On the Launchpad: Return to Deep Space

Blog Post • The Atlantic Re:think


  • At a recent event in Washington, D.C., astronauts, doctors, NASA specialists and politicians gathered to discuss what it will really take to get a person to the Red Planet in the next 15 years
  • At the event, Hewlett Packard Labs chief architect Kirk Bresniker delivered a talk on Making the Mission to Mars Compute with Memory-Driven Computing
  • Register to receive breaking news and updateson The Machine research project and Memory-Driven Computing

There's reason to believe the once-improbable goal of a mission to Mars will soon become reality

For the past 30 years, Americans have been saying that they'll get to Mars in 20 years. Now, according to a former chief scientist at NASA, there's reason to believe this once-improbable goal will soon, finally, become reality.

"This time, I'm actually hoping it's going to happen", Ellen Stofan said Tuesday at "On the Launchpad", an AtlanticLIVE event. The event brought together astronauts, doctors, NASA specialists and politicians to discuss the technical, biological, political and moral questions surrounding what it will really take to get a person to the Red Planet in the next 15 years. They brought wildly different opinions, but a shared sentiment: Getting to Mars is possible, and it can happen soon if we set our minds to it.

"Sometimes, people will argue about needing a goal and needing a date to get to Mars. I say yes to both", said Stofan. "Without that goal, without saying we're going to have humans in Mars' orbit by the early 2030s, it's very easy to get off the path."

In March, President Donald Trump signed a bill authorizing $19.5 billion in funding for NASA, the first such authorization in seven years. The bill projects that mankind will reach Mars, as Stofan said, by 2030. Robert Zubrin, founder and president of the Mars Society, added that this type of cooperation - between the President, Congress and NASA - is crucial in order for programs to run smoothly and effectively. It's what allowed the U.S. to get to the Moon in the 1960s and its what will allow us to continue pushing into new frontiers.

International collaboration is also imperative, according to Robert Lightfoot, acting administrator of NASA, and Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration. The U.S. already works closely with partners in Japan, China and Russia, and international unity is central to the operations that happen on the International Space Station. If we continue to work productively with other countries, it may make our space exploration aims more attainable since combined resources - including brainpower and willpower - will ensure a faster arrival date on Mars.

Collaboration with the private sector - not competition with it - is also crucial. "We want to create an environment where there are incentives in the private sector to invest billions and billions of dollars to ensure the United States' continued leadership", said Senator Ted Cruz, chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness. "We need to gain leverage so that for every dollar of taxpayer funding, you have many multiples of dollars of private funding that are focused on developing space exploration."

These partnerships will allow NASA to close the technological gaps that still stand in the way of landing a person on Mars. Meanwhile, engineers are still working out the exact mechanisms needed to land and dock a spacecraft on the Red Planet. There's also the question of how to communicate with astronauts once they land. These obstacles and many others are being investigated across the private and public sector.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise's The Machine research project, for instance, is aimed specifically at developing and innovating Memory-Driven Computing to expand the processing capabilities of modern computers. Memory-Driven Computing has the power to improve communication between Earth and spaceships during voyages, thereby facilitating better intel between astronauts and the people waiting for them back on Earth, including mission control, friends and family.

If we were able to go to the Moon with technology that was only as sophisticated as today's pocket calculators, said Kirk Bresniker, chief architect and fellow at Hewlett Packard Labs, then we can surely make it to Mars today. We have the tools needed in order to get there - we have them more than we ever had them before, along with the funding, enthusiasm and political support necessary to pull it all off. If we put our heads together, said Zubrin, we could get to Mars relatively quickly, just as we got to the Moon nearly 50 years ago.

"We need to really lean forward. We have an opportunity right now to get this done", said Chris Carberry, the CEO and founder of Explore Mars. "But we can't be timid. We have to find a way of getting humans on the surface of the planet by the early 2030s."