Lessons Learned from Historic Landing Sites & Base Locations: Jamestown

By: Richard (Rick) Davis, Lexie Barnard-Davignon, Jesus Badal, Bob Collom 
Past exploration missions will guide our landing/base site selection on Mars: Jamestown, Virginia. Credit: National Park Service/Colonial National Historical Park

History is shaped by pioneers. Every decision explorers make can affect the outcome of their missions. Among the most critical of these is base location. Some expeditions faced insurmountable challenges because of their selected landing site. As we embark on a new mission to live and work on the Martian surface, we want to ensure we avoid the mistakes of our predecessors by implementing lessons from their successes and challenges. Historic missions, like the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in the United States of America, teach us the importance of reconnaissance, ground truth, and supply buildup when it comes to base location selection. Starting with this post highlighting Jamestown, we will begin a series exploring the ongoing theme of lessons learned from historic landing sites/base locations.

Jamestown, settled by European colonists in 1607, was the first long-term British settlement in North America. Jamestown settlers initially struggled to establish themselves, facing challenges such as conflicts with the indigenous population, starvation, and disease. Using only the criteria set by their funders, the colonists set out from England to find a “new world” location that was sheltered, accessible by ship, and easily defensible.[1] Although the small peninsula on the James River that the settlers chose met these high-level requirements due to its vacancy and location in deep waters, basic survival needs such as sufficient natural resources were not accounted for in the base location criteria. As a result, drinking water, a vital resource, was in short supply. Although Jamestown was surrounded by water, given its proximity to swamplands and a part of the James River that regularly backed up with saltwater from the Chesapeake Bay[2], very little was drinkable. The settlers also did not factor in soil composition when choosing a location and instead ended up in a location referred to as “waste ground”3 by the Algonquian who lived nearby due to its lack of fresh water and, therefore, poor soil. On top of this, Jamestown also experienced difficulties due to harsh weather conditions beyond their control including severe winters and drought. The sandy soil in the area further degraded in these droughts and brought about difficult growing seasons[3]. This caused settlers to rely on supply ships from England and help from the indigenous population. However, as the drought continued and ships brought more settlers, tensions rose leaving the population of Jamestown on their own.

Another important factor the settlers tried to account for was ease of access for supply runs from England. Supply trips took anywhere from 3 to 6 months and if the settlers needed anything, they had to wait twice as long: first for their message to reach England then for a ship to return with supplies. In addition, these trips were often wrought with their own issues including susceptibility to disease outbreaks and storms. One unfortunate supply trip set to arrive in late 1609 encountered a hurricane and lost several ships, many supplies, and people. When it finally arrived the ships landed with 300 people[4] which was an influx detrimental to the already struggling settlement. During the subsequent winter of 1609-10 known as the “starving time” only 60 of the around 500 settlers survived[5]; the rest succumbed to starvation and diseases. Death was not new at Jamestown. A staggering 66 of the original 104 settlers died within the first 9 months of its founding. After nearly abandoning the site, a new governor and supply ships arrived from England to help the settlers rebuild Jamestown. Unfortunately, a series of fires and the destruction of its major statehouse drove the residents to move – eventually settling several miles away at what is today known as Williamsburg. Today, as water levels rise, Jamestown is only preserved as a historic site and archaeological dig[6]. On Mars, abandoning or moving a base location due to insufficient resources would be a very costly option. Traveling to and landing on Mars is time consuming, difficult, and so any human mission will have to think long-term when selecting a permanent base location to avoid the faults of the Jamestown settlers.

(Above): Sketch showing initial bustling port of Jamestown (Below): Painting depicting settler succumbing to harsh conditions of Jamestown Credit: National Park Service/Colonial National Historical Park/artist Sydney King

Like the Jamestown colonists we must also consider our strategic goals for Mars missions, specifically finding a safe landing location with access to interesting science targets. But, as seen with the struggles and high mortality rates of the settlers of early Jamestown, access to natural resources is an important consideration to support longevity. One of the most obvious vital resources is water. Water is not only crucial for human needs; it is also a valuable ingredient for rocket fuel, radiation protection, and agriculture. This means that we need to pick a site with access to the water ice buried across the Martian surface. This ice will not only be crucial as a resource, but it will also be an important science target for answering questions about Martian climate history, geology, and whether or not Mars once supported life or still does today. Other potential resources we may leverage include raw materials like bulk regolith that can be used as construction material and metals that can be used for in-situ repairs. It will also be important to ensure the initial missions going to Mars are well supplied when they depart from Earth. It can take six to nine months to deliver a payload to Mars and delays in launch or the loss of a spacecraft and supplies could mean supplies don’t make it to the Martian system for years. Being overprepared and building a stockpile of supplies at Mars will be vital to ensure the crew’s survival. In the early days, Martian explorers will be completely dependent on supplies they bring with them and those delivered from Earth. It will be crucial to establish a baseline of resource requirements for human missions, identify locations to meet those needs, and plan for their delivery to the Martian system in a timely manner.

The first humans on Mars will need to have everything necessary to be self-reliant for long periods of time. This means stockpiles of crucial resources like food and medical supplies, but also the ability to acquire what they can from the environment, like water ice or even building materials. Image Credit: NASA

Jamestown is just one of many exploration missions that can inform how we move forward with Mars missions. So, what will it take to select the first human landing site/base location on Mars? As seen with Jamestown, we need to ensure we have both high-level objectives we want to accomplish and a list of criteria for what we want in a landing site. This can include, but is not limited to, access to different resources such as water or the ability to conduct certain science objectives. We will also need to think ahead to the future and begin building up a base with adequate supplies for longevity. History records many landing site selections riddled with both challenges and successes. As we delve further into our exploration ventures on Mars and beyond, we will carry this record with us and keep the lessons learned at the forefront of our minds.

Keep an eye out for future posts exploring other historic landing sites/base locations. If you have any site selection efforts that you would like us to cover, please let us know at: nasa-mars-exploration-zones@mail.nasa.gov


[1] https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/a-short-history-of-jamestown.htm

[2] https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1001052107

[3] https://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/everydaylife/jamestown-settlement-fs.html

[4] https://historicjamestowne.org/history/jamestown-timeline/

[5] https://historicjamestowne.org/history/history-of-jamestown/the-starving-time/

[6] https://historicjamestowne.org/history/history-of-jamestown/

The Small Strategy

By: Richard (Rick) Davis, Laura Ratliff, Jacob Levine,                Leo Nardo, Bob Collom
A CubeSat in hand Credit: NASA

Zipping overhead in low Earth orbit (LEO), small satellites carry out a wide range of activities, such as monitoring cargo ships as they sail across the ocean, taking on-demand photographs of the environment, and providing internet access—all at a fraction of the cost of traditional spacecraft. Dramatically lower launch costs and improvements in miniaturization and standardization—which increase spacecraft capability while decreasing size and cost—have enabled the rapid proliferation of small Earth orbiters over the past decade.

While small satellites have expanded what is possible in LEO, they have not yet reached their full potential at Mars. Only two CubeSats (a modular type of small satellite) have ventured out to the red planet. These cost much more than their terrestrial counterparts because of their larger propulsion systems and more powerful antennas to solve the two biggest challenges faced by interplanetary small missions—getting to their destination and communicating with Earth. Solving those challenges and reducing cost will require new delivery methods and communications infrastructure. Once these pieces are in place at Mars, small missions will open significant opportunities to understand the planet at a global system level and answer key scientific questions.

New Delivery Mechanisms Are Essential

Reducing the price of delivery, which makes up a significant part of a small satellite’s cost, creates opportunities for more missions to Mars. One option is ridesharing, which takes advantage of excess volume and unused mass capacity on a large mission by adding a small mission or two. This allows spacecraft going towards a common destination to share the costs of the launch. Once at Mars, these rideshare missions detach from the main spacecraft and carry out their separate operations. However, this option can be challenging to implement; there must be enough mass available to accommodate the small missions and a space to fit them onboard. Additionally, the main spacecraft typically has to support the small missions for the journey out, including providing power, temperature control, and more.

60 Starlink satellites deployed simultaneously. Credit: SpaceX

Unlike a rideshare which depends on a primary spacecraft for the launch, the emerging concept of a “Mars tug” could maximize delivery of small missions. In LEO, over 100 small satellites can be deployed at a time by vehicles developed for routine spacecraft delivery. A Mars tug would essentially do the same thing, carrying multiple small missions out to the red planet. The tug would provide propulsion, navigation, and communications via standardized ports to which the small missions attach. This strategy accomplishes small mission delivery in a similar manner to more traditional ridesharing techniques without the added complexity and cost of bolting small missions directly to a primary payload. A Mars tug could reduce launch costs per spacecraft and provide the infrastructure for routine deliveries to Mars, with tug launches occurring on a set schedule rather than being tied to a single mission’s development.

A tug, such as this conceptual design, could provide an efficient means of mission delivery to Mars. Credit: NASA

To maximize the mass that a tug can deliver, it needs to  use propellant very efficiently. To do so, proposed tug designs include a solar electric propulsion (SEP) system. Unlike a rocket which quickly burns through much of its fuel in one big maneuver, a SEP system creates a very gentle push for an extended period. Over time, that gentle push can get the tug speeding along on very little propellant. The SEP system helps keep the tug’s delivery costs down since it requires so little fuel to carry out its mission.

Every mission to the red planet offers an opportunity to send small spacecraft and further unravel the mysteries of Mars. Utilizing rideshares, tugs, or similar technologies, the major launches predicted for the next decade could carry multiple small missions. NASA and other space agencies should take full advantage of these opportunities.

Small Missions Benefit from a Dedicated Communications Infrastructure

All communications to and from Mars, whether with orbiters, landers, or rovers, rely on orbital science spacecraft acting as communications relays. These orbiters are typically placed at low altitudes above Mars, which limits their capabilities in two ways. First, because they are so close to Mars, the planet often blocks their line of sight to the Earth, entirely preventing communications during that time. Second, their proximity to the surface reduces the total area that they can see underneath them. With a small field of view, the length of time to communicate with each surface asset is limited before the orbiter moves out of range. With these limitations, science missions will not be able to provide the frequent transmissions and high data rates needed for next-generation science.

Additionally, the current science orbiters are reaching the end of their lives. We rely on them to relay data from Mars. The need to refresh these assets is becoming critical.

A high-altitude communications orbiter dedicated to high-volume data flow between Mars and Earth would avoid the limitations of current science relays and improve science return on investment for all Mars missions. From a high-altitude orbit, a relay can cover both surface assets and science orbiters below with minimal gaps in communication. Additionally, by placing the large antennas needed for interplanetary communication on a dedicated orbiter, science missions could carry smaller, lighter, and less power-consuming communications equipment and still achieve high data return to Earth. This capability is crucial for small missions, which will rely on orbiters to transmit their data for them.

Solving the Delivery and Communications Challenges in One Innovative Package

A SEP/chem tug transmitting data back to Earth from a Mars orbiter. Credit: NASA, JPL

A tug that can regularly deploy multiple spacecraft and provide high-altitude, high-volume communications would accomplish both critical needs of small Mars missions. The combination of SEP augmented with limited chemical engines makes this possible. The SEP/chem tug’s power would be first directed toward delivering the tug’s passengers into a low Mars orbit, where they can remain or descend to the surface. Once the small missions have separated, the tug would spiral up to a high altitude orbit. At that point, its high power can be used for data relay. With every Mars launch opportunity (approximately every 2 years), a new SEP/Chem Comm tug would deliver more spacecraft and become another communications relay, generating a network with constant coverage of Mars.

Small Missions Open New Opportunities

The cost of small Mars missions will drop dramatically with delivery and communications solved, fostering new types of exploration and opening the door to more players. As cost falls, willingness to take technical risks will increase, allowing organizations to test innovative mission designs without the current high price of failure. These designs could include orbiters to take high-resolution imagery, aerial assets like helicopters to investigate previously inaccessible regions, and landers to monitor Martian weather. Less expensive missions could carry multiple flight copies, offering a backup in case a risky operation fails or presenting an opportunity to explore an additional location if the first spacecraft is successful in its deployment.

A deployment concept of a planetary impactor using an inflatable breaking device (IBD). Credit: Finnish Meteorological Institute

The proliferation of small missions across Mars can give us a system-level understanding of the red planet. Simultaneous measurements around the globe from small orbiters could improve our climate and weather models. On Mars’ surface, small impactors could characterize regolith and dust. While many potential investigations benefit from the deployment of missions with coordinated data collection, the system view will begin to emerge even without synchronization just from the sheer amount of new data we’ll acquire. Lower delivery and communications costs will expand the realm of possibility at Mars.

The infrastructure to support small missions delivers a bonus educational benefit and supports the growth of the Mars exploration community. Lower-cost delivery methods would allow organizations traditionally unable to send their own spacecraft to Mars, including space agencies with limited budgets, businesses, and academic institutions, to simply buy a ride. This increases our knowledge of Mars and gives more people the opportunity to participate in mission development, from concept through data collection and analysis.

Each dot represents a satellite planned for LEO. This network approach to smallsats could be applied for science and communications purposes at Mars. Credit: Celestrak

Small satellites could themselves contribute to a more robust communications infrastructure. A network of small relays placed in low Mars orbit could boost signals from landed assets up to a high-altitude relay satellite. In addition to increasing data volumes, such a network could pass signals around the planet to enable 24/7 global communications even with only one high-altitude relay, speeding up operations like rover driving and improving responses to dangerous events like solar flares.

Small Missions Simplify Mission Integration and Management 

Small missions can reduce the complexity that comes from many science instruments sharing the same spacecraft and competing for resources. Previous large missions have jammed as many investigative tools and technologies onto one spacecraft as possible, which can complicate operations. For example, if two sensors are attached to opposite sides of the spacecraft, only one can see Mars at a time. To point the other toward the Martian surface, the whole spacecraft must rotate, burning precious fuel and taking up time. These challenges can be avoided if the instruments are divided up across multiple small missions, each with their own development, management, and goals. While they can still all launch together, as separate spacecraft they can conduct their science in the manner best for the one or two instruments onboard.

A Foundation for Future Martian Exploration

When deployed through low-cost means and supported by a robust communications network, small missions can stimulate innovation by allowing designers to tolerate more risk, generate large volumes of data for system-level investigations, and offer opportunities for new organizations to get involved. A SEP-chem tug which can deliver small missions and then become a communications relay could provide that infrastructure needed to take small missions the next step. This small mission strategy will help us to “telegraph and railroad” our way to Mars, exploring new frontiers in space step-by-step by building out the proper infrastructure, driving down unit price and increasing scientific return. Investing resources and research into small missions will improve our toolset for exploration of the red planet.

A great reference for additional information can be found here: https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/lowcostmars2022/

Martian Lessons for Taking Care of Earth

By: Richard (Rick) Davis, Laura Ratliff, Logan Brown, Bob Collom

When we embark on the first human expedition to Mars, we will not just study that planet–we will improve our ability to care for the Earth, too. Sending scientists to the surface of another world will help us piece together the details of Earth’s climate and geological history, which can help inform its future. Yet, going to Mars will not be easy. The challenges of limited space and supplies on the journey to the red planet and the harsh conditions once there will force us to design systems that make the most of limited resources. In addition to scientific knowledge and development of new technologies, the perspectives we gain from exploring Mars may help us realize the interconnectedness of humanity and change the way we see our own planet. In going to Mars we won’t leave Earth behind; we will better equip ourselves to take care of challenges back home.

Mars Will Teach Us About Earth

Much of the water remaining on Mars is underground or frozen in glaciers. Although covered in dust, the composition of Martian glaciers may be quite like these earthly ones. Credit: NASA

We can better understand the processes that shaped early Earth through comparison with similar processes on other planets. Mars, the only planet we can put scientists on in the near future, holds well-preserved records of its past, making it a strong option for that second comparative data point. These records also detail its changes from an Earth-like planet several billion years ago, with liquid oceans and a thick atmosphere, to the frozen world it is today and can give us insights into paths that Earth may follow in the future.

Astronauts will be essential for complex scientific investigations like ice coring on Mars. As shown here, drilling ice cores in Greenland is a hands-on task. Credit: Reto Stöckli, NASA GSFC.

While robots will accompany them, humans are best suited to lead the next step in Martian science.  Investigations of records and global climate would benefit from the human ability to apply intuition and expertise to changing circumstances and handle complex machinery. For example, scientists could enable us to see a million- or billion-year record of Mars’ climate by collecting ice cores, long cylinders of ice that tell the history of the planet in their layers much like tree rings tell its age. The delicate processing of these ice cores makes their extraction a task best carried out in person. A human presence on another planet will allow us to better understand our first planet’s past, present, and future.

Mars Will Revolutionize Our Resourcefulness

Astronauts travelling in a Mars transit vehicle such as this one will have to be intentional about how they use, reuse, and recycle materials during the long journey. Credit: Boeing

In designing systems to operate far from Earth, we improve the technology to reduce our footprint on this planet. Transporting people and materials to Mars is expensive; it takes massive amounts of costly rocket fuel to get into space and to the Martian surface. This limits the mass of potential Mars transit vehicles and ensures they will be stocked only with critical items. During the months-long journey, astronauts must be intentional about their use of supplies onboard in order to make them last. This attention will continue on the Martian surface. Mars’ harsh, austere environment lacks many of the resources that humans rely on, and it will not naturally recycle those that we bring, as occurs with Earth’s water and carbon cycles. In Earth’s benign environment we can afford to discard materials like food, water, and plastics and to rely on non-renewable energy resources. Astronauts on Mars will not have that luxury.

Sometimes art imitates life. Energy on Mars could be delivered to astronauts through solar farms, similar those shown in “The Martian” movie. Credit: The Martian

While progress toward more sustainable living on our first planet is not contingent on a mission to Mars, the insights we gain could benefit the Earth. Travel to and life on our second planet present a unique design challenge – a harsh environment combined with financial, spatial, and material limitations – that requires the development of innovative technologies. New solutions intended for Mars can prompt the creation of technologies for Earth that propel us towards a sustainable, multi-planetary future. For example, we will refine life support systems, such as those that recycle urine into drinkable water and scrub the air of CO2 on the International Space Station; accelerate the development of alternative energy sources, with a focus on solar and nuclear; and invest in plastic reclamation technologies that would allow equipment and tools to be 3D printed from used plastics such as food packaging.

Mars Will Change Our Perspective

As seen from this CubeSat, the Earth and the Moon are barely visible. There will be a long stretch of time where our astronauts will see a similar view, with Mars slowly growing as Earth shrinks in the distance. Credit: NASA

Travel on Earth can open your mind to new ideas. Venturing out into deep space will be no different. Fifty-two years ago, the Apollo 8 crew became the first humans to see an earthrise ̶ our brilliant blue marble cresting over the barren lunar surface. There will be similar moments on our first human missions to Mars when, halfway between our two planets, both worlds are little more than colored specks outside the spacecraft’s windows. We can only imagine how the view from this previously unexplored area of space will affect our perspective. Floating in the black void will likely bring life’s fragility to the forefront of our minds. Perhaps we will rethink our Earth-based assumptions and our place in the solar system, but ultimately, we will only know the impact of that new perspective once humans experience it.

Taken on the first crewed lunar mission, this picture is a famous reminder of how small and fragile our planet really is. Credit: NASA

This isn’t a new idea; just as the earthrise inspired the astronauts who witnessed it firsthand, the images they took contributed to the environmental movement across America. Photos from the Apollo program sparked conversations around the care of “Spaceship Earth,” the imagery of our home serving as a reminder that it too is made up of interconnected systems with finite resources. Our efforts in space encouraged us to acknowledge our reliance on nature and each other and prompted us to act as better stewards of the Earth. A mission to Mars would likely amplify this effect.

Getting humans to that vantage point will bring about changes to the global mindset even before the first missions leave the Earth. It will take a global effort to realize a human Mars mission, through which we will learn how to share knowledge, organize multicultural working groups, and take advantage of every partner’s unique strengths. The lessons learned from collaborating on human missions to Mars will lay the groundwork for humanity to carry out other global efforts.

When we go to Mars, we will peer into the Earth’s past through Martian records and seek insights into our first planet’s future. The challenges of the mission will require creativity and ingenuity and will push us to develop technologies beneficial for both planets. We do not get a choice about efficient living on Mars, and we can adopt that same Martian grit to nurture Earth toward a better future. With humans on their way, we will gain a new perspective on our place in the solar system and on global collaboration, improving our ability to address other shared challenges at home. So, as we venture forth, we do so with our mind on both planets.

Human Missions to Mars: Lessons from COVID-19

By: Richard (Rick) Davis, Hannah Duke, Bob Collom

During this unprecedented and uncertain time, I find comfort in thinking about how our experiences on Earth translate into lessons we can apply to future Mars missions. Perhaps surprisingly, there are many ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic is preparing us for our journey to the Red Planet. Our experiences of isolation and adaptation to this new lifestyle are challenges that Mars astronauts must also master if they are to survive the first human mission to another planet. As we look toward pursuing a safer and healthier future, we can take note of lessons learned on how to sustain ourselves in our home world and apply them to the journey to our second planet. As you read this blog, feel free to tweet us @redplanetrick any lessons you’ve learned from COVID-19 that can apply to Mars missions. We will even update this blog as we get new ideas. Thank you!!

Where You Call Home

Our homes during this pandemic are our spaceships. They keep us safe from the dangers of the ongoing pandemic, just like the spacecraft that will protect Mars astronauts from the hazards of deep space travel. Despite keeping us safe, our homes can feel confining when we can’t go out to eat with friends or travel into work, school, or places like the gym. Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) can relate to what we’re going through, as they usually spend around six months confined to the station. Though the ISS is larger than a six-bedroom house, a lot of the habitable volume contains equipment and supplies, so space is limited. Mars astronauts will have a Mars Transfer Vehicle (MTV) to call home, and like most of us in our homes now, they will be confined to it for a long time. Specifically, the six to nine-month journey to the Red Planet, up to 500 days in the Martian system, and the six to nine-month return journey. So, it will be important for Mars astronauts to learn to manage living in a confined space for long periods just as we are now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Astronaut Sunita Williams entering her sleep station on the ISS. Astronauts must zip themselves into a sleeping bag to prevent floating around in their sleep!

A big challenge for many during this pandemic is separating work life from home life. As we learn the best strategies for managing our time when stuck in the same place, we can maintain a healthier separation of work and rest. ISS astronauts, having been in similar situations to us now, share that they create boundaries on the station by sticking to a routine that allows them downtime, the ability to pace themselves in their work, and time for fun activities. Astronaut Scott Kelly admits that he misses the regimented routine on the ISS after returning to Earth. Mars explorers will need to use similar strategies to balance work and rest if they are to survive the long mission in a confined space.

Exercise can be a hard part of a routine to motivate – especially when sitting on the couch all day is an option. Astronauts embarking on deep space journeys probably won’t have a choice when it comes to exercise. ISS astronauts must exercise daily to mitigate the bone and muscle loss caused by living in microgravity. Since Mars astronauts will also need to keep their bones and muscles strong, they will likely exercise for around two hours a day like the ISS astronauts.

Astronaut Karen Nyberg running on a treadmill on the ISS to stay in shape while living in microgravity

The self-discipline it takes for us to maintain routines, exercise habits, and a healthy separation between work and home life during the coronavirus pandemic is no small feat. As we learn from one another about the best ways to deal with being quarantined in our homes, we can take the same lessons and incorporate them into our plans to send humans to Mars.

Your Fellow Crew

Astronauts on the International Space Station making the most of their limited space. Since there’s no up or down in zero-gravity, all surfaces can be used to “stand” on.

Just as some of us navigate living in quarantine with family/roommates around us, astronauts going to Mars will have to work closely with their crew members.  Even if you usually get along with your “crew” at home, extended quarantine can be frustrating, so communication is key to getting along. Similarly, since Mars crews will experience isolation with each other for a long time, interpersonal and communication skills will be essential. On top of this, since the crew will likely be international, it will be crucial for everyone to work well in a multi-cultural environment.

Within our own homes, we are experiencing how living with one person versus, say, five people makes for a different quarantine experience. For Mars missions, a larger crew brings more knowledge and problem-solving abilities, but it requires more space and supplies, whereas not having enough people on the missions could result in deeper feelings of isolation or even depression. Getting the right crew size is critical.

The Human Exploration Research Analog closed habitat at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

To learn about optimal crew sizes and how crews operate in potentially hostile, isolated environments, NASA conducts analog missions such as the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA), and Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS). These missions help teach us how to better pick the astronauts that we will send together on the around 1100-day isolated mission to Mars. There’s also the UAE’s exciting Mars Science City Project that will provide a large-scale analog of a permanent human presence on the Red Planet.

An artist’s rendering of the UAE’s future Mars Science City near Dubai.

Even if you’re quarantining with a great “crew” during this pandemic, it’s still important to communicate with the friends and family you can’t see in person. We can apply what we’ve learned about staying connected during COVID-19 to help Mars astronauts also stay connected to family and friends back on Earth. The main difference is that since communication can only travel at the speed of light, Mars astronauts will experience some time delays in communications with Earth. Depending on the distance between Earth and Mars, the communication delay can reach up to 22 minutes one way, making it highly impractical for Mars astronauts to FaceTime with anyone millions of miles away on Earth. Thankfully, Mars astronauts will still be able to text, email, and send/view pre-recorded video messages.

Supplies & Suits

Most of us experienced great frustration when we went to the store and couldn’t find supplies like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other necessities. Then restaurants closed, limiting our food options. For Mars missions, food and supplies will be carefully planned out to last the around 1100-day mission, right down to what dessert options each astronaut prefers. Unfortunately, their food may lose flavor or even nutrients due to time or radiation exposure, so this will also require careful planning. Most of their food will likely be pre-packaged and stored in a way that minimizes volume, and since the cost of launching food and supplies is high, they won’t have the luxury of being wasteful. Having limited supplies is challenging and can be frustrating, but as we learned during the early months of this pandemic, careful rationing and planning helps us live with limited options.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield with some pre-packaged, dehydrated vegetables. A lot of food is sent dehydrated into space, so the astronauts must rehydrate it at a rehydration station before consumption.

Another adjustment to our lives is wearing a mask out in public. Mars astronauts will also need to adapt their wardrobe. When exploring the surface of Mars, astronauts will wear pressurized, temperature-controlled suits that provide oxygen and remove exhaled CO2. Going outside without one is not an option in the low-pressure, CO2-rich Martian atmosphere. The suits must also be dust-proof as it’s important to protect the astronauts’ lungs from inhaling Martian dust. From face masks to surface exploration suits, it’s critical to protect ourselves when venturing out into potentially hazardous environments.

On to Mars

Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson on the ISS, looking out of the cupola window (Mars photoshopped to replace Earth).

There’s one last major commonality between our lives during COVID-19 and space exploration: both serve a greater purpose for humanity. Every day that we practice social distancing and stay home, we save lives. That thought makes it easier to tackle the challenges that come with living differently than we’re used to. Similarly, Mars explorers will take pride in knowing that they are progressing humanity’s knowledge and propelling us into a new age of space exploration.

So many brave medical workers are helping humanity by fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. Astronauts on the first mission to Mars will be on the front lines of space exploration, and it will take similar amounts of bravery to face such a feat. Though most of us aren’t on the front lines of COVID-19 or Mars exploration, we are still helping humanity achieve a healthier, smarter, and more adventurous future. Getting to Mars is a collective human effort, as is defeating COVID-19.

When astronauts embark on the long journey to Mars, know that you’ve already mastered some experiences similar to what they’ll live through. We’re preparing for a new era of adventure, and I hope you’re inspired by the thought that our experiences and skills gained during COVID-19 are not as far from the future of space exploration as they may seem. Consider viewing your new lifestyle and its obstacles as challenges to triumph. Take the mindset of a Mars astronaut and face this unprecedented time with courage and determination to problem-solve your way to the end. This is a difficult time for all of us, but together we will overcome this pandemic, just as together, we will get humans to Mars in the next era of space exploration.

Mars Rover Perseverance: A Key Step Toward Human Exploration of Mars


By: Richard (Rick) Davis, Bob Collom, David McIntosh, & Michelle Viotti 

Artist Concept: Mars rover Perseverance sets out to seek signs of life – and prepare for a human future on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Exciting times as Mars 2020 Rover Perseverance is getting ready to set off on a life-seeking mission, but it marks the beginning of so much more! The Mars 2020 mission is actually the first of a multi-mission effort to return samples from Mars to Earth. That interplanetary round-trip campaign is a precursor for future round-trip crew-carrying spacecraft that will take humans back and forth between Earth and Mars over several missions, ultimately leading to a sustained human presence on the surface of the red planet!

The returned samples that Perseverance collects will be critical for high-priority scientific investigations about microbial life, but will also allow human-mission planners to understand the mechanical properties of the Martian dust, dirt, rocks, and minerals (the “regolith”) – that is, how abrasive they are, their oxidizing potential, particle size and shape, etc. That information will teach us about potential human-health hazards: toxicity, respiratory issues, and potential biohazards of any existing microbial life on Mars etc. These data will help mission planners design strategies to safeguard Mars explorers. The analysis of minerals in the returned samples may also have a direct impact on understanding what natural mineral resources are potentially available for future human use on Mars.

Beyond kicking off the Mars sample return campaign, Perseverance will gather mission-enabling knowledge critical to every phase of humanity’s own future round-trip voyages to Mars: getting safely to the Martian surface, living and working on Mars, and returning home to Earth.

Getting Safely to the Martian Surface

The Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrument (MEDLI) will tell mission planners how to protect humans during entry, descent, and landing, one of the riskiest parts of any Mars mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Mars 2020 aeroshell that protects the rover on its journey carries sensors that will tell us how the spacecraft heats up and performs during entry into the Martian atmosphere. That information will help engineers improve landing designs for the larger crew and cargo landers necessary for human missions. During descent, the rover will demonstrate a new autonomous guidance system called Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN). This hazard-avoidance system may join beacons and other technologies that support landing large cargo in advance of humans, as well as eventual piloted landings by crewed vehicles.

Living and Working on Mars

Right: Artist concept of a possible in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) facility (foreground) on Mars. Credit: NASA

Mars is an extreme environment, but Perseverance is going to make the most of it. The rover carries a special “lung” that will produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon-dioxide atmosphere. It will be the very first demonstration of how to process natural resources on Mars for human use. Large quantities of oxygen will be needed to produce propellant (“rocket fuel”) for astronauts’ return trip home to Earth, as well as to provide back-up oxygen supplies for breathable air.

The oxygen-generating instrument will also monitor how abundant Martian dust in the atmosphere interacts with machinery to improve future engineering designs. In addition, Perseverance’s new weather-monitoring capabilities are specially designed to enhance our understanding of the relationship between dust and weather through the Martian seasons. Learning more about Martian dust will help engineers design better shelters for astronauts, as well as equipment that has to function for long durations on the surface. After all, Mars-bound explorers will want to know their equipment will work for years in the Martian environment.

Once at home on the surface, future human explorers venturing outdoors on Marswalks will need spacesuits that are strong enough to withstand the elements, but flexible enough to move around with agility. Perseverance carries five samples of different space-suit materials to see how each performs in long exposures to radiation and dust in the Martian environment.

As they explore, robotic companions will likely join the crew to enhance their scientific investigations and help keep them safe, just as Perseverance has a helicopter pal named Ingenuity. Like drones here on Earth, Ingenuity will soar overhead, demonstrating how future aerial vehicles could scout out compelling places for humans to explore – or venture into places too steep or too hazardous for people.

Perseverance carries a ground-penetrating radar called RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ subsurface experiment), which will reveal the Martian subsurface. Artist Concept. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/FFI

Perseverance also demonstrates the first ground-penetrating radar on the Martian surface. Similar systems will land at a potential human base in advance of people arriving, to look for precious water resources found in subsurface water ice. Just as we can extract valuable resources from the Martian atmosphere, water ice on Mars can be processed to produce hydrogen, another key ingredient of propellant needed for launching back to Earth from Mars.

While Perseverance’s landing site in Jezero Crater is likely too close to the equator for water ice to be present, a future ice-seeking orbiter will be able to calibrate its radar with Perseverance’s results, helping to ensure resources are really there and accessible before humans arrive. Seeing the structure of subsurface rock layers will also ensure that the ground below is stable enough for landing heavy human-class payloads such as a life-supporting habitat and for building a launch pad and other infrastructure needed by human explorers.

Returning to our Home World: Earth

The “Mother Ship” (Mars Transfer Vehicle) will transport humans back and forth between Earth and Mars. Credit: NASA

Thanks to the Mars 2020 mission, living and working on Mars will be safer and more comfortable, from habitat design to “walkabouts.” When the first humans are ready to blast off from Mars on their voyage back to Earth, they will use oxygen, hydrogen, and methane fuel that can be traced back to Perseverance’s demonstrations of how to use Martian natural resources. And, just like the samples Perseverance collects, Mars astronauts will launch on a Mars Ascent Vehicle and reunite with a “Mothership” that will carry them safely home. While sending humans to Mars is a complex endeavor, making step-by-step progress through Perseverance and other advances, our human adventure on Mars is closer than ever.

Frontiers Shatter Complacency

By Richard (Rick) Davis and Max Parks
The Martian moon Phobos (moving white dot) orbits Mars, as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope

My name is Rick Davis- I work at NASA Headquarters, where I work in the Mars Exploration Program and co-lead the effort to choose the landing site for humans on Mars. In my time at NASA, I’ve instructed Space Shuttle crews, was a Space Station Capsule Communicator, and worked in Russia for three and a half years, coordinating NASA’s presence at Star City– the home of Russia’s Cosmonaut Corps.

My life as an engineer is only part of the picture. Before I studied aerospace engineering, I studied history. As I learned about the past, the idea of frontiers, and how important they are to us as a species, became central to my perspective of the universe. That’s why I’m so passionate about Mars.

La Salle on the Mississippi

Pushing into a frontier is important. Human beings thrive when success is not guaranteed. Frontiers are like that for entire societies. Voyages of exploration like that of Lewis and Clark, or the French explorer La Salle, the first European to sail the length of the Mississippi River, bring out the bravest and most ingenious within us. Rising to meet the challenges that we face on a frontier helps us learn more about ourselves and about our place in the cosmos. Without the risks of exploration, unless we challenge the unknown, complacency will prevent humanity from achieving our full potential.

Mars is the next step in exploration, and when I see the amazing work being done by the people at NASA, in industry and in academia, as well as in so many other national space programs, I know that we’re ready for this step.

Sunrise on Mars

To be frank, I was unsure about starting a blog. But Mars is challenging- to do it right, we will need a lot of ideas. Hopefully, by sharing stories as more is learned about Mars, this blog can help spark new ideas. The fact is, we don’t yet know if we can live on an alien planet; there are tremendous challenges we are working to solve. If you have ideas, we want to hear about them. We need ideas from all over to make this happen.


To follow the effort to select a site for the first human base on Mars, head on over to https://www.nasa.gov/journeytomars/mars-exploration-zones.
To contact us, send an email to NASA-Mars-Exploration-Zones@mail.nasa.gov.