The Occupy Mars Learning Adventure

Training Jr. Astronauts, Scientists & Engineers

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International Art Contest: We need students to enter this great contest.

Mars Society to Hold Int’l Student Mars Art Contest

The Mars Society announced today that it is sponsoring a Student Mars Art (SMArt) Contest, inviting youth from around the world to depict the human future on the planet Mars. Young artists from grades 4 through 12 are invited to submit up to three works of art each, illustrating any part of the human future on the Red Planet, including the first landing, human field exploration, operations at an early Mars base, the building of the first Martian cities, terraforming the Red Planet and other related human settlement concepts.

The SMArt Contest will be divided into three categories: Upper Elementary (grades 4-6), Junior High (grades 7-9), and High School (Grades 10-12). Cash prizes of $1,000, $500 and $250, as well as trophies, will be given out to the first, second and third place winners of each section. There will also be certificates of honorable mention for those artists who don’t finish in the top three, but whose work is nevertheless judged to be particularly meritorious.

The winning works of art will be posted on the Mars Society web site and may also be published as part of a special book about Mars art. In addition, winners will be invited to come to the 20th Annual International Mars Society Convention at the University of California, Irvine September 7-10, 2017 to display and talk about their art.

Mars art will consist of still images, which may be composed by traditional methods, such as pencil, charcoal, watercolors or paint, or by computerized means. Works of art must be submitted via a special online form ( in either PDF or JPEG format with a 500 MB limit. The deadline for submissions is May 31, 2017, 5:00 pm MST. By submitting art to the contest, participating students grant the Mars Society non-exclusive rights to publish the images on its web site or in Kindle paper book form.

Speaking about the SMArt Contest, Mars Society President Dr. Robert Zubrin said, “The imagination of youth looks to the future. By holding the SMArt Contest, we are inviting young people from all over the world to use art to make visible the things they can see with their minds that the rest of us have yet to see with our own eyes. Show us the future, kids. From imagination comes reality. If we can see it, we can make it.”

Questions about the Mars Society’s SMArt Contest can be submitted to:

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Getting Ready to Occupy Mars

Mission Summary – Crew 174

Mars Desert Research Station End of Mission Summary

Crew 174 – Team PLANETEERS


Team PLANETEERS (All Indian Crew):

Commander:  Mamatha Maheshwarappa

Executive Officer/Crew Scientist:  Saroj Kumar

Engineer/Journalist:  Arpan Vasanth

GreenHab Officer:  Sneha Velayudhan

Crew Health & Safety Officer/Geologist:  Sai Arun Dharmik

Success occurs when your dreams get bigger than your excuses


The Solar System is a tiny drop in our endless cosmic sea (Universe). Within our solar system, a very few planets host an environment suitable for some life forms to exist. The closest one being Mars after the Earth, following the success of rovers such as Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity and several space probes, the human understanding of the planet has reached new levels. The next important aspect is to find out if there exist any life forms or if the planet had hosted any life in the past. Although the rovers send out a lot of information about the planet, so far humans have not found anything substantial. With advancements in science and technology by organizations such as NASA, ESA, ISRO, CNSA along with private industries such as SpaceX manned mission to Mars seems to be within reach in a few years. To carry out successful missions humans will have to develop key tactics to cope up extreme conditions, confined spaces and limited resources. Team Planeteers (MDRS Crew 174) is the first all Indian crew consisting of five young aspirants from different domain who have come together to embark on a special mission in order to develop such key tactics. The crew was successful in executing the planned experiments. The key for their success is the temperament and dedication shown by each individual and fixing small issues immediately. Since all the members were of same origin, food and cultural aspects was an advantage. Going forward the team is planning out for outreach activities. As a part of QinetiQ Space UK, Mamatha will be involved in outreach, education and media activities (TeenTech & STEMNET). Similarly, Saroj and Sneha will be conducting STEM outreach activities at Unversity of Alabama and Rochester Institute of Technology respectively.

Figure 1 Team Planeteers inside the MDRS Hab

Research conducted at MDRS by Crew 174:


  1. Characterizing the transference of Human Commensal Bacteria and Developing Zoning Methodology for Planetary Protection

The first part of this research aims at using metagenomics analysis to assess the degree to which human associated (commensal) bacteria could potentially contaminate Mars during a crewed mission to the surface. This involved collection of environmental soil samples during the first week of the mission from outside the MDRS airlock door, at MDRS airlock door and at increasing distances from the habitat (including a presumably uncontaminated site) in order to characterise transference of human commensal bacteria into the environment and swabbing of interior surfaces carried out towards the end of the mission within the MDRS habitat to characterize the commensal biota likely to be present in a crewed Mars mission. In the interests of astrobiology, however, if microbial life is discovered on the Martian surface during a crewed mission, or at any point after a crewed mission, it will be crucial to be able to reliably distinguish these detected cells from the microbes potentially delivered by the human presence.

The second part of the research aims at testing the hypothesis that human-associated microbial contamination will attenuate with increasing distance from the Hab, thus producing a natural zoning.  The previous studies hypothesize that there may be relatively greater contamination along directions of the prevailing wind because windborne particles or particle aggregates allow attachment of microbes and help to shelter them against various environmental challenges, e.g. desiccation, ultraviolet light, etc. Efforts are afoot to try to develop a concept of zones around a base where the inner, highest contamination zone is surrounded by zones of diminishing levels of contamination occur and in which greater Planetary Protection stringency must be enforced (Criswell et al 2005).  As part of that concept, an understanding of what the natural rate of microbial contamination propagation will be is essential.

a. Sample collection process:

Two sets of samples were collected as the analysis will be carried out at two different stages.

i. Samples of the soil outside the MDRS were collected aseptically into sterile Falcon tubes. Sampling sites included immediately outside the habitat air lock (with presumably the highest level of human-associated bacteria from the crew quarters), at increasing distances from the airlock along a common EVA route (to track decrease in transference with distance), and at a more remote site that ideally has not previously been visited by an EVA (to provide the negative control of background microbiota in the environment).

Figure 2 Soil Samples collected at increasing distances from the Airlock


ii. Various surfaces within the crew quarters were swabbed using a standard sterile swab kit to collect microbes present from the course of normal human habitation. These included door handles, walls, table surface, airlock handles, staircase, working table, computer. This did not expose the science team to additional infection risks (such as not swabbing toilets).

Figure 3 (a) Sterile Swab Kit (b) Internal swab collection (working table)

Sampling locations within the habitat and soil sampling sites during EVA were recorded by photographs and written notes. After collection, the samples were refrigerated at the MDRS Science lab, and then returned with the crew to London for storage and analysis. This is analogous to medical samples being collected from ISS astronauts and returned to Earth for lab analysis. The molecular biology sample analysis and data interpretation, including all the metagenomic analyses to identify bacterial strains present, will be conducted by Lewis Dartnell in collaboration with John Ward. The collaboration agreement is already in place and lab space and resources confirmed. The analysis is carried out in two different stages:


a. Stage 1 Analysis:

The first set of samples will be tested using off-the-shelf simple tests for the presence or absence of human associated microbes, namely coliforms.  These are simple to use and give a yes/no answer, so plots will be made of yes/no results with distance from the hab in different directions.  This could be correlated with prevailing wind directions and/or to show common human pathways from the hab versus directions in which people typically don’t go.

b. Stage 2 Analysis:

The second set of samples (internal swabs) will not be cultured or otherwise processed back on Earth (as culturing of human commensurate and environmental microorganisms could present a biological hazard to the MDRS astronauts). All sampling materials and storage containers were provided by the study, and thus will require no consumables or other resources from the MDRS. All sample collection pots and sampling materials will be removed by the study scientists, and the sampling process itself (small soil samples and surface swabs) will not impact the MDRS habitat or its natural environment.


  1. Zoning and sample collection Protocols for Planetary Protection


Planetary protection is one of the major subjects that require immediate attention before humans travel to Mars and beyond. MDRS being one of the closest analogues on Earth with respect to dry environment on Mars was the best site to perform and simulate issues related to planetary protection. Our work on planetary protection was to simulate zoning protocol to be used to manage relative degrees of acceptable contamination surrounding MDRS and implementation of sample protocols while at EVA’s for soil sample collection, geological study and during hab support activities etc.


a. Zoning protocols for crew exploration around MDRS

During the mission, we extensively studied the zoning protocol in and around the hab and how contamination issues on Mars can be restricted.  On the first day on ‘Mars’ we used the geographical map of MDRS exploration area to formulate and characterize zones around the hab and the strategy for sample collection.

i. Zone: 1 (Area within Hab) – This area is believed to be the most contaminated with the human microbes.

ii. Zone 2 (About 20 meters from the hab) – This is the area where most of the hab support systems and rovers are parked. This zone is supposed to have less microbial contamination than hab but higher than Zone 3 and 4.

iii. Zone 3 (Beyond 20 meters but within 300 meters around the hab) – This area is considered to have regular human presence during an EVA. Soil samples of Zone 2a and 2b were collected for future analysis in lab to study human microbial contamination.

iv. Zone 4 (Special Region) – This area was considered to have insufficient remote sensing data to determine the level of biological potential. This area was marked as no EVA zone and can only be studied in detail by remote sensing data using satellites or drones.


b. Sample collection protocols

The crew studied the sample collection protocol requirements for all the activities such as soil sample collection, geological study and during the operations of hab support systems etc., this was to avoid forward and back contamination.  The protocols were planned to be initiated from the time a crew member leaves the airlock for EVA and until he/she returns from the EVA to Hab. During the EVA, the crew noted every experiment procedure and made sure there was no breach in spacesuits and no human microbial contamination during soil collection. The tools used for the soil collection were required to be completely cleaned and sterilized. The study of rocks on site during an EVA was one of the major challenges where it was realized that special tools were required to pick the rock samples without getting them exposed to spacesuit gloves. Using only gloves to pick rock samples could also rupture the spacesuits and thus there could be a decompression issue. Even with a detailed geological exploration map of MDRS and high resolution satellite imagery, it was noted that the use of drones can drastically reduce the human EVAs and lots of geological and terrain information can be obtained in a shot span of time. This step would heavily reduce the human EVA and thereby contamination issues to special regions where there could be a possibility of having a biological activity. Water, a major carrier of human microbes is proposed to be within the structures of hab. During the simulation, the crew made sure that there was no water spillage outside the hab.


  1. Development of New Techniques to Enhance Plant Growth in a Controlled Environment

A crewed mission to the Mars demands sufficient food supplies during the mission. Thus cultivation of plants and crops play an important role to create a habitat on Mars. There are some factors to be considered before cultivating crops on the Martian surface. First, the planet’s position in the solar system, Mars receives about 2/3rd of sunlight as compared to the Earth that plays a vital role in crop cultivation. Second, the type of soil used for crop cultivation should to be rich in various nutrients. Since the MDRS site is considered as one of the best analogue sites on Earth to simulate Mars environment, the experimental results of plant growth at MDRS was considered for this research. This research aims at growing fenugreek (crop that is rich in nutrients and grows within the mission time) to determine the effect of Vitamin D on the growth.

At MDRS, the fenugreek seeds were allowed to germinate for 2 days. In the mean-time, an EVA was carried out to collect soil from different parts on ‘Mars’. The soil was collected based on the colour and texture. Five types of soil, white (01), red (02), clay (03) coloured soil, course grey soil (04) and sand from river bed (05) were collected. Two set of experiment pots were made as shown in the Figure 4. Each had 15 pots, 10 pots with Earth soil (ES) labelled with different levels of Vitamin D (0- 0.9) and 5 pots of Mars soil (MS) labelled according to the area of the soil collected (0-5). One set of 15 pots was placed in the Green hab and the other in the controlled environment (under the Misian Mars lamp) after planting the well germinated seeds. The plants were watered twice a day in order to maintain the moisture in the soil.

Figure 4 Experimental Setup with Earth and ‘Mars’ Soil

The temperature and humidity levels were monitored twice a day throughout the mission both in the green hab and the controlled environment (Misian Mars Lamp). It was noted that there was a steep increase in the temperature in the green hab as the outside temperature was high that inturn decreased the humidity in the green hab drastically. The situation was managed by switching on the cooler and then by monitoring the heater thermostat. The plants were watered with specific measurement of Vitamin D every day. The experiment was successfully completed by monitoring the growth regularly, it is evident that humidity and temperature impacts the growth of plants. The plants in the green hab showed more growth of primary root than the secondary, the leaves were normal in colour and growth. In the controlled environment, the root growth was fast, the plants developed many secondary roots in few days. The plants looked healthy, the leaves were dark green and bigger than the ones in the green hab as seen in Figure 5.

Figure 5 Plant growth in (a) Misian Mars Lamp (b) GreenHab

In conclusion, the graphs were plotted for the root growth for the Earth Soil with Vitamin D in the green hab and the controlled environment from Sol 08 to Sol 13. The graphs indicated that the low level of Vitamin D (0.1) enhances root growth in the green hab. Under misian Mars lamp, the growth rate is high for ES 0 (without Vitamin D).   Readings tabulated for the Mars soil was plotted on daily basis but, after few days it was noted that there was neglibile growth in the Mars soil. The graphs plotted for few days are as shown in the Figure 6.

Figure 6 Root growth of seedlings (a) Misian Mars Lamp (b) GreenHab


  1. Study of magnetic susceptibility of the rocks and their comparison


The primary objective was to study the magnetic susceptibility and magnetic minerals of the rock samples collected and compare them with multi-spectral remote sensing data back in the lab. MDRS contains a range of Mars analogue features relevant for geological studies. It contains a series of sediments derived from weathering and erosion from marine to fluvial and lacustrine deposits containing also volcanic ashes (Foing et al. 2011). With the preliminary understanding of the MDRS geographical exploration area and identification of potential targets, the lithology can help us decipher the structural history of the region, with understanding of genesis of such rock types and aid exploration efforts. The previous studies done at MDRS reveals that the magnetic susceptibility did not vary significantly near the Hab. Hence, the locations of various geological formations far away from the hab were selected to study the distribution of magnetic minerals. The selected locations for the same were sedimentary outcrops, cattle grid, burpee dinosaur quarry, widow’s peak and near the Motherload of concretions.

We found layers of horizontally bedded sandstone and conglomerates, sandstones and siltstones. Some of them seem to have inverse grading which could have been created by the debris flow. Gypsum and lichens were spotted around the area of sedimentary crops. In the next visit to Motherload of concretions, we have seen a variety of lichens: yellow, black, orange and grey. And in the Cattle grid region, colors of mudstone and conglomerates bands of rich cream, brown, yellow and red were found. The basalt samples were collected from the gravel in the cattle grid region and from the URC north site (porphyr) to be studied in the lab. Near the widow’s peak, shales were found along with gypsum shining bright, distributed around that area. Most of the region was covered mostly with loose soil. The locations of all the samples collected from different regions were marked with the help of GPS. The magnetic susceptibility of rock samples were measured and documented them using the magnetometer in the science lab. Inspection of samples was possible with the microscope at the science dome, with 10X zoom as seen in Figure 4. They need to be studied in thin sections for better understanding and will be done on Earth under the guidance of specialists.

Figure 7 (a) Porphyr under microscope (b) Siltstone under the microscope


  1. Drone Experiment

‘Mars’ has a harsh environment that risks Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA). The main objectives of the drone experiment were:

a. To ease EVAs by understanding the scenario of a region that is hard to access by rover/ATV.

b. To simulate the application of drone in search of a crew member during an emergency situation and during loss of communication.

c. Video making and photography for outreach activities.

The first objective to make use of drone in isolated regions was successfully executed on Sol 07. Since it was the first trial, the drone was operated in beginner’s mode restricting the field of operation to 30m range. The crew was looking out for soil samples, when confronted by a medium size hill the drone was sent out to check for soil sample availability on the other side. The region looked to be same and it was easier for the crew to take a decision to abort the mission and move to a different location.

Execution date:                Sol 07 (Earth date: 02/05/2017)

GPS Satellites:   13

Flight mode:                     Beginner’s mode of max 62 FT altitude and within 30m range.


The second objective was to simulate an emergency situation when one of the crew lost communication with other member during EVAs. The beginner mode range was too less and hence the drone was operated in advanced mode to search the missing crew member. The mission was successful in identifying the crew member.

Execution:         Sol 11 (Earth date: 02/09/2017)

GPS Satellites:   14

Flight mode:                     Advanced mode with 121 FT altitude and 500m range.


Figure 8 Drone Searching a Crew Member


Several photographs/videos were captured as per the planned outreach activity.

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Mars Crew 173 Reporting

Kids Talk Radio Science is following the work of Mars Crew 173 and we are using the information to help us in our STEAM++ project-based learning.   This is a wonderful resource for helping our team to advance our work on the Occupy Mars Learning Adventures. and
MDRS Crew 173 Issues Final Summary Report

The following is the final report of Mars Desert Research StationCrew 173 (Team Prima, a multi-national team of scientists and researchers).  A complete review of this year’s MDRS activities will be presented at the 20th Annual International Mars Society Convention, to be held September 7-10, 2017 at the University of California Irvine. The call for papers for the conference will be posted soon at:

MDRS Mission Summary
Crew 173 (Team PRIMA)

Commander/Astrobiologist: Michaela Musilova (Slovakia)
Executive Officer: Arnau Pons Lorente (Spain)
Engineer/ Astronomer: Idriss Sisaid (France/Morocco)
GreenHab Officer/Astrobiologist: Richard Blake (Australia)
Crew Artist/Journalist: Niamh Shaw (Ireland)
Crew Health & Safety Officer/Geologist: Roy Naor (Israel)

Facebook: @marsmission173
Twitter: @MarsCrew173

Team PRIMA is made up of highly qualified scientists, engineers, artists and leadership experts from all over the world. We all first met during the International Space University (ISU)’s Space Studies Program. The crew was successful in undertaking a wide range of research projects and outreach activities at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) during their mission there, detailed below. One of the keys to the smooth running of the mission and projects were great group dynamics, and the multicultural atmosphere the crew nurtured. Amongst other things, we regularly organized “culture nights”, in ISU’s spirit, during which the different international traditions and cuisines of the crew members were presented. Another thing, which bonded the whole crew, was our passion for reaching out to the public and inspiring others to pursue their dreams, just like the crew is doing. They believe this mission alone helped raise the awareness about the importance of the space sector in all of the crew members’ countries.

Research Conducted at MDRS

3D printing of bricks through In Situ Resource Utilization

The aim of this project was to develop and test 3d printed blocks, which can be used to build multifunctional buildings on Mars. The shape of the blocks was optimized to withstand different types of heavy loads, contain water (for daily use by astronauts) and to provide extra-radiation shielding for the astronauts. Furthermore, the idea was to use in situ resources to make the blocks, therefore minimizing the amount of material that would need to be transported to Mars.

The first week at MDRS, we encountered several issues with the 3D printer present here (including the cold temperatures at night for example), which didn’t allow us to print bricks but we managed to print 5 bricks over the last few days. Every brick took 17h on average to print. The outer shell of the brick was printed using PLA filament (plastic). For future studies, we suggest laser sintering technology to simulate 3D printing using Martian soil. The printed blocks are, however, a great success as the interlocking system was fully functional. With the crew geologist Roy Naor we evaluated the different types of soil that can be used within the brick to strengthen it. Filling the blocks with appropriate soil was also successful and the process was fairly easy (less than 1min per block). We then built a small structure at MDRS during an EVA, in order to prepare for the next iteration of the proof of concept.

GreenHab related projects

The work in the GreenHab during this has mission comprised of three main experiments:

The temperature fluctuation was measured across the day, from a range of locations: inside the GreenHab, inside on the ground floor of the main Hab, outside, and, inside the grow tent (which was initially located within the GreenHab).

Due to the extremely high temperatures in the growth tent (50◦C ~120◦F), the grow tent was moved to the lower level of the main Hab. With the grow tent inside the main Hab, its temperature hardly fluctuated at all. With ~65% humidity, it now represents an ideal seed germination area. The GreenHab still gets quite hot during the day, getting to ~40◦C (~105◦F), but with no wind and regular watering, the plants thrive. Similarly, with a working heater, the night- time temperatures now only get as low as ~17◦C (~63◦F), which is a perfectly adequate temperature to keep edible plants happy.

This involved two similar experiments designed by universities in the Czech Republic, and brought by the crew commander, Michaela Musilova. The first was a corn experiment, designed by researchers at the Masaryk University, to be used as a base line for a future experiment testing the effects of heavy metals on the growth of corn. The experiment at the MDRS involved measuring the height of corn seedlings each day as well as recording the number of leaves each plant had.

The second experiment saw six different crops sown in pots with seed densities ranging from 1 to 12 seeds per 4 cm2. Some seedlings have already sprouted but it is still too early to gather meaningful results. This experiment is to be followed up by researchers at Mendel University.

Both projects are to be continued by future crews at MDRS – we will leave them appropriate instructions for this. Hopefully, in this way, we will be able to engage multiple crews in this international project.

This experiment was borne of the need for more soil to grow plants in. Samples of soil were collected from geological locations in the surroundings of MDRS. These samples were tested for their pH, as well as salinity. With kitchen and garden scraps forming compost, this could improve the regolith to the point it could be used to grow more crops in the future. Hopefully, this could reduce dependence on outside sources to bring in more potting mix, and more fully recreate a Martian simulation. Unfortunately, the instruments to measure pH and salinity at the MDRS were insufficient for this, and thus this experiment warrants further investigation.

Chemical and isotopic fingerprints of MDRS carbonates

The potential of extraterrestrial life on Mars is well connected to the history, and distribution of water and carbon on the planet. Carbonate minerals are seen as powerful tools with which to explore these fundamental relationships, as they are intimately tied to both the water and the inorganic carbon cycle. The carbonate analysis work at MDRS concentrated on locating and sampling carbonate minerals in the topsoil and exhumed formations in the Martian-like environment. After an initial study of the geology of the area, carbonates were sampled and tested on site, using HCl 5% to test for a reaction of the rocks with the acid. The verified assemblages were then brought back to MDRS for further testing. The sampling was performed in a very rigorous way, documented meticulously, while keeping the work analogous to what extraterrestrial field work would be like one day.

The samples will be sent for analysis of the carbonates’ chemical and isotopic fingerprint at the Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel) (including crystal separation, mineral/chemical identification (XRD, EDS, CL), textural analysis (SEM, micro-CT), isotopic analysis (SIMS)). The results will be added to their datasets with the intention of publishing them in academic journals.

Art-Outreach project

The aim of this project was to capture the public’s interest in Mars, MDRS and space:
+ By telling the real-time human story of our mission pre-, during- and post-mission,
+ To inspire the younger generation to pursue STEAM education and realize that everyone can play a part in the exploration of space
+ To raise awareness of the importance of analog missions, specifically MDRS and the opportunity for non-Space agency individuals to play their part in Human Space Exploration.

We believe that we accomplished these aims: together we documented our entire experience here at MDRS using audio, video, time-lapse, 360 cameras and photography. We began by making videos pre-mission to reflect the time and effort in preparation for our mission. During mission, we captured every EVA in photography and video and conducted time lapse videos of our experiments, and daily life during our mission. We will continue to record our experience post-mission to capture further reflections about our experience at MDRS. During our mission, we shared a summary of our daily activities on social media and on blogposts in our native countries using this content. We also created short 90 second tutorial videos for school children to inspire them to consider careers in STEM, especially in the space industry, to be posted to our YouTube channel post-mission.  We also worked with a number of companies, research institutions and journalists/media organizations around the world. Awareness of Mars and MDRS has most definitely been achieved, and we all return home to requests for further interviews and requests from schools to speak about our experience here.

Israeli outreach & educational projects

One of our outreach projects involved a challenge for high school students in Israel to design a set of small experiments for the team to conduct under simulation. They were: 1) Detecting variances in rock type near MDRS (involving sampling and examining the geological characteristics of each of the formations present here); 2) Testing the strength of the 3D printed bricks as a function of the different rock material they will be filled with (thus testing the variance in their strength properties ); and testing the effect of repetitive EVAs on the time it takes the crew to prepare for it (timing and documenting the process of putting EVA equipment on). All crew members took part in this research lead by Roy Naor. The projects yielded interesting results. For instance, there was a great improvement in the EVA preparation time (decreasing from 30 minutes to 15 minutes throughout the mission). This projects already got a lot of media coverage and the results be published in the Israeli media after the mission.

“Mission to Mars” competition and research project

Michaela Musilova organized a competition for high school and university students in Slovakia called Mission to Mars (Misia Mars), together with Slovenske Elektrarne. The aim of the competition was to motivate young people to design an experiment worthy of being taken and performed on Mars, whether real or simulated at MDRS. Students from all over Slovakia participated in the competition in 2016. The winning experiment has been brought to MDRS with Crew 173 (Figure 5). It is focused on enhancing the speed and yield of spinach growth under simulated Martian conditions. Michaela communicated regularly with her students in Slovakia, who remotely advised her on how to perform it. The experiment was very successful, as the spinach grew much faster than the spinach grown in the GreenHab. It also yielded enough leaves to treat the crew to a mini spinach salad on their last evening at MDRS. All the follow-up analyses will be performed in the students’ school in Detva, Slovakia. As per the other outreach activities, this project attracted a lot of attention from the media and was followed by many schools throughout Slovakia.

“Space food” or food for extreme conditions

A practical way of eating is the key to long-term expeditions in extreme conditions on Earth and in future long-duration missions in space. Food will have to be compact (for easy transportation), full of the most important nutrients (for maintaining good crew health and performance), but also diverse for all the different human senses. Hence, a project focusing on food for extreme conditions (nicknamed “space food”) has been prepared by the Slovak Organization for Space Activities (SOSA) and several Slovak research institutes and companies. The aim of the work at MDRS was to monitor the changes in the quality of the space food products and their nutritional content, rather than to test the products on the crew. In particular, the effects of the different extreme conditions (e.g. varying temperatures) on the food were studied for health and safety reasons. The project went very well and most of the products managed to survive the simulated Martian conditions. Further analyses will be performed at the Slovak institutes upon the return of the products to Slovakia, with the aim of publishing the data in academic publications. Future plans include using the data in the food industry, and preparing products for athletes and even the military, even one day for the space sector.

For further information about the Mars Society, please visit our website at

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Farewell to NASA’s General Bolden

 Farewell to NASA’s General Bolden:   Kids Talk Radio Space Science News

Ivor & General.jpg

In 1964, a high school junior dreams of attending the US Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland but he faces some major obstacles.   He is African American in ‘Jim Crow’ South Carolina and he has no political sponsors. Undaunted, he writes to President Johnson asking for his help and, as it would happen, LBJ has just launched a program to recruit minorities for the military academies. The president dispatches a recruiter to South Carolina.

Charles Bolden goes on to become a Naval Academy graduate, a Marine jet pilot, a major general, a four time space shuttle astronaut and NASA’s Administrator from July 2009 until January  2017.

Because of my association with Nichelle Nichols I was fortunate to have several wonderful encounters with “General Bolden” like the one captured by photographers at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC.  One of our last conversations was about Nichelle and I flying to the “edge of space” aboard the 747 Jumbo Jet carrying SOFIA, NASA’s airborne telescope. I wanted to leverage the notoriety of the flight as a way of inspiring young people to star gaze; Bolden responded by asking NASA’s entire education department to assist me in my endeavor. I never saw so many names cc’d on an email chain. I was truly overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed can be used to describe NASA when Nichelle Nichols recruited the first African American and female astronauts in 1978—and that Bolden was among those who she pursued! Ultimately, he decided to take her advice and applies for astronaut training two years later and the rest is history.

Because Bolden considered Nichelle a friend and mentor, NASA wanted her to be a part of their official farewell video to their boss. I was honored to be present when Nichelle recorded her funny and heartfelt farewell.


NASA is losing a friend and mentor –and also a mensch.  Thank you for your service, general sir!


Bolden and Deputy Director, Lori Garver in video salute to Nichelle Nichols in 2010

The man in the black suit is Ivor Dawson.  He is the owner of the Traveling Space Museum in Los Angeles California.  From time to time he collaborates with Bob Barboza producing school workshops in STEM and Star Parties where the community can come together to learn more about space science.   Ivor is a fantastic presenter and he is loved by his audiences.   For more information about STEM and STEAM++ projects visit

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National Geographic’s Mars

I had the pleasure of meeting author Robert Zubrin at the Mars Convention in Washington, DC this summer.  He is the current president of the Mars Society.  We are all excited to see the new “National Geographic’s Mars “documentary for television.

Bob—Kids Talk Radio Science

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Ron Howard’s Mars: Space Flight Travels beyond NASA 
By Robert Zubrin, National Review, 11.12.16

In 1955, Werner von Braun teamed up with Walt Disney to produce a three-part TV series laying out America’s space-faring future. With a record-smashing viewership of 40 million people for its first episode, “Man in Space” played a decisive role in putting the challenge of sending men to the Moon squarely in the mind of the nation. Just 14 years later, we were there. Now, with the soon-to-start six-part National Geographic TV series Mars, acclaimed filmmaker Ron Howard (Apollo 13) aims to repeat the same feat but this time specifically with the Red Planet squarely in his sights.

Mars uses a challenging and somewhat novel format, splitting its time, and time periods. About two-thirds of it is devoted to a dramatic story about an  international crew of explorers going to Mars in the year 2033, getting into trouble, and having to pull together to get out of it. The rest of the film is a documentary about the people in 2016 who are striving now to make it happen.

I was present in Manhattan for the series premiere October 26, and I have to say I thought it came out rather well. (Full disclosure: I have a bit part as one of the year 2016 gang.) There can be no question that the drama is well done and exciting. It pulls the story along in a way that makes it far more engaging than standard documentary fare, while the documentary material does enhance the drama, albeit perhaps not as markedly. Think of the movie Reds with the time relationship between the drama and the commentary reversed, and you’ll get something of the idea.

The story line has obvious similarities to that of the movie The Martian, but with this important difference: The Matt Damon character in The Martian isn’t interested in Mars. He doesn’t care about the search for life on Mars, or about Mars as humanity’s new frontier. He just wants to get home. In contrast, Howard’s ensemble crew is fascinated by Mars. For them, the Red Planet is not just a place of peril; it is also a place of wonder. So while Mars may not have the star power of Matt Damon, it has something that The Martian lacks: the star power of Mars.

To read the full article, please click here.

Don’t miss the premiere of National Geographic’s MARS global event series, scheduled to begin on Monday, November 14th at 9:00 pm EDT. 

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Calling all Occupy Mars chemistry students

Toxic Mars dust could hamper planned human missions

Mission Report for Asa:  How can we help  with chemistry ideas for our fourth grader and the other Occupy Mars Learning Adventure astronauts in training?   We have one student that loves chemistry.

Don’t know if an oscilloscope is needed, but the pervasive fine red dust on Mars will contaminate everything with iron oxide.  Detecting and measuring iron in water would be a safe and inexpensive chemistry experiment.  Iron content might be an indicator of other contaminants in the Martian dust.  See for example


If a simple, lower-pressure (not vacuum) chamber could be built to simulate the Martian atmosphere, the pressure and temperature could be continuously displayed and logged as ice melted.  This dynamic experiment would invoke the gas laws and phase transitions (Physical Chemistry).  The concepts are mind-stretching, but the math is simple and amenable to visualization and analysis with both two and three-dimensional graphics.

John, Occupy Mars Physics Team.

Occupy Mars Physics Department.

By Victoria Jaggard in Washington DC

Mars dust is dangerous to human health and could severely hamper proposed missions to send people to the Red Planet. So say space-health and life-support researchers who met this week to mull over the possibility of sending a crewed mission to Mars by 2030.

Laboratory studies had suggested that Mars dust might be a health hazard because it contains fine-grained silicate minerals, which are common on Mars. If breathed in, the silicate dust would react with water in the lungs to create damaging chemicals.

Recent robotic missions suggest that the outlook for a crewed mission may be even worse. Delegates to the Humans 2 Mars Summit (H2M) in Washington DC, an effort to chart and overcome the challenges of getting humans to Mars within the next two decades, yesterday heard the latest evidence of the dangers of Martian dust.

Richard Williams, NASA’s chief health and medical officer, pointed out at the meeting that perchlorates, which are known to harm the thyroid gland, increasingly look to be widespread on Mars.


Baked for analysis

Perchlorates were first detected by NASA’s Phoenix lander in 2008 near the Martian north pole. More recently, there was a possible detection by NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed in August 2012 and is now exploring Gale crater, near Mars’s equator. Last December, Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument baked up a scoop of soil, taken from a site called Rocknest, to analyse the dust’s composition.

“We believe that there could be perchlorates in the Rocknest dust sample,” says Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator for SAM. “Since dust blows all over Mars, this certainly should be considered along with other human health impacts.”

That’s not all. In the past few months Curiosity has found veins of a mineral, most likely gypsum – and that is also worrisome, says Grant Anderson, co-founder of Paragon Space Development, a company based in Tucson, Arizona.

“Gypsum is not really toxic per se, but if you breathe it in you do start to see a build-up in the lungs that’s equivalent to the coal-dust lung experienced by miners. That leads to breakdowns in lung capacity,” says Anderson. The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health classifies gypsum dust as a nuisance particulate that can irritate the eyes, skin and respiratory system, and sets recommended exposure limits.

Sticky nuisance

But with limited atmospheric oxygen as well as dangerous radiation to contend with, astronauts on Mars won’t be going out and breathing in dust directly. They will have to remain inside special habitats, donning spacesuits if they venture out. So could this dangerous stuff still wend its way into their bodies?

The problem starts with the spacesuits, which Martian dust will stick to persistently, says Anderson. “That’s one thing they learned from the Apollo missions on the moon,” he adds.

Those missions showed that lunar soil has been ground into fine, sharp-edged grains that cling to just about everything, thanks to bombardment from micrometeorites and charged particles from the sun. Although Martian dust has been somewhat protected by a thin atmosphere, it has been blowing around for 3.5 billion years, and that has worn down the particles into very small, round grains. The grains aren’t sharp, but constant roiling around the planet has probably given Mars dust a significant static charge, says Anderson, which could make it sticky.

The fear is that since the dust cannot easily be cleaned from suits, it will get into astronauts’ living quarters, even if they return via an airlock – an intermediate space between their quarters and the low-pressure, CO2-rich environment of Mars. “What you’re going to want to do is pump out the CO2 and then let in air,” explains Anderson. “That creates eddy currents, which creates flow. You’ve got such fine dust on Mars that you won’t be able to keep it down, and the person will be breathing it in.”

Robotic answers

Dust wafting inside the astronauts’ quarters might also clog air filters, water purifiers and other critical instruments, warned Greg Gentry, an engineer at Boeing in Houston, Texas, and the technical lead for the Environmental Control and Life Support System on the International Space Station. But for now no one really knows how Mars dust will affect the equipment people will need to survive on the planet. “Dust is a problem because no one knows what it is going to do on Mars,” says Anderson.

The good news is that robotic missions such as Curiosity could help provide vital answers. “The Apollo programme spent $17 million trying to solve their lunar dust problems, and I’m not sure they made much progress, because they had to do the tests on Earth,” says Anderson. “For Mars, the precursor robotic missions should all have some way to test how dust is going to kill you.”

So far, such practical concerns have done little to curb enthusiasm for a human Mars mission. Two weeks ago, the private Mars One venture started taking applications for its one-way trip to the Red Planet. On 7 May, the company announced that it has received 78,000 applicants, and counting. “This is turning out to be the most desired job in history,” Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp said in a statement.

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Colonizing Mars Reading Assignment

Online STEAM++ Reading Assignments:  Your mission is to read this article by Dr. Robert Zubrin.  You will have an opportunity to join in on the discussion.  Send your feedback to


Elon Musk debuting the ITS plans

Colonizing Mars


A Critique of the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System

Robert Zubrin

In remarks at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico on September 29, 2016, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk revealed to great fanfare his company’s plans for an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). According to Musk, the ITS would enable the colonization of Mars by the rapid delivery of a million people in groups of a hundred passengers per flight, as well as large-scale human exploration missions to other bodies, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa.

I was among the thousands of people in the room (and many more watching live online) when Musk gave his remarkable presentation, and was struck by its many good and powerful ideas. However, Musk’s plan assembled some of those good ideas in an extremely suboptimal way, making the proposed system impractical. Still, with some corrections, a system using the core concepts Musk laid out could be made attractive — not just as an imaginative concept for the colonization of Mars, but as a means of meeting the nearer-at-hand challenge of enabling human expeditions to the planet.

In the following critique, I will explain the conceptual flaws of the new SpaceX plan, showing how they can be corrected to benefit, first, the near-term goal of initiating human exploration of the Red Planet, and then, with a cost-effective base-building and settlement program, the more distant goal of future Mars colonization.

Design of the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System

As described by Musk, the SpaceX ITS would consist of a very large two-stage fully-reusable launch system, powered by methane/oxygen chemical bipropellant. The suborbital first stage would have four times the takeoff thrust of a Saturn V (the huge rocket that sent the Apollo missions to the Moon). The second stage, which reaches orbit, would have the thrust of a single Saturn V. Together, the two stages could deliver a maximum payload of 550 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), about four times the capacity of the Saturn V. (Note: All of the “tons” referenced in this article are metric tons.)

At the top of the rocket, the spaceship itself — where some hundred passengers reside — is inseparable from the second stage. (Contrast this with, for example, NASA’s lunar missions, where each part of the system was discarded in turn until just the Command Module carried the Apollo astronauts back to Earth.) Since the second-stage-plus-spaceship will have used its fuel in getting to orbit, it would need to refuel in orbit, filling up with about 1,950 tons of propellant (which means that each launch carrying passengers would require four additional launches to deliver the necessary propellant). Once filled up, the spaceship can head to Mars.

The duration of the journey would of course depend on where Earth and Mars are in their orbits; the shortest one-way trip would be around 80 days, according to Musk’s presentation, and the longest would be around 150 days. (Musk stated that he thinks the architecture could be improved to reduce the trip to 60 or even 30 days.)

After landing on Mars and discharging its passengers, the ship would be refueled with methane/oxygen bipropellant made on the surface of Mars from Martian water and carbon dioxide, and then flown back to Earth orbit.

Problems with the Proposed System

The SpaceX plan as Musk described it contains nine notable features. If we examine each of these in turn, some of the strengths and weaknesses in the overall system will begin to present themselves.

1. Extremely large size. The proposed SpaceX launch system is four times bigger than a Saturn V rocket. This is a serious problem, because even with the company’s impressively low development costs, SpaceX has no prospect of being able to afford the very large investment — at least $10 billion — required to develop a launch vehicle of this scale.

2. Use of methane/oxygen bipropellant for takeoff from Earth, trans-Mars injection, and direct return to Earth from the Martian surface. These ideas go together, and are very strong. Methane/oxygen is, after hydrogen/oxygen, the highest-performing practical propellant combination, and it is much more compact and storable than hydrogen/oxygen. It is very cheap, and is the easiest propellant to make on Mars. For over a quarter century, I have been a strong advocate of this design approach, making it a central feature of the Mars Direct mission architecture I first laid out in 1990 and described in my book The Case for Mars. However, it should be noted that while the manufacture of methane/oxygen from Martian carbon dioxide and water is certainly feasible, it is not without cost in effort, power, and capital facilities, and so the transportation system should be designed to keep this burden on the Mars base within manageable bounds.

3. The large scale manufacture of methane/oxygen bipropellant on the Martian surface from indigenous materials. Here I offer the same praise and the same note of caution as above. The use of in situ (that is, on-site) Martian resources makes the entire SpaceX plan possible, just as it is a central feature of my Mars Direct plan. But the scale of the entire mission architecture must be balanced with the production capacity that can realistically be established.

4. All flight systems are completely reusable. This is an important goal for minimizing costs, and SpaceX is already making substantial advances toward it by demonstrating the return and reuse of the first stage of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle. However, for a mission component to be considered “reusable” it doesn’t necessarily need to be returned to Earth and launched again. In general, it can make more sense to find other ways to reuse components off Earth that are already in orbit or beyond. This idea is reflected in some parts of the new SpaceX plan — such as refilling the second stage in low Earth orbit — but, as we shall see, it is ignored elsewhere, at considerable cost to program effectiveness. Furthermore the rate at which systems can be reused must also be considered.

5. Refilling methane/oxygen propellant in the booster second stage in Earth orbit. Here Musk and his colleagues face a technical challenge, since transferring cryogenic fluids in zero gravity has never been done. The problem is that in zero gravity two-phase mixtures float around with gas and liquid mixed and scattered among each other, making it difficult to operate pumps, while the ultra-cold nature of cryogenic fluids precludes the use of flexible bladders to effect the fluid transfer. However, I believe this is a solvable problem — and one well worth solving, both for the benefits it offers this mission architecture and for different designs we may see in the future.

6. Use of the second stage to fly all the way to the Martian surface and back. This is a very bad idea. For one thing, it entails sending a 7-million-pound-force thrust engine, which would weigh about 60 tons, and its large and massive accompanying tankage all the way from low Earth orbit to the surface of Mars, and then sending them back, at great cost to mission payload and at great burden to Mars base-propellant production facilities. Furthermore, it means that this very large and expensive piece of capital equipment can be used only once every four years (since the feasible windows for trips to and from Mars occur about every two years).

7. The sending of a large habitat on a roundtrip from Earth to Mars and back. This, too, is a very bad idea, because the habitat will get to be used only one way, once every four years. If we are building a Mars base or colonizing Mars, any large habitat sent to the planet’s surface should stay there so the colonists can use it for living quarters. Going to great expense to send a habitat to Mars only to return it to Earth empty makes no sense. Mars needs houses.

8. Quick trips to Mars. If we accept the optimistic estimates that Musk offered during his presentation, the SpaceX system would be capable of 115-day (average) one-way trips from Earth to Mars, a somewhat faster journey than other proposed mission architectures. But the speedier trips impose a great cost on payload capability. And they raise the price tag, thereby undermining the architecture’s professed purpose — colonizing Mars — since the primary requirement for colonization is to reduce cost sufficiently to make emigration affordable. Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Following the example of colonial America, let’s pick as the affordability criterion the property liquidation of a middle-class household, or seven years’ pay for a working man (say about $300,000 in today’s equivalent terms), a criterion with which Musk roughly concurs. Most middle-class householders would prefer to get to Mars in six months at the cost equivalent to one house instead of getting to Mars in four months at a cost equivalent to three houses. For immigrants, who will spend the rest of their lives on Mars, or even explorers who would spend 2.5 years on a round trip, the advantage of reaching Mars one-way in four months instead of six months is negligible — and if shaving off two months would require a reduction in payload, meaning fewer provisions could be brought along, then the faster trip would be downright undesirable. Furthermore, the six-month transit is actually safer, because it is also the trajectory that loops back to Earth exactly two years after departure, so the Earth will be there to meet it. And trajectories involving faster flights to Mars will necessarily loop further out into space if the landing on Mars is aborted, and thus take longer than two years to get back to Earth’s orbit, making the free-returnbackup abort trajectory impossible. The claim that the SpaceX plan would be capable of 60-day (let alone 30-day) one-way transits to Mars is not credible.

9. The use of supersonic retropropulsion to achieve landing on Mars. This is a breakthrough concept for landing large payloads, one that SpaceX has demonstrated successfully in landing the first stages of its Falcon 9 on Earth. Its feasibility for Mars has thus been demonstrated in principle. It should be noted, however, that SpaceX is now proposing to scale up the landing propulsion system by about a factor of 50 — and employing such a landing techniques adds to the propulsive requirement of the mission, making the (unnecessary) goal of quick trips even harder to achieve.

Improving the SpaceX ITS Plan

Taking the above points into consideration, some corrections for the flaws in the current ITS plan immediately suggest themselves:

A. Instead of hauling the massive second stage of the launch vehicle all the way to Mars, the spacecraft should separate from it just before Earth escape. In this case, instead of flying all the way to Mars and back over 2.5 years, the second stage would fly out only about as far as the Moon, and return to aerobrake into Earth orbit a week after departure. If the refilling process could be done expeditiously, say in a week, it might thus be possible to use the second stage five times every mission opportunity (assuming a launch window of about two months), instead of once every other mission opportunity. This would increase the net use of the second stage propulsion system by a factor of 10, allowing five payloads to be delivered to Mars every opportunity using only one such system, instead of the ten required by the ITS baseline design. Without the giant second stage, the spaceship would then perform the remaining propulsive maneuver to fly to and land on Mars.

B. Instead of sending the very large hundred-person habitat back to Earth after landing it on Mars, it would stay on Mars, where it could be repurposed as a Mars surface habitat — something that the settlers would surely find extremely useful. Its modest propulsive stage could be repurposed as a surface-to-surface long-range flight system, or scrapped to provide material to meet other needs of the people living on Mars. If the propulsive system must be sent back to Earth, it should return with only a small cabin for the pilots and such colonists as want to call it quits. Such a procedure would greatly increase the payload capability of the ITS system while reducing its propellant-production burden on the Mars base.

C. As a result of not sending the very large second stage propulsion system to the Martian surface and not sending the large habitat back from the Martian surface, the total payload available to send one-way to Mars is greatly increased while the propellant production requirements on Mars would be greatly reduced.

D. The notion of sacrificing payload to achieve one-way average transit times substantially below six months should be abandoned. However, if the goal of quick trips is retained, then the corrections specified above would make it much more feasible, greatly increasing payload and decreasing trip time compared to what is possible with the original approach.

Changing the plan in the ways described above would greatly improve the performance of the ITS. This is because the ITS in its original form is not designed to achieve the mission of inexpensively sending colonists and payloads to Mars. Rather, it is designed to achieve the science-fiction vision of the giant interplanetary spaceship. This is a fundamental mistake, although the temptation is understandable. (A similar visionary impulse influenced the design of NASA’s space shuttle, with significant disadvantage to its performance as an Earth-to-orbit payload delivery system.) The central requirement of human Mars missions is not to create or operate giant spaceships. Rather, it is to send payloads from Earth to Mars capable of supporting groups of people, and then to send back such payloads as are necessary.

To put it another way: The visionary goal might be to create spaceships, but the rational goal is to send payloads.

Alternative Versions of the SpaceX ITS Plan

To get a sense of some of the benefits that would come from making the changes I outlined above, let’s make some estimates. In the table below, I compare six versions of the ITS plan, half based on the visionary form that Elon Musk sketched out (called the “Original” or “O” design in the table) and half incorporating the alterations I have suggested (the “Revised” or “R” designs).

Our starting assumptions: The ship begins the mission in a circular low Earth orbit with an altitude of 350 kilometers and an associated orbital velocity of 7.7 kilometers per second (km/s). Escape velocity for such a ship would be 10.9 km/s, so applying a velocity change (DV) of 3 km/s would still keep it in a highly elliptical orbit bound to the Earth. Adding another 1.2 km/s would give its payload a perigee velocity of 12.1 km/s, sufficient to send it on a six-month trajectory to Mars, with a two-year free-return option to Earth. (In calculating trip times to Mars, we assume average mission opportunities. In practice some would reach Mars sooner, some later, depending on the launch year, but all would maintain the two-year free return.) We assume a further 1.3 km/s to be required for midcourse corrections and landing using supersonic retropropulsion. For direct return to Earth from the Martian surface, we assume a total velocity change of 6.6 km/s to be required. In all cases, an exhaust velocity of 3.74 km/s (that is, a specific impulse of 382 s) for the methane/oxygen propulsion, and a mass of 2 tons of habitat mass per passenger are assumed. A maximum booster second-stage tank capacity of 1,950 tons is assumed, in accordance with the design data in Musk’s presentation.

Table: Analysis of Alternative ITS Concepts
Concept A B C D E F
Type (O=“original”; R=“revised”) O O R O R R
Stage dry-mass fraction 0.08 0.08 0.08 0.12 0.12 0.12
One-way flight time (days) 130 180 180 180 180 180
Launcher 2nd stage ΔV (km/s) 7.0 5.5 3.0 5.5 3.0 3.0
Ship trans-Mars ΔV (km/s) 0.0 0.0 2.5 0.0 2.5 2.5
Trans-Earth ΔV (km/s) 6.6 6.6 6.6 6.6 6.6 6.6
Habitat mass round trip (t) 200 200 60 166 42 10
Habitat mass one-way to Mars (t) 0 0 200 0 200 20
Other cargo one-way to Mars (t) 0 210 190 174 208 20
Launcher 2nd-stage dry mass (t) 150 150 110 228 171 15
Launcher 2nd-stage propellant (t) 1,950 1,873 1,429 1,950 1,426    177
Ship stage dry mass (t) 0 0 36 0 58 13
Ship stage trans-Mars injection propellant (t) 0 0 462 0 482 60
Trans-Earth-injection (TEI) propellant (t) 1,574 1,574 465 1,900 482 114
Total useful mass delivered 0 210 390 174 408 40
Number of settlers delivered 100 100 100 83 100 5
Payload per settler (t) 0.0 2.1 3.9 2.1 4.1 8.0
Trans-Sys mass (5 missions/op) 1,500 1,500 470 2,280 751 145
Payload/Trans-Sys (5 missions) 0.00 0.70 4.14 0.38 2.72 1.38
Payload/TEI propellant 0.00 0.13 0.84 0.09 0.85 0.35

Concept A is the original ITS concept as presented by Musk, with a 130-day transit from Earth to Mars. The plan is technically feasible, but it has the downsides discussed above, including the glaring problem marked in red: no payload is delivered along with the people, leaving the colonists at Mars with no supplies or equipment or housing.

Concept B gives Musk’s original plan only a slight twist: the trip to Mars is longer — by fifty days — which means a lower DV is required for the journey, which in turn means (as marked in blue) that 210 tons of cargo can be delivered along with the colonists, for 2.1 tons of payload per colonist.

Concept C incorporates another of my suggested improvements from above, leaving the second stage of the launch vehicle near Earth. In such an arrangement, the second stage needs to do only 3 km/s DV, with the remaining 2.5 km/s DV needed to reach Mars done by the (now separate) spaceship’s own much smaller propulsion system. Concept C then leaves the 200-ton habitat behind on Mars, along with a further 190 tons of cargo, for a total of 4.1 tons per colonist, double that of Concept B.

Concept C has another even greater advantage over Concepts A and B: it requires only 465 tons of propellant to go back from Mars to Earth, less than a third of that needed by Concepts A or B. Furthermore, because of its rapid reuse of the launch vehicle’s second stage, the in-space propulsion system required to support a rate of five missions per opportunity in Concept C is also less than a third of that in Concepts A or B. If we combine these advantages, we see as a bottom line (as marked in green) that during each launch window, Concept C would allow for the delivery of about six times the payload to Mars as Concept B per each unit of transport system mass or per each unit of propellant produced on Mars.

However, Concepts A, B, and C all embrace an optimistic aspect of Musk’s proposal: the estimate of propulsion systems with dry-mass fractions of 0.08. The “dry-mass fraction” is the mass of a rocket or stage “wet” (that is, filled with fuel) divided by its mass “dry” (that is, empty). A dry-mass fraction of 0.08 means that the mass of the empty rocket would be 8 percent the mass of the filled rocket. For the remaining concepts, we will assume a more conservative dry-mass fraction of 0.12.

So Concept D repeats Musk’s plan (the slower version described in Concept B), but assumes a higher dry-mass fraction. And Concept E repeats my revised version (the slower and staged Concept C), but assumes a higher dry-mass fraction. Using these more conservative assumptions, the Revised version performs an order of magnitude better than the Original in all the relevant figures of merit. The advantages of employing the Revised design with the six-month trip to Mars are thus decisive.

But the relevant issue is not how these ideas might be implemented in a future Mars colonization program, but how we might put them to use in the sort of nearer-term Mars exploration and base-building program to be conducted by our own generation. Such a possibility is illustrated in Concept F. Like Concept E, Concept F adopts the revision suggestions I described above, and assumes the more conservative dry-mass fraction. However, in Concept F, the design is scaled down by an order of magnitude, so that instead of requiring a launch vehicle that can put about 500 tons into low Earth orbit, a launch vehicle able to put 50 tons into low Earth orbit will suffice. This is a critical distinction because, in contrast to 500-ton-to-orbit launchers — which at this point are the stuff of science fiction — at least three different launchers with capabilities of 50-tons-to-orbit or more may soon be available, including SpaceX’s own Falcon Heavy (54 tons to orbit, scheduled for first flight in 2017), as well as NASA’s Space Launch System (75 tons to orbit, first flight in 2018), and the Blue Origin New Glenn (about 65 tons to orbit, first flight by 2020). The improvements and revisions I’ve described make it possible to accomplish a Mars exploration mission using a 50-ton-to-orbit launch vehicle. Indeed, the mission presented in Concept F is comparable in crew size and capability to the Mars Direct or Mars Semi-Direct mission plans that I’ve described elsewhere, but with the advantage of using a 50-ton-to-orbit launcher instead of the 120-ton-to-orbit launcher employed by those concepts. This is a very exciting prospect.

Near-Term Mars Missions Using the Improved ITS Plan

Consider what this revised version of the ITS plan would look like in practice, if it were used not for settling Mars but for the nearer-at-hand task of exploring Mars. If a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch vehicle were used to send payloads directly from Earth, it could land only about 12 tons on Mars. (This is roughly what SpaceX is planning on doing in an unmanned “Red Dragon” mission “as soon as 2018.”) While it is possible to design a minimal manned Mars expedition around such a limited payload capability, such mission plans are suboptimal. But if instead, following the ITS concept, the upper stage of the Falcon Heavy booster were refueled in low Earth orbit, it could be used to land as much as 40 tons on Mars, which would suffice for an excellent human exploration mission. Thus, if booster second stages can be refilled in orbit, the size of the launch vehicle required for a small Mars exploration mission could be reduced by about a factor of three.

In all of the ITS variants discussed here, the entire flight hardware set would be fully reusable, enabling low-cost support of a permanent and growing Mars base. However, complete reusability is not a requirement for the initial exploration missions to Mars; it could be phased in as technological abilities improved. Furthermore, while the Falcon Heavy as currently designed uses kerosene/oxygen propulsion in all stages, not methane/oxygen, in the revised ITS plan laid out above only the propulsion system in the trans-Mars ship needs to be methane/oxygen, while both stages of the booster can use any sort of propellant. This makes the problem of refilling the second stage on orbit much simpler, because kerosene is not cryogenic, and thus can be transferred in zero gravity using flexible bladders, while liquid oxygen is paramagnetic, and so can be settled on the pump’s side of the tank using magnets.

Using such a system, a manned expedition of Mars could be carried out any number of ways. For example, it could be done in a manner similar to the Mars Direct mission plan, with the first trans-Mars payload delivering an unfueled Earth Return Vehicle with an onboard propellant factory to make methane/oxygen propellant on Mars, and the second delivering a habitat module with a crew of astronauts aboard who land near the ERV, using their hab as their house on Mars. After 1.5 years of exploration they would return in the ERV, leaving their hab behind on Mars to add incrementally to the facilities of a growing Mars base as the missions proceed.

Or a different plan, closer in spirit to the SpaceX ITS, could be adopted, in which a single payload combining the hab and the ERV is sent, with the hab above and the ERV below. The ERV would use a limited amount of methane/oxygen propellant to perform supersonic retropropulsion of the combined payload upon Mars entry, bringing the assembly to subsonic speeds. Once this is done, the hab would pop a parachute, or possibly a parasail, to lift it off the ERV and then land nearby using a very small terminal landing propulsion system. The first such mission could send such an assembly out with no crew, allowing the ERV to be fueled in advance of the first piloted launch, which would then arrive two years later provided with a redundant hab and plentiful extra supplies. Once the base is well-established, the hab and ERV modules could be landed together, with the hab subsequently lifted off the ERV by a crane.

The number of such potential variations is endless. Another: In initial missions, the Falcon Heavy second stage could perform the full burn, allowing it to coast out to Mars in company with the piloted spacecraft, which could then use it as a counterweight on the opposite end of a tether to provide the crew with artificial gravity on their way to Mars (just as in the standard Mars Direct plan). This would entail expending the second stage, but it could be worth it for the first missions to have their crews in top physical strength, as they will reach a Mars with minimal support facilities. In later missions, the Falcon Heavy second stage could be left behind just short of Earth escape for ready reuse (as in the revised ITS plan I described above), and the crew be allowed to fly to Mars in zero gravity, since they would by that point have plenty of ample base facilities to provide local support for recovery from zero-gravity weakening once they reach the Red Planet.

Dawn of the Spaceplanes

Toward the end of his presentation, Musk briefly suggested that one way to fund the development of the ITS might be to use it as a system for rapid, long-distance, point-to-point travel on Earth. This is actually a very exciting possibility, although I would add the qualifier that such a system would not be the ITS as described, but a scaled-down related system, one adapted to the terrestrial travel application.

The point is worthy of emphasis. For three thousand years or more, people have derived income from the sea, for example by fishing — but far more by using the sea as a favorable comparatively low-drag medium for transport. Similarly, while there is money to be made by human activities in space, there is potentially much more to be made by human travel across space, taking advantage of the drag-free quality of space for rapid travel. It has long been known that a rocketplane taking off with a high suborbital velocity could travel halfway around the Earth (that is, reaching anywhere else on the planet) in less than an hour. The potential market for such a capability is enormous. Yet it has remained untouched. Why?

The reason is simply this: Up till now, such vehicles have been impractical. For a rocketplane to travel halfway around the world would require a DV of about 7 km/s (6 km/s in physical velocity, and 1 km/s in liftoff gravity and drag losses). Assuming methane/oxygen propellant with an exhaust velocity of 3.4 km/s (it would be lower for a rocketplane than for a space vehicle, because exhaust velocity is reduced by surrounding air), such a vehicle, if designed as a single stage, would need to have a mass ratio of about 8, which means that only 12 percent of its takeoff mass could be solid material, accounting for all structures, while the rest would be propellant. On the other hand, if the rocketplane were boosted toward space by a reusable first stage that accomplished the first 3 km/s of the required DV, the flight vehicle would only need a mass ratio of about 3, allowing 34 percent of it to be structure. This reduction of the propellant-to-structure ratio from 7:1 down to 2:1 is the difference between a feasible system and an infeasible one.

In short, what Musk has done by making reusable first stages a reality is to make rocketplanes possible. But there is no need to wait for 500-ton-to-orbit transports. In fact, his Falcon 9 reusable first stage, which is already in operation, could enable globe-spanning rocketplanes with capacities comparable to the DC-3, while the planned Falcon Heavy (or New Glenn) launch vehicles could make possible rocketplanes with the capacity of a Boeing 737.

Such flight systems could change the world.

Colonizing Mars

In his talk introducing the ITS, Musk suggested that a Mars colonization program using thousands of such systems could be used to rapidly transport a million people from Earth to Mars. This would be done to provide a large enough population to allow the colony to be fully self-sufficient. In subsequent interviews, he also said that none of these colonists would include children, since having kids around would be a burden upon the colony.

My own ideas on how the colonization of Mars could be achieved are different. Rather than a massive convoy effort to populate the planet, I see the growth of a Mars colony as an evolutionary development, beginning with exploration missions, followed by a base-building phase. As the series of missions proceeds, additional elements of the flight-hardware set would become reusable, causing transport costs to drop. Furthermore, as the base grows, its capability to produce more and more necessary items, including water, food, ceramics, glasses, plastics, fabrics, metals, wires, tools, domes, and structures, would expand — progressively reducing the amount of materials that needs to be transported across space to support each settler. This will provide the material basis for an expanding Martian population, which will grow exponentially as families are formed and children are born.

That said, Mars is unlikely to become autarchic for a very long time, and even if it could, it would not be advantageous for it to do so. Just as nations on Earth need to trade with each other to prosper, so the planetary civilizations of the future will also need to engage in trade. In short, regardless of how self-reliant they may become, the Martians will always need, and certainly always want, cash. Where will they get it?

A variety of ideas have been advanced for potential cash exports from Mars. For example, Mars might serve as a source of food and other useful goods for asteroid-mining outposts which themselves export precious metals to Earth. Or, since the water on Mars has six times the deuterium concentration as Earth’s, that potentially very valuable fusion-power fuel could be exported to the home planet once fusion power becomes a reality. Or maybe precious metals will be found on Mars, which, with a fully reusable interplanetary transportation system, it might be profitable to mine and export to Earth.

While such possibilities exist, in my view the most likely export that Mars will be able to send to Earth will be patents. The Mars colonists will be a group of technologically adept people in a frontier environment where they will be free to innovate — indeed, forced to innovate — to meet their needs, making the Mars colony a pressure cooker for invention. For example, the Martians will need to grow all their food in greenhouses, strongly accentuating the need to maximize the output of every square meter of crop-growing area. They thus will have a powerful incentive to engage in genetic engineering to produce ultra-productive crops, and will have little patience for those who would restrict such inventive activity with fear-mongering or red tape.

Similarly, there will be nothing in shorter supply in a Mars colony than human labor time, and so just as the labor shortage in nineteenth-century America led Yankee ingenuity to a series of labor-saving inventions, the labor shortage on Mars will serve as an imperative driving Martian ingenuity in such areas as robotics and artificial intelligence. Such inventions, created to meet the needs of the Martians, will prove invaluable on Earth, and the relevant patents, licensed on Earth, could produce an unending stream of income for the Red Planet. Indeed, if the settlement of Mars is to be contemplated as a private venture, the creation of such an inventor’s colony — a Martian Menlo Park — could conceivably provide the basis for a fundable business plan.

To those who ask what are the natural resources on Mars that might make it attractive for settlement, I answer that there are none, but that is because there is no such thing as a “natural resource” anywhere. There are only natural raw materials. Land on Earth was not a resource until human beings invented agriculture, and the extent and value of that resource has been multiplied many times as agricultural technology has advanced. Oil was not a resource until we invented oil drilling and refining, and technologies that could use the product. Uranium and thorium were not resources until we invented nuclear fission. Deuterium is not a resource yet, but will become an enormous one once we develop fusion power, an invention which future Martians, having limited alternatives, may well be the ones to bring about. Mars has no resources today, but will have unlimited resources once there are people there to create them.

Martian civilization will become rich because its people will be smart. It will benefit the Earth not only as a fountain of invention, but as an example of what human beings can do when they rise above their animal instincts and invoke their creative powers. It will show to all that infinite possibilities exist — not to be taken from others, but to be made.

No one will be able to look upon it without feeling prouder to be human.

Robert Zubrin, a New Atlantis contributing editor, is president of Pioneer Energy of Lakewood, Colorado, and president of the Mars Society. The paperback edition of his book Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was recently published by New Atlantis Books/Encounter Books.

Correction: When first published, the opening of this article described Elon Musk as the president of SpaceX; he is in fact the CEO and CTO.

Robert Zubrin, “Colonizing Mars: A Critique of the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System,”, October 21, 2016.