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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Michael Frederickson (04/14/04)

Our discussions on Monday focused around a teleconference with Dr. James Garvin in which we further considered the reasons for future exploration in space, particularly on Mars. I felt as if we formulated some excellent questions for Dr. Garvin, and I was very pleased with his articulate and thoughtful responses. Dr. Garvin began with a PowerPoint presentation concerning many of NASA's plans for the future of exploration. It interested me that he claimed that the President's space initiative is actually shifting the balance of the type of science NASA will be asked to do. The “science triangle” that Dr. Garvin spoke of seems to lie at the root of the questions that need to be asked about what we need to know on Mars, and the processes which must be followed out to answer them. Dr. Garvin alluded briefly to the managerial structure at NASA, both in response to a question by a classmate and in references to what his boss has suggested about landing sites. I agree with Professor Head's assertion that having Dr. Garvin near the top of the management hierarchy is a boon for NASA, as he seemed open minded and well-versed in broad areas of science theory. As such, it seems he is cognizant of the objectives and the overall plan for exploration, rather than being over focused on engineering hurtles or the like. This relates back to my mention of the science triangle, as this is somewhat of an abstracted view of the scientific process. Dr. Garvin displayed the ability to step back from the specifics of the tasks at hand and look at the fundamental shifts in the way questions are being asked and answered in order to meet with the objectives of the nation. This is a vital and enviable skill, and I believe discussing exploration with an individual who solidly understands this notion was extremely beneficial to our synthesis of a future plan.

Dr. Garvin also laid out some of the specific plans NASA has for future Mars exploration. Personally, I was most interested by the 2009 MTO mission. The MTO will basically be a mission to set up better communication with Earth from Mars. This type of work interested me, because I think NASA has come to realize that by investing in one mission like MTO they will enhance the capabilities and ease with which they can accomplish other tasks. This modular approach to exploration is quite a good idea. The thought of being able to transmit HDTV quality real-time video from rovers on Mars, and communicate real-time signals back to the vehicles is stunning. Having that kind of response time will greatly aid the speed and accuracy with which we can explore. The current data transfer times are regrettable, as the time spent receiving and sending data slows down the entire process of exploration.

In every recent class we've built up a more solid understanding of why human exploration of Mars would or would not be a viable option. Our conversation with Dr. Garvin helped me to identify more specifically why humans would be much more capable than robots. His response to Dan's question about what we would do with humans on Mars right now was enlightening. Dr. Garvin claimed that humans are very intelligent and efficient sample collectors, and have excellent mobility and the ability to dynamically adapt to circumstance changes. Specifically enumerating these differences helps to justify the risk and cost of human exploration. Dr. Garvin's answer to my question about what technological hurtles still need to be covered also greatly interested me. I had not considered the idea of building vehicles or environments for exploration of Mars out of the results of advancements in material science, or the possibility of having a “safe-haven” from radiation set up for when solar events occurred. His assertion that advancements over the next few decades could cause unforeseen design changes was quite accurate, and I'm excited by some of the technological benefits that could come from our attempts to put humans on Mars. Clearly Dr. Garvin was very concerned about the safety of humans, and I thoroughly agreed with his statement that another human loss might not be tolerated and we may as well take out time with getting to Mars, and make sure safety and not deadlines are our priority.

In terms of funding the research, I was interested by Dr. Garvin's response that we must focus on the distribution of government funds for exploration. I think we often assume that just by doing more research on Mars we are completely cutting off such ventures as cancer research, though Dr. Garvin asserted that we need to simply maintain a fair balance. The only hurtle to me seems to be what he mentioned about sustaining a national initiative through a long time period in which objectives and economical situations could change. The changing political climate over the time between now and when we may be able to put a man on Mars could affect NASA's ability to obtain funding and carry out the plan. Clearly, the steps we are taking in class to identify why this exploration is vital to science are important, as they will allow us to set up objectives that can be maintained over the long-term period during which research, testing, and eventually exploration will be carried out.
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