Blog | February 24, 2016, 10:52 PST

Of course Earth is the best planet. But aren't you a bit curious about NASA's missions to Mars?

By Laura Faye Tenenbaum

A demonstration at NASA Langley Research Center's Structures and Materials Laboratory of a future otherworldly home for astronauts.

A demonstration at NASA Langley Research Center's Structures and Materials Laboratory of a future otherworldly home for astronauts.

A few weeks ago, a journalism student approached me about interviewing a NASA spokesperson about the pros and cons of going to Mars. I could tell by her tone and the way she phrased her request that it was thinly veiled code for “I think it’s stupid for NASA to waste so much money sending people to Mars.”

Look, I appreciate Planet Earth as much as, if not way more, than the next person. I’m one of the few people I know working at NASA who has never even wanted to be an astronaut. Sure, floating and flying gravity-free would be full-on fantastic for like…wait for it…fifteen minutes. But being stuck in a metal tube without windows or showers, eating nasty food and using a space bathroom make me shake my head no faster than you can say “Buzz Aldrin.”

But really, I have to have the smell of dirt, the smell of the soil of our Earth. Yes, you may be rolling your eyes right now and thinking I’m weird. But trust me, smells affect our reptilian brain and they’re super important. You wouldn’t value the smell of Earth until you didn’t have it, and then it would drive you bonkers. Besides, if you’re a journalist, you should know that NASA sends more robots to space than it sends people. Robots are a bargain, so as far as I’m concerned, we can send as many of them to the red planet as we please.

Still, I understand why some people get upset about the idea of going to Mars, whether we send humans or robots or salami sandwiches. But the arguments for and against have already been hashed out and are so well documented that anyone with access to the Internet can read up on the topic for days.

So, now back to Earth, the interesting planet. And scene.

Except wait a minute. Wait just one minute.

What if you got the chance to go inside one of the space-pod living quarters NASA is developing for astronauts to potentially live on the surface of a planet other than Earth? Would you be curious? Just a little? Would you go inside and check it out just to see it? Hell to the yes you would. Totally.

So would I.

Which explains how I managed to be standing in the entry area part of “the habitat” in the Structures and Materials Lab at NASA’s Langley Research Center, hearing a drawn out “whoosh” sound. “You’re gonna get a burst-a air, and then you’re gonna have your ears pop,” said David Mercer, a NASA application developer, in a Virginia accent. He was giving me a tour of NASA’s Expandable Habitat Demonstrator, a white pod-looking thing that reminded me of a giant dinosaur egg, the possible-someday-future crib of up to six astronauts.

Mercer explained that the whoosh sound was the pressure being equalized in the air interlock area. It’s like one of those mud rooms where people store their galoshes, and where astronauts would probably store their uniforms so as not to contaminate the living quarters. Astronauts would equalize the pressure in this entryway before going outside by creating a vacuum if they were on the moon or by filling the air interlock area with Martian atmosphere if they were on Mars.

The habitat and the journey

Going inside "the habitat."
Going inside "the habitat." Credit: NASA.
After the pressure equalized, we stepped across a threshold, which looked like the porthole entryway from any sci-fi film you’ve ever seen, and into the inner compartment of the habitat, a round white space that was about the size of my bedroom. I wondered how anybody could live in the teeny little room.

We emerged from our dino egg and Mercer continued to show me around the Expandable Structures for Lunar Landers and Habitats Laboratory. I was surprised to learn that these odd, egg-like, otherworldly space-houses were made from lightweight, flexible, expandable and durable fabric and that these new, innovative materials would likely have countless uses here on this planet.

Then Mercer led me over to a crane-looking contraption with a space forklift and a space scoop attached to it like a ginormous Swiss army knife made for space: the Lightweight Surface Manipulator System, which gets mounted on top of the lander to unload the habitat. “The landers would get there before the astronauts,” he explained. “The first lander’s robots would go around scouting out places to set up base. You would probably go out with a mobile device like a plow and level everything out. Then another lander would come with a habitat, or several landers with several habitats.”

The point of all this is to design, develop and build various expandable structures, including landers, habitats, excavators, transport vehicles and construction tools that may someday serve as a sustained settlement or outpost on another planet. All of it needs to be versatile, modular, compact, durable and light-weight. Piece o’ cake, right?

On top of those challenges, astronauts have to be concerned about being bombarded with radiation during solar storms, which can last up to 36 hours. The journey to the moon is only two days, but a trip to Mars could take up to six months depending on the propulsion and how the orbits of the two planets line up. On a long journey like that, they’d have to go into some kind of protected area. Mercer pointed to a space the size of a small walk-in closet and described a scenario of up to four people huddling in the closet for the duration of the storms. Wheeee! Sounds super fun, right (sarcasm intended)? You could come out for a few 15-minute intervals during the storm, he explained, to take care of b’ness (if ya know what I mean).

But honestly, why do all this? Why go to all that trouble building and testing structures and materials for potential travel and habitation outside of Earth?

Because there’s something about having a goal that’s barely attainable that sets an aspirational tone for all of us, whether or not we work on NASA’s journey to Mars. Reaching towards an intangible goal, towards what seems almost impossible, inspires motivation, commitment, purpose. It’s visionary.

And being inspired by something visionary requires looking beyond what others regard as stupid or wasteful.

NASA Langley Research Center's Structures and Materials Laboratory, home of the space-pod living quarters. Credit: NASA.
NASA Langley Research Center's Structures and Materials Laboratory, home of the space-pod living quarters. Credit: NASA.

I look forward to reading your comments, visionary or otherwise.