Sowing Seeds of Discovery: NASA's Quest to Reach Mars by 2030

Last Updated by Katy Beem on
The Mars 2030 Experience
NASA

SDPB @ Neutrino Day, Sanford Underground Research Lab, Lead, SD - July 8 & 9

Friday, July 8

  • Dakota Midday Innovation, Live SDPB Radio broadcast with SDPB Radio's Cara Hetland and NASA's Jason Crusan from 4850 Level - Sanford Lab (Noon/11am MT) Listen online: listen.SDPB.org
  • “NASA & The Mars 2030 Experience,” Keynote by Jason Crusan,  Homestake Opera House, Lead (6pm MT)

Saturday, July 9

  • SDPB's Science Steve at Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center, Lead, SD (8:30am - 3pm MT)
  • SDPB Science Café w/ Jason Crusan & Cara Hetland, Lotus Up Restaurant, Lead (Noon MT)

Sowing Seeds of Discovery with NASA's Jason Crusan

Although this year’s Neutrino Day headliner Jason Crusan likens NASA research to seed corn, he’s eager for you to know today’s NASA is not your grandparents’ space program.

Crusan directs NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems, where he oversees hundreds of research developers who design everything needed, beyond the rocket and the capsule, for humans to survive a voyage to Mars. His team determines how deep space travelers can function for extended periods of time absent from the very necessities that most render us Earthlings: namely: water, air, gravity, and survivable doses of radiation.

Crusan is the keynote speaker for Neutrino Day 2016 at the Sanford Underground Research Facility. He says the success of NASA’s Journey to Mars requires the same foresight used by the ag industry. “It’s like seed corn,” says Crusan. “Our technology investments we’re making today are the solutions for tomorrow,” says Crusan. “If you forget that you need seed corn, you won’t have your next generation crop and there’s no solution. It’s quite literal.”

In ag terms, this includes more seed swapping. “NASA today is different than NASA in the past,” says Crusan. “During the Apollo, space shuttle, and early space station eras, we were the only game in town for human space flight. But there are companies now, and NASA helped enable them, that are developing capabilities that meet NASA’s need for human space flight and who also serve a commercial market.” Commercial entities like Boeing and SpaceX (who will send an un-crewed capsule to Mars in 2018) sell services like cargo shipping, crew transportation, and launch and landing services to NASA. “So it’s no longer about just us completing the NASA mission. It’s a whole ecosystem that is industrial-based, no longer supporting NASA, but supporting a global industry in space – be it communication or observation satellites, and hopefully in the near future, commercial space stations.”

NASA’s always worked with industrial and academic sectors. What’s different is NASA is no longer the gatekeeper of technology and hardware. Crusan says this is changing the landscape, or Marscape, for everyone. “Companies are relying on advancements in electronics to make really, really small spacecraft,” says Crusan. “That’s been exploding. Seventy percent or more of small satellite launches are commercial right now. Universities across the country are building satellites. In the past, students would go work for a government space agency or a support agency. But now they can form their own companies because a relatively small organization can supply pretty big capabilities for a small satellite.”

NASA’s new philosophy of crowdsourcing and openness extends to the systems that will sustain humans in deep space. Crusan says the Journey to Mars has to be nimble enough to integrate new discoveries on Earth or Mars quickly. Missions can’t be too defined or close-ended when technology is changing, if not at the speed of light, at least at the speed of light technology. LED lights, for example, only recently made their way to the International Space Station for biology studies, instantly making their bulky predecessors obsolete.

Today’s NASA also recycles. “Every new Apollo mission had a new set of hardware,” says Crusan. “But you don’t have to throw away that good piece of hardware every time you go to do another mission. With our habitats and propulsion stages, we want to reuse those.” Crusan draws another agricultural equivalent. “That old tractor in the field may run reliably every single time, maybe because it’s simpler or higher reliability. That’s what we’re trying to do. Flush out all those bugs.”

Another frontier for the Mars-bound space agency is the general public. To spread support and education, NASA is partnering with Fusion Media on Mars 2030 – a virtual reality experience of a mission to Mars for personal headsets like Oculus Rift that incorporates NASA Mars imagery. At Neutrino Day, Crusan will use real and virtual imagery to describe a humans-to-Mars mission. Obtaining actual footage to recreate Martian dust storms is no small feat. “In the Apollo days,” says Crusan, “people woke up in the early hours to watch the moon mission on TV. The equivalent of that for the future is an 8K resolution, full immersive virtual reality. When we get to Mars-class distances, it’s an extreme challenge of getting data back at that high quality. Sometimes Hollywood makes things look too easy.”

The challenges to land humans on Mars are worth tackling, says Crusan. “Humans are amazing machines and as much as a virtual presence and robotics have advanced, humans can still do so much more than machines.” While a space economy is one of NASA’s goals, Crusan contends the benefits are ultimately Earth-bound. “We actually don’t spend any money in space. We spend it all here. It’s people in small businesses and communities around the country that enable the space program.” Crusan also cites human health studies conducted in zero gravity that enable medical advancements on Earth. In space, the human system consumes itself, which informs osteoporosis research. The virulence of bacteria is accelerated in orbit – biological organisms express 15,000 genes in space versus 800 at home -- which furthers vaccine research.

Crusan says humans, not technology, will determine whether or not we reach Mars by 2030.”We didn’t end Apollo because we ran out of hardware,” says Crusan. “We ended Apollo because we ran out of will to keep on going.” So Crusan sows seeds on Earth. “Our desire for the future is, as we build these systems, how do we bring the public along with us to experience it firsthand?”

Crusan would like you to join the journey.

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