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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Paul Berry (04/21/04)

Having again spoken with another astronaut, especially one that has landed on the Moon, was particularly exciting for me this week. Commander Scott has a very impressive resume, and although I knew that we would be speaking with an astronaut with experience in the Apollo Program, I had no idea that he was also involved in the Gemini missions. I mention this because of the increased risk that was associated with the early foundations of the American Space Program. Beginning with Yuri Gagarin, and then with Senator Glenn, the Space Program was by no means safe. Safety has improved significantly since the Gemini Program, but was, in my opinion, hazardous up until pressure and money from Washington forced the NASA team to step up their efforts. I refer specifically to the Apollo 1 fire on the launch pad, in which a few sparks set off in the electronics caused the death of three excellent astronauts. President Johnson was quoted as saying after the accident simply “Get it fixed.” The engineers amazingly fixed the electrical malfunctions by the end of the week. This is a testament to not only the NASA engineers, but also the courageous astronauts that continued to step into the vulnerable, small cockpits of the command modules.

In spite of this terrible disaster, Commander Scott went on two Apollo missions, (9 and 15), both of which went to the Moon, and one that actually touched down on the surface. He spent just shy of three days on the surface, which I found very surprising. I was under the assumption that lunar landings lasted no longer than a few hours. Spending this much time on the surface must have been very productive, scientifically, but also taxing physically and mentally. Professor Head recounted how when thrusters on the command module of one of the Apollo missions started to malfunction, Neil Armstrong's heart rate refused to budge an inch, even when the command module began to spin at one revolution per minute. This shows that the astronauts of the Apollo Program were trained intensely, but being on the Moon must have had some effects on them. One student posed a question to Commander Scott about the effects of this kind of isolation, both for those on the surface and the pilot in the command module orbiting the Moon. Commander Scott answered by saying that you try to put it out of your mind while there and focus on the task at hand. However, he also told us that it was a different story for the pilot orbiting above. One can only calibrate, check, and recheck instruments so many times before boredom sets in. Some wrote poetry, while others probably read or busied themselves in any way possible. I think that this inactivity would be the worst sort of mental barrier towards functioning in space. Completing tasks such as those on the Moon could help to raise self-esteem and make one feel productive, while idleness could potentially breed fear, especially while being alone. The most desolate leg of the journey would surely have been when on the dark side of the Moon. Not being able to see Earth, nor the Sun, while being engulfed in total darkness and having no line of sight to communicate with Houston would certainly have been a nerve-racking and rewarding experience in dealing with one's fears and emotions.

Commander Scott also spoke about the lessons that were learned with the Apollo Program, concerning not only space flight in general, but also on the ways of funding and maintaining a space program. As a graduate of the Air Force Academy, he was able to help improve the flight aspects while working with the lunar landers and the command module. As an astronaut, who first hand experienced the goings on of NASA, through training and preparation of his missions, he learned many things politically, all of which still have precedence in our considerations of sending astronauts to Mars. Funding, for example, was his first focus. Commander Scott mentioned that funding must be continuous and consistent in order to succeed in space. Unfortunately we are not enjoying the economic boom that we had under President Clinton, which puts us in a wary position between funding our goals and presidential initiatives, and the welfare of the country. Much like space travel itself, funding is a risk that we are prepared to take, but not now. In his second point, management, Commander Scott spoke about how “good, orderly, competent” management must be present in order to form a solid basis for our platform to prepare for a mission to Mars. A responsibility of this theoretically great management team is thorough program planning. As Commander Scott stated, “there would be no situation like Apollo 13.” Any mission equipment failures would result in a mission loss, if en route to Mars. After contemplating this for some time I not only agreed, but also understand the magnitude of this situation. If something went wrong onboard there would be no Moon to swing around, no place to stop and fix the problem. In other words, its Mars or bust for anyone headed out there. The vehicle that must be so perfect is the next topic highlighted. The design, testing and development must be undertaken carefully and with as little error and setback as possible. There is no discussion or possible contradiction to this topic, which I personally think is the most important aspect of the lessons learned. The more difficult facet of this topic though is choosing who shall design our greatest spacecraft. The last topic goes along very readily with the management aspect, which is that we must have resolve in difficult times of hardship and failure. Our upper level as well as secondary level management must be there to keep the large team of engineers, biologists, chemists, launch crew, astronauts, all the way down to the secretaries and tour guides, on task so as to complete a manned mission to Mars successfully, despite the numerous dangers and obstacles that stand in our way.

Commander Scotts first hand experience allowed me to understand the intricacies of the space program and how we can go about continuing the legacy of NASA. We are, as a race, space bound, despite the criticism from the most avid groups. The subject of the debate, which in this I believe they are misled, is not should we stay or go, but rather, when do we go? To this we must rely on the experience of former astronauts like Commander Scott and the intuition of the people working at NASA.
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