Geo016 - Exploration of Mars

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Geo016 / Exploration of Mars / (M) 3:00-5:20 / Lincoln Field 105 / Prof. James Head

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Alexandra Grassian (04/21/04)

On Monday the 19 th , our class participated in a teleconference with David R. Scott. He was the commander of Apollo 15, and before that he was on Gemini 8 and Apollo 9. On Gemini 8, he flew with Neil Armstrong, who was the pilot. This was the first time NASA had been able to dock two vehicles in space. The mission had to return early, as there was a problem with one of the thrusters. Next, on Apollo 9, Scott served as module pilot. It was a ten day long flight. Apollo 15 lasted from July 26 to August 7, 1971, with a crew of Scott, Alfred Worden and James Irwin. Scott and Irwin went to the surface of the moon on the lunar module, Falcon for more than three days, exploring the Apennine Mountains and Hadley Rille. They collected lots of samples which they successfully brought back to Earth. Also, while they were there, they used a vehicle, much like a car, and were thus able to travel far distances. They also used a camera which sent the video back to NASA, providing both technical help and human interest. While Scott and Irwin were on the surface, Worden performed various scientific experiments to get data while in orbit.

One thing that was unique about the landing site on the moon is that there were many exposed layers and they were thus able to recover materials from far beneath the surface of the moon, due to the geological features of the site. They called the site “Silver Spur.” They were able to recover the early crust of Mars, which was over 4.2 billion years old and they nicknamed it “Genesis Rock.” I thought it was great that the astronauts themselves had been so well trained by the geologists that they themselves were able to pick out this unique rock just by looking at it. I never really realized how much science the astronauts themselves did; I always assumed that the scientists back at NASA would just be issuing commands to them the whole time.

Scott really stressed the importance of how unique each mission is. He spent years preparing for each mission, learning everything he could about the landing site, the instruments, how to fix any problems that they might encounter in their mission, etc. One thing I found interesting was that each spacecraft is especially designed for each individual mission. I would have thought that once you had a basic design that worked well, each subsequent craft could be relatively the same, with maybe a few modifications here or there.

I was very surprised to hear that Scott did not support Bush's initiative. It seemed to me that any involved or who was once involved in NASA would be in favor of getting more money, no matter what the circumstances. . But Scott really stressed the importance of a clear cut reason for the President to give NASA money, and that it must be a sustained effort. If this is a one time thing, its new focus may actually hurt NASA's long term objectives in the future. After all, if Bush is only doing this to garner support for the short term (just until the election), then this new source of money will very quickly dry up.

The length of a mission to Mars is just unimaginable to me. Spending almost three years off the surface of the Earth and in totally strange territory seems crazy. I was also shocked to hear that from start to finish, Scott estimated that the total program duration would be about thirty years, with the astronauts being involved for fifteen years. He also suggested that the crew would first have to make a successful mission to the moon, in order to prove their competency. I thought this was an important requirement, as this mission to Mars will resemble nothing we have ever even attempted to do before, but it will at least give them some idea of what they might expect. Scott also stressed just how dangerous this mission would be. After all, if something went wrong they would be too far away and it would just take too long for them to come back. It could easily end up becoming a “one way” trip. Therefore, the technology must improve drastically in order for this to happen. And, the crew themselves must be in incredibly good shape and healthy because they will really be on their own and if any of them were to get sick it could prove deadly for the whole crew. Also, their muscle mass and bone mass would slowly decrease, as well as any effects the radiation could potentially have on them. Personally, I know that I would never be able to commit myself to something like a space flight to Mars, or even the moon. It's simply a risk that I would not be willing to take, even though I think going into outer space would be one of the most incredible things ever.

Another thing that surprised me was Scott's view on humans verse robots. Unlike most of the people we have talked to, and unlike most of my classmates, he did not really think humans were that necessary when it comes to Mars. He believes that technology is just going to improve so much that they would be able to do everything a human would be able to do, if not more. And, in addition, it is much safer for a robot than it is for a human. And, sending humans requires much more money than sending robots does, do to the safety factors and such. What he said made perfect sense to me, but I just cannot believe that there would come a day when a robot could take the place of a robot.

Scott's sense of self-assurance was absolutely amazing – he barely flinched when he talked about life and death experiences he went through and the intense training he went through. I suppose, as people said in class, being an astronaut just requires this kind of mental ability.

 

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