As the 50th anniversary of the first human moon landing in July approaches, NASA scientists and engineers at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View are perfecting technology to take the next generation of astronauts to the Moon and Mars.
NASA’s ultimate goal in the next decade is to establish a permanent, sustained human presence on the moon. Astronauts are expected to touch down by 2028, and NASA could begin preparing the surface of the moon for human landing as early as 2020.
A successful presence on the moon will pave the way for the first human space flight to Mars, and NASA technology born in the Silicon Valley will play a crucial role in this feat.
“What happens here can influence where we can go, how fast we can go and how we can come back.” Robin Beck, an aerospace engineer in charge of materials at NASA, said at Ames on Monday. “The scariest part is getting back from Mars, for humans.”
One of Ames’ innovations is the phenolic impregnated carbon ablator, or PICA. The carbon-based heat shield material protects astronauts and space ships as they burn through planetary atmospheres. The Ames Arc Jet Complex team, whose unofficial slogan is “Without Us, You’re Toast,” can produce temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. PICA has been tested to withstand temperatures as high as 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit — a simulated entry into Mars.
The 80-year-old facility’s signature wind tunnels have also been used to simulate space flight and gather data for every NASA space flight since the Apollo missions, which brought Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon.
Though the crux of their work is to protect astronauts and ensure their safe return from deep space, that work is “very, very fun,” Beck said, especially while creating innovative technology that will be used in a generation-defining mission.
As engineers fine-tune space flight and shuttle mechanics, biologists in the Ames BioSentinel Lab are determining how radiation will affect living organisms once humans are able to reach Mars. Once initial shuttles to the moon are launched, their yeast study will become NASA’s first biology experiment in deep space since the Apollo missions. The lead-up to a moon visit, and eventually Mars, will begin with bolstering the International Space Station. The low-earth satellite has been continuously inhabited since 2000, and NASA has been working with private companies like Boeing and SpaceX to support its operations.
Both companies have been awarded multi-billion-dollar contracts to carry humans to the International Space Station, and now have shared access to Ames’ special testing facilities, like the Ames Vertical Gun Range. The bright orange, roughly 3-meter structure is one of the most powerful guns in the world and can shoot miniature projectiles as fast as 15,000 mph to test the impact of space matter on shuttles and planets.
The private-public partnership is also a result of budgeting choices by the Trump administration, which has favored commercial involvement in space exploration and possible private shuttles over NASA’s own Space Launch System Rocket, or SLS.
NASA has expressed confidence in the changes, and will follow President Donald Trump’s Space Policy Directive-1 in its “Moon to Mars” initiative. The plan will first establish human space flight in a lunar orbiting platform, then ferry astronauts from the platform to the moon. The ultimate stages in the plan will enable long-term robotic exploration of the moon and prepare human missions to Mars.