Movies, Mars Missions and Why Murphy Was An Optimist

Graphic showing a rocket launch and an astronaut walking on Mars

If Murphy’s Law were actually true, things would arguably be much easier.

The old adage that “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” has a reputation of being the apogee of pessimism, but think about how much simpler it would make things if it were true. Spaceflight is full of unknown possibilities, and if Murphy’s Law were really true, you’d only have to prepare for the worst of them.

It’s true for a college exam and it’s true in life or in engineering – it’s not the hard questions that will get you, it’s the ones you never imagined you’d be asked.

There’s a movie out now that captures the spirit of that. “The Martian” tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on Mars who, to put it lightly, gets the opportunity to learn about what can go wrong in space exploration, and his survival depends on working with the NASA team back on Earth to answer questions none of them had ever imagined.

In many ways, “The Martian” is a spiritual successor to “Apollo 13,” both the 1995 movie and the 1970 NASA mission on which it was based. On that mission, a failure in an Apollo service module put the lives of the crew in jeopardy, and only through quick thinking, hard work and a lot of endurance was the crew able to survive.

Both movies are edge-of-your-seat stories about the risks of spaceflight and the merits of duct tape, but while one is fiction and the other is based on a true story, they both are ultimately, in a very real way, stories about NASA — about who we are, and about how we rise to the challenge of answering those unexpected questions.

The real-life carbon-dioxide scrubber assembly from Apollo 13
A square peg in a round hole — The real-life carbon-dioxide scrubber assembly that helped save Apollo 13.

I’ve talked to engineers who have cited Apollo 13, both the mission and the movie, as something that inspired them to pursue engineering. There’s a scene in the movie where a collection of the items aboard the spacecraft are dumped on a table on Earth, and the engineering team is challenged to use them to figure out how to put a square peg in a round hole. More than one person has told me they saw that scene and said, “THAT’S what I want to do!”

The Apollo 13 mission has been described as being perhaps “NASA’s greatest moment.” I talked once with an astronaut who said this title should really go to a 10-day span in May 1973. When the Skylab space station launched on May 14, its first crew was supposed to follow it on the next day. An anomaly during launch caused the heat shield to be lost and the solar power system to be crippled, endangering the space station. In 10 days, NASA figured out multiple ways to save Skylab, designed and built two different solutions, and was able to launch the first crew on May 25. Apollo 13 was primarily a story of a crew and mission control, but the Skylab rescue was a nationwide effort.

You may never see a movie about the Skylab rescue. The world may pay more attention when lives – real or fictional – are in danger, but answering the unknown is something we do every day. When we do it successfully, it means that we prevent those lives from being endangered in the first place.

It made me happy that one of the first conversations I had with a coworker about “The Martian” wasn’t about what was right or wrong with the movie, but what could have been done differently to make sure the situation it depicts never happened in the first place. On a program developing a new vehicle, our job right now isn’t solving Apollo 13- or The Martian-style problems, it’s preventing them.

Which doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges on the Space Launch System program. We prepare for the worst and we prepare for the best and sometimes we get the unknown. A material doesn’t function in reality the way it does on paper. A proven system behaves differently in a new environment. And when that happens, just like in those movies, we roll up our sleeves and we find an answer to the unexpected question.

And the moments when we do, the moments you never see in movies when we make sure the next Apollo 13 never happens or the next Mark Watney is never stranded on Mars – THOSE are NASA’s greatest moments.

(For more about the Apollo 13 and Skylab rescues, along with other great “NASA Hacks,” check out this feature.)

Next Time: Who’s The Boss?

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David Hitt works in the strategic communications office of NASA’s Space Launch System Program. He began working in NASA Education at Marshall Space Flight Center in 2002, and is the author of two books on spaceflight history.

 

Mars: Gateway to the Solar System

Graphic of rocket flying with Mars background

The demands of going to Mars are immense.

Meeting that challenge will require delivering our best, and then continuing to do better.

Designed to enable human exploration of deep space, NASA’s Space Launch System will be, from its first launch, the most powerful rocket in the world today. The first SLS to depart Earth will carry about triple the payload of the space shuttle, provide more thrust at launch than the Saturn V, and send Orion further into space than Apollo ever ventured.

But even that power is only a fraction of what is needed for human landings on Mars. To continue the Journey to Mars, we will have to take the most powerful rocket in the world and make it even more powerful.

Engineers prepare a 3-D printed turbopump for a test at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama
NASA is doing research today on technologies like composite materials and 3-D printing that will be used to make future versions of the rocket more powerful.

Engineers at Marshall’s Space Flight Center, where the program is based, and other engineers across the country, are already in the planning phases for the first major upgrade, which will come in the form of a more powerful upper stage. This will create a version of the rocket that will serve as the workhorse for “Proving Ground” missions that will test out new systems and capabilities in the vicinity of the moon before we heard toward Mars. With the new upper stage, SLS will be able to carry additional payloads to lunar space with Orion, allowing astronauts to make longer stays in deep space.

Then, in order to enable the leap to Mars, SLS will receive new, advanced booster rockets that will make it even more powerful. The SLS Program is already working with industry partners to demonstrate new technologies that will make sure the new boosters are state-of-the-art when they begin flying.

Mars is sometimes discussed as a “horizon goal” in human space exploration. While Mars is a focus of our efforts, it is neither the first step of the journey nor the last. Just as we will develop our capabilities in the Proving Ground near the moon before heading toward Mars, once we have reached the Red Planet, our voyage into deep space will continue.

Space Launch System not only represents a foundation for our first steps on the Red Planet, the robust capability necessary to accomplish that goal will also give us the ability to carry out many other ambitious space missions.

Jupiter hangs in the sky above the surface of a moon
Far beyond Mars, SLS could speed space probes far faster than ever before to the outer solar system.

With the ability to launch far more mass than any rocket currently flying or in development, SLS could be used to help pave the way to Mars with large-scale robotic precursor missions, such as potentially a sample return, that would demonstrate systems needed for human landings.

SLS’s unrivaled ability to speed robotic spacecraft through our solar system offers the potential to revolutionize our scientific expeditions to distant worlds. Reducing the time it takes to reach the outer planets could make it possible to conduct in-depth studies of icy moons that are promising destinations in the search for life.

With payload fairings that make it possible to launch five times more volume than any existing rocket, SLS could be used to launch gigantic space telescopes, which will allow us to peer farther into space, and with greater detail, than ever before, revealing new secrets of our universe.

In addition to the Orion crew vehicle and other large payloads, SLS will be able to carry small, low-cost secondary payload experiments, some not much larger than a lunchbox, providing new opportunities to for research beyond the moon and through the solar system. This will make it possible for groups that otherwise might not be able to afford a dedicated rocket launch to fly innovative ideas that can help pave the way for exploration.

The first launch of the initial configuration of SLS will be just a first step toward these and other opportunities; each upgrade will give us progressively greater ability to explore.

Mars – and the solar system – are waiting.

For more about how NASA is preparing for the Journey to Mars, check out our page, The Real Martians.

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David Hitt works in the strategic communications office of NASA’s Space Launch System Program. He began working in NASA Education at Marshall Space Flight Center in 2002, and is the author of two books on spaceflight history.

Making History, Again

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Ask anybody what an astronaut does, and they’ll talk about going on space missions. And, to be sure, that is part of being an astronaut. A rather cool part of being an astronaut.

But, strictly on time spent, it’s also the smallest major part of the job. Back in the Space Shuttle Program, astronauts would spend years on the job of which only weeks were spent in space. If that sounds like it would be frustrating, you have to remember two things: 1) The going-into-space part is really amazing. 2) The not-going-into-space part is also really amazing.

While they’re not in space, astronauts spend a substantial amount of time training, which can range from simulating spaceflight on the ground to traveling the world meeting scientists behind cutting-edge research. They also get to work closely with the NASA team on a variety of different projects, including the development of future space vehicles and systems.

When space shuttle commander Hoot Gibson was selected as an astronaut in 1978, NASA was still three years away from the shuttle’s first launch. Years before he first flew the shuttle, he got to be involved in its development and see it being built. He had a front-row seat for the genesis of the future of American spaceflight, and got to be part of making it happen.

The work we’re doing today on Space Launch System (SLS) in many ways resembles the space shuttle work that Gibson and his classmates got to witness almost 40 years ago. In some ways, it very strongly resembles it – for example, we’re once again testing RS-25 engines at the same facility they did back then, albeit with numerous upgrades over the years.

I’ve had the opportunity to hear Hoot Gibson talk about his shuttle experiences, and to share about the work we’re doing today. As someone who grew up during the shuttle era and a student of its history, it’s an incredible honor that we get to carry forward that legacy with SLS, and to write the next chapter of this history.

In this video, Gibson looks back to the days of the shuttle and forward to the future of exploration. And as we continue to work toward that future, we hope you’ll join us on the journey.

Next Time: Mars: Gateway to the Solar System

Join in the conversation: Visit our Facebook page to comment on the post about this blog. We’d love to hear your feedback!


David Hitt works in the strategic communications office of NASA’s Space Launch System Program. He began working in NASA Education at Marshall Space Flight Center in 2002, and is the author of two books on spaceflight history.

 

Four Lessons in Four Years

Way back in 2011, when the world’s attention was on the end of the space shuttle program, a small group of engineers was tasked with planning what would come next. NASA revealed the answer on Sept. 14 of that year in the form of Space Launch System (SLS) – which would be the most powerful rocket in history and would allow astronauts to travel beyond Earth orbit for the first time since Apollo.

In the four years since, we’ve made substantial progress, going from an early concept into manufacturing, testing, and even flying our first hardware on Orion’s Exploration Flight Test-1 in December 2014.

In honor of the fourth anniversary of that announcement, here are four things we’ve learned in four years. (With a big thanks to former SLS Program Manager and now Marshall Space Flight Center Deputy Director Todd May, who helped with this list.)

Atlantis makes the final landing of the space shuttle program
Atlantis’ final landing four years ago marked the ending of one era. It also marked a beginning of the next.

1) Change Is Hard. It’s Also Necessary.

The space shuttle was pretty amazing. A lot of people were sorry to see it go, myself included. I was born a week after the last Apollo capsule landed, so I grew up with the shuttle. I played with space shuttle toys as a little kid. It was “my” spaceship. I was sorry to see it go. I know an engineer who not only worked on the first shuttle flight, he was the last person to go inside its external tank before launch. He worked every shuttle mission from first to last. He also was sorry to see it go.

Change is hard. It’s also necessary. The space shuttle allowed NASA to do some amazing things in Earth orbit, but we were limited on how far we could go. To get to Mars and beyond, we needed something new, and the shuttle program was complex enough that we couldn’t do both at the same time for very long. With the International Space Station, and the work our commercial partners are doing with cargo and crew transportation, we can still do amazing things in Earth orbit without the shuttle.

Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t days I don’t fondly recall the past. I’m just more excited about the future.

And that’s been good to remember as we move forward. Even within the program, there’s been change. Leaders and coworkers have moved into new positions, some of them outside the program. They’re missed, but we keep moving forward. As we’ve matured the design of the vehicle, we’ve made changes, which sometimes means details we are attached to give way to something better. The only constant is change.

Close-up of the SLS propulsion systems during launch
If there were such thing as a “more cowbell” philosophy or rocketry, this would be it. Everything that made the space shuttle so powerful and reliable, but more.

2) There’s the Baby, and the Bathwater. You Have to Know the Difference

When we stopped flying the shuttle, we understood the capability gap we would have to send our own astronauts into space, which was far from ideal. Moving forward, we will look to avoid these kinds of gaps so as to not lose critical workforce skills and capabilities. Sometimes, gaps like these are necessary, and in our case, it was necessary to strengthen the future of our space program. As we work toward sending humans back into deep space, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

At least, not entirely.

As I talked about back in the Designing A Rocket In Six Easy Steps post, when we were choosing the design of SLS, we realized that there were advantages to using hardware from the shuttle program to give us a head start in developing a new rocket. And not purely because they were already available, but because they were the result of extensive, hard work. The shuttle solid rocket boosters were the most powerful ever flown. The RS-25 engines are paragons of reliability and efficiency. If we’d started from scratch designing a new engine to replace them, not only would it have taken us longer and cost us more, but at the end of the process, we would most likely have come out with something very much like the RS-25. Since NASA already invented the RS-25 once, it doesn’t make sense to invent it again.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t reinvent it – take what’s already been done and innovate to make it better. Another thing we’ve learned over the course of this program is that while using “heritage hardware” can be easier than starting over, it can also be harder. SLS is not the shuttle. They have enough similarity that they can both use the RS-25 – to wit, they’re both really big things that use large quantities of hydrogen fuel to make large quantities of fire in order to go up. The similarities stop there. SLS is taller, which means the fuel goes into the engine at a higher pressure. SLS has more engines and they’re closer to the boosters than on shuttle, which means the outside of the engines gets hotter. SLS is designed for deep space, which means we have to get more power out of the engines and boosters. All of those things, and more, mean that we even if we can fly the same engines on SLS that we did on shuttle, we can’t fly them the same way.

And so, even more than we anticipated, we’re having to take some of these systems and modify them and upgrade them and test them.

Still worth it? Totally.

Artist’s concept of SLS flying through clouds
Look how gracefully SLS soars through the clouds in this awesome picture. In reality, it’s not as easy as it looks.

3) You Can’t Cheat Gravity, but You Can Beat It

When talking about space flight, people will sometimes talk about “cheating gravity.” They see a rocket gracefully and majestically rising off a pad and through the sky and into space, and talk like somehow gravity no longer applies to it.

There are some laws you can’t break and some rules you can’t cheat, and gravity is pretty high on that list. We don’t cheat gravity; we beat gravity.

Every second of a launch, gravity is still acting on a rocket just as surely as it’s holding you to the planet’s surface right now; the biggest difference being that the rocket weighs millions of pounds more than you do. In order to rise into space, the rocket has to create and sustain a force greater than gravity, and not tear itself apart in the process.

Getting off the planet is the opposite of entropy. Entropy is the easy way out for all things; left to their own devices, things will fall apart. We are doing just the opposite — we are putting things together and bending them to our will using chemistry, physics, math and engineering.

It’s been said a fair bit recently that space is hard. Well, space is hard. John F. Kennedy told the nation as much more than half a century ago – “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Make a list of what we’ve learned over the past four years, and even those who have been in this industry for years will say that this is hard. And because it’s hard, we work hard. It’s a challenge, and one we have to be steadfast every day in rising to meet.

Graphic showing missions managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
See all that? Those are missions managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight

4) NASA Is Alive and Well

In the wake of the retirement of the space shuttle, there seemed to be a perception in the public that not only was the space shuttle going away, but human space flight was going away, that NASA was going away.

So, technically, we knew this wasn’t true. Again, while the public was watching the shuttle stop flying, we were planning a Mars rocket, which, really, is pretty not dead. But as we would go out into public to talk to people about what we were doing, particularly in those early years, we would hear it a lot – “I thought NASA was dead.” And hearing that reminded us just how true it isn’t.

Hearing it became a reminder of the resiliency, dedication and talent of our workforce. They had heard the same thing about NASA. They have faced numerous challenges along the way. And yet they have poured themselves into this new program, and have done incredible work. Many of these people worked on shuttle, some of them even worked on Saturn. And yet they come to work every day to ensure that this current project is their masterpiece.

Hearing it also became a reminder of the fact that we are living at the cusp of a golden age of space. The idea that NASA is out of the human spaceflight business misses one of our most amazing accomplishments – most school students today don’t remember a time when there was not an American astronaut in orbit. For every second of every day of the last 15 years, NASA astronauts and our partners from other nations have been living and working in orbit about the International Space Station. Not only does the work they do pave the way for future exploration of deep space, teaching us more about how the human body adapts to long-term exposure to microgravity, but those same lessons, and many others gained aboard the space station, also improve life here on Earth. The International Space Station is not only NASA’s outpost on the space frontier, it’s a research laboratory available for the nation’s use, and at any time numerous experiments are being conducted in a variety of fields. NASA’s support of the International Space Station is also paving the way for commercial development of Earth orbit, making space ever more accessible.

And NASA is doing far more than that; our reach literally extends from one end of the solar system to the other, and beyond. Since this program started, NASA’s reach has spanned the solar system, from MESSENGER at Mercury to New Horizons at Pluto. We’ve landed Curiosity on Mars, and InSight is about to head that way. Juno is speeding toward Jupiter. We’re revealing the mysteries of Ceres. The Voyager probes launched 40 years ago still send back signals from a region of space where the influence of our sun is overpowered by the collective strength of other stars. Hubble continues to reveal the beauty and secrets of far reaches of space while Kepler discovers new planets around distant stars, and work is well underway on the large next-generation James Webb Space Telescope that will unveil the first luminous glows of the beginnings of the universe. Satellites orbiting our home planet help with crop growth around the world. Closer to home, we’re working to make air transportation safer and more efficient. Work we’re doing today means that in the next three years, three different new American crew vehicles are scheduled to be flying from Kennedy Space Center.

And those are just some highlights of what we’re doing.

NASA’s not dead. We’re just getting started.

Nine astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station in September 2015
Early this month, nine crew members, from five countries, were aboard the International Space Station at the same time, including NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Roscosmos cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, who just passed the halfway point of a year-long stay in space.

Next Time: Throwing Martians

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David Hitt works in the strategic communications office of NASA’s Space Launch System Program. He began working in NASA Education at Marshall Space Flight Center in 2002, and is the author of two books on spaceflight history.

 

The Journey to Mars!

A graphic showing an astronaut above the Mars horizon with a rover on the surface
NASA’s Journey to Mars is not simply a human exploration mission; it will bring together much of the best of what NASA does.

How do you get to Mars? You build a rocket, and go.

OK, it’s actually a bit more complex than that. A lot more complex, really. But that’s still a vitally important step. We’ll come back to why in a minute.

First, let’s talk about that “complex” part.

Mars is hard. Really hard.

To start with, Mars is far, far away. At its closest, it can come within 34 million miles of Earth, but that’s a once-in-millennia approach. Usually, if the distance gets within the low 50s, that’s really close. At farthest, Mars is about 250 million miles away. Distance means it takes time to get there.

As you travel that distance, there’s a giant ball of gas in the center of the solar system that really wants to kill you. Once you leave Earth, you’re being constantly bombarded with radiation from our own sun and distant stars.

Then there’s the fact that, if you wanted to design a planet that would be hard for humans to land on, Mars would be a good start. The atmosphere is thick enough to combine with the gravity to make an Apollo-style powered descent difficult, but it’s too thin to make a Shuttle-style glide or Orion-like parachutes easy.

Once you make it past the distance, through the radiation, and to the surface, Mars is still inhospitable. Back in 1972, following a detailed survey of planetary conditions, noted Mars expert Elton John summarized that it ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids, and for the moment that’s not a bad assessment.

All of these challenges are substantial. All of these challenges can be overcome.

A graphic explaining NASA’s three-phase Journey to Mars through Earth Reliant, Proving Ground and Earth Independent phases
Not only is NASA’s Journey to Mars the most ambitious mission the agency has undertaken, it will consist of a series of stepping stones that will also be some of the most ambitious missions we’ve ever flown.

NASA’s Journey to Mars is a holistic approach to solving those challenges, to landing humans on Mars, and to answering key scientific questions about Mars, its environment, its history and its habitability.

This Journey is not something NASA is planning to do; it’s something we are doing, right now, in numerous ways, combining the best of our experiences and abilities in a variety of fields.

  • Robotic explorers are today orbiting the planet and driving across its surface, teaching us more about the conditions there in order to answer those scientific questions and help us prepare for human exploration.
  • Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are conducting research regarding living in space for the long durations a Mars mission will require, learning more about how to maintain both equipment and the human body during the journey.
  • Scientists and engineers are working to mature the advanced technologies that will be needed to solve the complex challenges like radiation protection and entry through the Martian atmosphere.
  • We are also building the robust systems that we need to carry out the trip. The Exploration Flight Test-1 of the Orion crew vehicle in December 2014 was a major milestone, and the first flight of Space Launch System will be another. Later will come in-space propulsion systems, deep-space habitats, and more.
A photo of a rover wheel track on Mars that resembles a human footprint
An important thing to keep in mind when talking about Mars exploration is that we’re already there. This “footprint” photo was captured by the Spirit rover of a track left by one of its wheels, and is a good reminder that our robot explorers are already taking “first steps” on the Journey to Mars.

We’re still in the early phases of the Journey, when our human spaceflight is still “Earth-Dependent,” relying on the supply line and other benefits that come from proximity to our home planet.

Soon, we will begin a series of increasingly ambitious “Proving Ground” missions, traveling farther into space and testing new systems and capabilities.

Finally, when we’ve demonstrated we can be “Earth-Independent,” we’ll be Mars-ready. It will be time to take the next giant leap – possibly first into Mars orbit or the Martian moons, and ultimately to take our first steps on the surface of another planet.

Which brings us back to how you get to Mars – You build a rocket, and go.

All of those challenges will ultimately be solved with hardware – habitats to live in on the long journey, shielding to protect from radiation, supersonic decelerators to descend through the Martian atmosphere, advanced life support for living on the surface, and much more. There will be a lot of that hardware, and some of it will be truly massive. And none of it does any good sitting on the surface of the Earth. If you want to get to Mars, you have to be able to put all of that into space. And that’s where Space Launch System comes in. You have to build a rocket. A big one.

An artist’s depiction of an astronaut and rover on Mars’ moon Phobos
A mission to one of Mars’ moons could potentially provide an opportunity for meaningful scientific work while the final Mars entry, descent and landing systems are still being completed.

And none of it matters unless you do it. Wernher von Braun went on Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland television program in the 1950s to talk about going to Mars, and much time has been spent talking about going to Mars in the decades since, by NASA, other countries, technical societies, industry, and others. You have to talk about Mars, you have to plan, before you can go, but talking and planning alone won’t get you there. You have to do something.

Today NASA is doing something in a way that neither we nor anyone have before. NASA’s Journey to Mars is unique in that it is the first and so far only time that any organization has actually begun building systems designed for human exploration of Mars. We have a long way to go, but we’re taking the first steps.

How do you get to Mars?

You build a rocket.

And go.

Next Time: Four Lessons In Four Years

Join in the conversation: Visit our Facebook page to comment on the post about this blog. We’d love to hear your feedback!


David Hitt works in the strategic communications office of NASA’s Space Launch System Program. He began working in NASA Education at Marshall Space Flight Center in 2002, and is the author of two books on spaceflight history.