Leave it to NASA, Buzz Aldrin, and NASA TV to remind me of my childhood dreams and my long suppressed desire to be involved with the space program. I just spent a few hours watching an Apollo XI lecture on NASA TV featuring a keynote address by Buzz Aldrin, and was inspired to post my ideas on getting to Mars. I've never told anyone this, but it was a secret objective of mine to become an astronaut when I applied for the Air Force Academy in high school (one of only two colleges I actually applied for in my senior year), and then later applied for and joined the Air Force R.O.T.C. at Michigan State University when I didn't get accepted into the A.F.A..
I wanted to be an astronaut so badly for so long that it was physically painful when I flunked out of M.S.U. after my second semester. (I didn't do well there because I was profoundly damaged by the loss of a close cousin and another close family member developing new medical issues.) I was depressed for two very good reasons, and felt the death of two dreams: being a fighter pilot and an astronaut. Nonetheless, I never passed up an opportunity to watch a shuttle launch, and I can still sit and stare at the NASA TV channel for hours.
Now, I have no illusions that I'll ever get to be an astronaut, but that doesn't mean I can't contribute in a meaningful way to the space program. Hundreds or thousands of Americans do on a daily basis. The problem I face is lack of access for submitting my ideas. So, I'm hoping that this post will some how, some way, make its way on to the monitor of someone that might find them useful in our push to Mars.
Mr. Aldrin stated that there was a 66 year interval between the Wright brothers' first flight and Apollo XI landing on the Moon, and that there should be the same interval between Apollo XI and a manned flight to Mars. He also stated that NASA had spent about 10% of its budget during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs investing in new technology for the future, and that since then, the budget had been primarily directed towards running the current programs instead of developing new technology. I can't confirm or deny those statistics or statements, but I definitely think NASA and the United States as a whole should pull together, and develop a detailed oriented plan for getting to Mars. I also think that this effort should start with us, the United States, but evolve to include all nations interested in exploring Mars, and eventual colonization of that world.
While I don't have a complete, detailed set of steps to get there, here are my ideas for getting us to Mars and establishing a colony there:
Establish a Planet-wide Communications and Positioning Network
One of the more significant problems we currently have on Mars is communicating with the rovers and landers we currently have on the surface. To some extent, this problem has been lessened with the orbiters relaying signals to and from them ground-side robots when Mars' rotation would otherwise eliminate communications. However, any manned exploration of the planet will need to be able to maintain communications with Earth at all times, signal travel time notwithstanding.
To that end, and to enable any two planet bound explorers (human or robotic) to locate and communicate with each other, a network of communications and positioning satellites need to be placed in Mars orbit. Given the expense of launching a single satellite into Earth orbit, I would propose that a swarm/flock of micro- or nano- satellites be launched to fulfill this role. I would also propose that each of these satellites utilize ion drives similar to that used on the Deep Space I and Dawn probes some years ago. Given the small size of micro and nano satellites, I believe that an ion drive would be a much more efficient propulsion system and would be able to keep the satellites in orbit for a much longer period of time than conventional propellants.
The swarm should be developed to automatically accept new members, and be able to rebalance itself should one or more members be lost due to malfunction, space debris, or collision with other man-made or heavenly objects. This will require a certain amount of self sufficient artificial intelligence to be built into each satellite so that loss of any single node will not cripple the entire swarm.
The swarm would be primarily for Mars-local communications and positioning, and they would use two or more larger, more conventional satellites for relaying data to and from Earth. These larger satellites don't necessarily have to be the size of Earth orbiting communications satellites, but they would need to be able to store a large amount of in-transit data for retransmission in the event of communications failure (due to solar flares or other sources of interference), and should provide multiple channel, high bandwidth communications to and from Mars. These larger satellites would relay any and all communications to and from Mars probes, manned explorations, and the early days of any colonization. Similar satellites would need to be placed in Earth orbit for the same relaying purposes.
Automated Mining, Refining, and Fabrication Robots
One of the biggest problems Mars explorers and colonizers will face will be developing their habitat and processing resources into usable materials, whether for fuel or building materials. While the concept of terraforming Mars as a long term goal is at once appealing and terrifying. In the short term, 25-100 years (yeah, that's a long time in human years, but not even the blink of an eye geologically speaking), humans would need to build an outpost in which to dwell.
While we are technologically capable of building, sending, and assembling such a structure to Mars from Earth, it would be far less expensive I believe to design, build, and send robots capable of mining, refining, processing, and utilizing Mars native materials for this purpose.
To start, we would need to build a robot whose sole purpose was to unfold and manage a fairly large array of solar panels, and perhaps wind turbines to generate electricity for all other robots at the construction site. This power supplier would need to be able to keep the solar cells clean, and position them at the optimum angle to collect sunlight from dawn to dusk. I imagine such a robot as being a multi-legged beast to using some of the recent advances in flexible cheap solar cell technology. It would utilize simple legs in order to compensate for uneven terrain at the initial landing location. Separate or integrated wind turbines could be added to this power supplier to give an all weather, day or night power generation capability.
A mining robot would take care of clearing the outpost zone of loose rock and soil, and be capable of at least minimal landscaping activities such as leveling the soil and excavating larger rocks and digging small to medium pits for resource storage. The mining robot(s) primary purpose would be to gather raw material for the refining robot to break down into relatively pure constituent components: iron, nickel, gases and liquids.
The refining robot would probably be the single largest consumer of the electricity provided by the power supplier as it would electrically smelt materials provided by the mining robot(s) much as many refineries do here on Earth. Prior to applying its more destructive tools to any materials, it should first perform the scientifically accepted instruments for detecting life as we know it to the materials, and set any matching specimen aside for human examination. All other materials should be divided into categories depending on their composition: metals should be separated prior to smelting as much as possible, and further separated during the smelting process to enhance purity. Any gases released during the smelting process should be captured and distilled into their respective liquids, especially hydrogen and water. Storage of liquids and gases will probably pose the greatest challenge as leak-proof containers sent from Earth will initially be required. I'm uncertain whether it will be technically feasible to produce air-tight storage containers through automation on Mars without human assistance, however it is possible that this task might be resolvable prior to a manned mission to Mars within the targeted time frame. It should also be noted that in all likelihood, any smelted metals on Mars will likely contain some amount of carbon due to the high presence of carbon in the Martian atmosphere. This means that iron refining would likely produce at least a small percentage of low grade steel or carbon infused iron.
Once the smelting robot has done its job, metals would need to be cooled and preferably stored in pellet form in the storage pits dug by the mining robot(s). Each pit would be designated for a different metal, and that information would be stored redundantly in the mining, refining, and resource management robots. The resource management robots would be responsible for placing resources in the storage pits as well as retrieving them from those locations as well. Upon request they would be responsible for providing the desired resources to the smelter for a second round of smelting to produce targeted metals, such as alloy production.
The smelting robot would also produce sheets of metals of a desired width, length, and thickness for use by one or more production robots, which would cut, bend, shape, and weld the materials to produce the desired equipment, structure, and/or habitat. It would need the ability to check for leaks, vacuum the air out of containers and structures, and place them at a designated location. It will need to be able to fabricate parts large and small, and to be able to fill containers or structures with gases or liquids (for instance for storage of water, hydrogen, oxygen, etc.).
The fabricator will need to be able to produce both simple and complex mechanical parts, and be able to reclaim any waste materials for recycling through the smelter. For instance, the fabricator will need to be able to build the individual components for a valve, be able to assemble the valve, and place it into a larger part such as a pneumatic press. Similarly, it would need to be able to roll metal into a cylinder, seal the ends, place a valve on it, and pump out the trapped gas in order to make a proper storage tank for gases such as oxygen or hydrogen.
The final stage of fabrication should include laser etching a bar code or other machine readable code onto the produced item so that it can be properly identified by both machines and humans.
These are just a few ideas and generalities that I think would be useful in the exploration and eventual colonization of Mars, or any other world. Accurate navigation and world wide communication on any world will require satellites to perform these functions. In order to properly position robots in close proximity for establishing a foothold for humans will require precision navigation and communication both before and after planet-fall. An automated mining, refining, and production compound can provide not only the basic building materials and substances that human explorers might need, but reduce the overall cost of such a mission by readying those resources prior to the arrival of the explorers. Subsequent colonization efforts can then further utilize those resources to establish a long term human presence on the surface of another world.
These are just my thoughts but if they can be useful to NASA in the exploration of our solar system then I'd be proud to discuss them at length. Otherwise, please disregard them or use them for inspiration for your own ideas. Either way, I'd be interested to hear from anyone reading this.