U.S. Space Program Is Alive and Ambitious

November 30, 2011
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Online Exclusive

NASA's final space shuttle mission did not mark the end of U.S. space travel. Instead, scientists and engineers now have their sights set on exploring deeper into the solar system with plans to enable trips to Mars and asteroids. A plethora of projects are testing how to supply the food, liquids and fuel necessary for such journeys.

To reach the distant destinations, astronauts must have a way to generate resources while on their missions. One of the major considerations is energy, both for people and vehicles. Experts are examining the substances available in space that could be converted into oxygen or rocket fuel. Miguel Rodriguez, deputy director for NASA’s Management, Engineering and Technology Directorate, explains that robotic exploration, such as a very recent launch to Mars, enables scientists to ascertain available materials and formulate what they can use to send people to the Red Planet. "That in itself is going to be a significant accomplishment due to the human elements," he says. "Obviously we want to have humans on that mission. That's what we are. We are explorers."

NASA envisions an eventual Mars colony that survives by deriving energy and food from the local environment, but Rodriguez explains that many advances in technology are necessary and the effort will take years to come to fruition. He adds that to be successful, "You are going to have to translate what you do here to another planet."

Scientists also are working on a forward osmosis process that will take contaminated water and pass it through both a semipermeable membrane and a solution that will result in potable liquid. In addition to ensuring hydration, the fluid could help solve other problems. Michael Roberts, lead, sustainable systems research, QinetiQ North America, which is contracted to help NASA on these efforts, explains that, "You can add stuff on the draw side that is beneficial to the human crew." For example, space travel results in the loss of calcium; the drinking fluid could replace the nutrient.

Another project focuses on creating a small-footprint, low-impact vegetable growing system that could allow astronauts to grow vegetables for food separately from the produce grown for experimentation. While the long-term goals of such efforts is to enable travel farther from Earth than ever before, people on the planet could benefit from the results much sooner. Roberts explains that here at home the research areas could provide basic necessities in areas without access to usable, natural sources.

In addition to the experimental projects underway, QinetiQ personnel also are involved in engineering the future of space travel. Joe Broadwater, executive vice president of the Aerospace Operations and Services Division, QinetiQ North America, says his organization is under contract for the next-generation space launch system. The company partners with NASA to design and develop this advancement at Kennedy Space Center, including modifications to the launch pad and associated infrastructure. Broadwater explains that experiments are just one facet of QinetiQ's support to NASA as the partners aim to go where no one has gone before. "We spent the last two years talking about the end of the shuttle program," he states. "I really believe the future, particularly of the U.S. space program, is extremely bright."

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