of slowing down and landing, there are also concerns about the vision of astronauts who are in space for so long and don't have the gravity that we have here on Earth, right?
GAZARIK: That's right. So one of the things we can do with the International Space Station in orbit today, and we send crews up routinely, is we can learn how do we operate in space and what are some the challenges of being - not only radiation as I mentioned earlier, but like you say, microgravity. And we're learning there are some impacts on the body. But the nice part about this is with the station, we're learning how to deal with that and we're learning how to mitigate those, and we're learning how to compensate for the effects of microgravity. We've learned a lot about, for example, physical activity and how important it is for the astronauts to train regularly every day to keep their muscle mass up, to keep their bone loss at a minimum.
HOBSON: What would a human do once on Mars?
GAZARIK: Yeah. The scientific discovery we've had on Mars with our rovers today has been absolutely fantastic, right? We've been able to find water and trace the water on Mars. You can imagine with humans now and scientists being there, in addition to our rover, you know, and our robots, right, we can learn a lot about the history of the planet of Mars and what happened to it and did it have water and why did it turn out the way it did. So there's lots of exploration. Just like we learned so much from the moon and looking at the geology of the moon, we can do even more on Mars.
HOBSON: Now, we are not the only country on Earth that is trying to do this. The European Space Agency and Russia are planning to send rovers to Mars. Of course, the Chinese and Indian space agencies are also on the rise. Tell us about how NASA is doing in this quest compared to the rest of the world.
GAZARIK: International participation and international cooperation for space exploration has always been, again, for NASA - we lead the way, but it's always been an important element of what we do. If we look at the International Space Station today, again, important partners from across the world, crews from across the world. And we see the same thing going to Mars. There are a number of international partnerships, especially with the European Space Agency. They have an orbiter around Mars, and others have, you know, spacecraft on the way.
HOBSON: But do you see it as something that will be done in partnership with other countries or something that will be done country by country?
GAZARIK: Yeah, I think given the budget and the challenges, I think you're going to see a partnership. That's been the way we've done, you know, big, difficult challenges before like the building of the International Space Station. I think you're going to see that international cooperation is essential.
HOBSON: So given all of the challenges and the amount of time that it's going to take to get a man or a woman to Mars and the amount of time it would take to get them back and all of the risks that are involved, is it going to be hard to find somebody who wants to go?
GAZARIK: So we've done some surveys - informal - on that, and I tell you there's a lot of hands being raised when we asked that question.
GAZARIK: The excitement - and the question has been asked a variety of ways with our own astronaut crew, with former astronauts and with just the general public in a variety of forms. And if you go look at - one of the private enterprises has looked at that as well and maybe even talked about a one-way trip. And the excitement that people have to go is absolutely there. You know, the world is still full of explorers and people that have passion to explore. And, you know, and I think that's terrific for all of us.
HOBSON: Mike Gazarik is associate administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, talking with us today about the mission to Mars, which could happen in the mid-2030s. Mike, thanks so much for joining us.
GAZARIK: Thank you, Jeremy.
HOBSON: And by the way, if you look up in the sky tonight, you might be able to see Mars. It is at its closest distance to the Earth in many years. I saw it last night. It's easy to tell it's Mars because it is red.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It is red.
HOBSON: It is red. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston, in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.