Space Exploration

January marks the 10th anniversary of the landings of Spirit and Opportunity onto Mars' surface and a 3 month mission for each that, through various extensions, has lasted 10 years! Even though Spirit was 'lost' in March 2010, Opportunity is still going strong. Click here to see a slideshow of the 2 rovers excursions.

Since returning to Earth only a few months ago on Tuesday May 14, International Space Station Expedition 35 commander and social media sensation Chris Hadfield, or @Cmdr_Hadfield as he is known to his Twitter followers, has been getting used to life back on Earth, after spending nearly 5 months in space. Recently I got the opportunity to ask Commander Hadfield about how much he feels the ISS has changed, since his first visit in 2001.

"The Station was very much a work in progress when I visited back in 2001. The purpose of that flight was a shuttle assembly flight, and that's where I first had the opportunity to do spacewalks and build Canadarm2". Hadfield told me.


Hadfield during an EVA during his first visit to the ISS during STS-100

Hadfield, and his fellow Expedition 34/35 crew members Tom Marshburn and Roman Romanenko returned to Earth after spending several months aboard the largest and most expensive spacecraft ever built- but it wasn't always like that, as Hadfield went on to say:

"Station was barely functional when the second expedition was on board. We were Expedition 34/35 and at that time it was Expedition 2 and there was only one laboratory on board".

Since then times have changed. Currently there are over 130 experiments that the crew conduct throughout their increment, constantly working with teams from all over the world on the research being done in the microgravity environment found aboard the orbiting laboratory.

The station commander took time to pay homage to the space station's robotic arm- Canadarm2, which was built in low-Earth orbit by Hadfield during his visit in 2001. It is still operating on the station's exterior today, and is now being used to capture and dock visiting vehicles, such as SpaceX's Dragon capsule, and Japan's HTV Transfer Vehicle.

The Canadarm2 in work

"All Canadians should recognise that Canada built Canadarm2, and Canadarm2 built the space station".

Hadfield continued to mention that during his first visit to station during STS-100, the ISS was just a construction site, with smaller amounts of science being conducted compared to what can be achieved today. However, nowadays, the station is the size of a football field, and has living space similar in size to a five-bedroom house. It is fair to say that the International Space Station has certainly changed since it first became habitable, a change which is clearly visible to a man who got to call this place his home.

"It's sort of as if I was there when it was a construction site a decade ago.. and now I got to go back and see the finished product, and it's great to be in a position to have seen both".

Hadfield became the first Canadian to command the International Space Station earlier this year. He returned to Earth on Tuesday May 14 after landing in his Soyuz capsule at 3:31 a.m. GMT in the steppe of Kazakhstan. Hadfield is currently on a worldwide tour promoting his new book "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth".

The space shuttle Atlantis was to roll out to the launch pad 2 weeks after Columbia was due to land, for a trip to the International Space Station. Instead, NASA must decide when the 3 remaining grounded shuttles should fly again, and the nations, whether it should fly at all.
For a long time, many think too long, it has been the glint in NASA's eye. Some of you will remember when I gave a lecture at the Whirlpool Star Party in Birr about the Space Shuttle way back in 1990. I was 12 years old then, and I was fascinated about it. But that was 14 years ago, and the Shuttle itself is more than dated nuts and bolts. To me, it has not changed - for the better.
Since the shuttle Columbia broke up as it re-entered the atmosphere with seven hands on deck, many committees, panels and task forces, staffed by engineers, generals and senators, began the slow, sober process of figuring out what went wrong and what to do next. Anyone keeping track of events in he news in the last few weeks would have seen how there was a "will we/won't we abandon re-entry" about 7 days before the disaster. Some feared it was waiting to happen, and others, that it was long overdue.
Their discussion of the future of the shuttle, by now, will likely include a re-examination of its original role and whether it has lived up to expectations. Will NASA ground the fleet more than two years as it did after the Challenger disaster in 1986? Possibly not, considering the international space station is currently the home of three men and requires frequent visits from shuttles. Russia's Soyuz, Progress, and Egress ships, as well as its dire cash-strapped funding for them, are the new work horses for now.

"We're still flying in space. We have a crew that's on orbit right now. And we have a space station on orbit. And they deserve our full attention to make sure that they have a safe and productive mission," as directors at NASA put it.
The two Americans and one Russian have tons of food, fuel, air and supplies, enough to last until June, three months longer than they expected to live more than 200 miles high in a string of modules linked like metal sausages.
Should the fleet remain grounded for many months, a completely different kind of ship could swap out station crews, one that is Spartan - reliable, and built by the Russians, who in a roundabout way helped bring about the shuttle.

The Apollo program, which helped the United States overtake the Soviet Union to claim the ultimate prize in the manned space race, safe roundtrips to the moon, generated many of the engineering concepts used to build shuttles.

The orbiters still blast off from the same launch pads that shuddered under the Apollo mission rockets of the 1960s and 1970s. Problem is, critics contend, those technologies are outdated, unsafe and expensive. The computers run with older microchips and software. The engines have far more moving parts than newer rocket motors. And the thermal protection tiles predate advanced material discoveries. Basically, the shuttle is based on "old, outmoded and obsolete technology".

NASA initially touted the shuttle as a reusable launch vehicle that would provide a cheap way to place satellites into orbit. The proposed and actual numbers have proved quite different.
The numbers that NASA originally gave to the White House were that shuttle would cost about $5.5 million per launch and the launch rate would be anywhere between 50 and 60 launches a year. Shuttles have instead averaged about five launches a year, and NASA was way off on the cost… Most people use a figure like $400 million or $500 million per launch.

After Columbia became the first shuttle in space in 1981, shuttle crews became, in effect, human couriers to do deliveries that unmanned rockets could do at the same or lower cost, and without human risks. The program needed another reason for being and found it in the space station. A dream hatched in the 1980s by the United States, it eventually enlisted the support of 15 nations and became the most extensive, expensive engineering undertaking ever.
The first crew did not arrive until 2000. In the interim, NASA astronauts often busied themselves with experiments. In recent years most shuttle crews flew with giant pieces of hardware and attached them to the station, but the fatal Columbia mission was a rare throwback to the science days.

Is there a better way? Is the shuttle well-suited for manned space flight and is it technically well-suited for science exploration? It seems it's not technically suited for either, sceptics say. Expendable launch vehicles with simple return capsules would be safer and cheaper to fly in the long run.
NASA is spending a lot of money to return 150,000 pounds of shuttle home and make it safe for another human sojourn into space. On re-entry, a vehicle should simply bring the crew back. It shouldn't be an enormous plane-like vehicle with all these tiles.
NASA is considering alternatives to the shuttle. In 2001, after sinking more than $1 billion into an advanced prototype, the X-33, the agency scuttled the project because of engineering obstacles. In December, NASA chiefs presented another shuttle successor - this one a scaled-down "space orbital plane," a glider really, that would ferry astronauts to the space station for a fraction of the price of a shuttle trip. NASA estimates it would take $12 billion and at least seven years to develop.

Some argue against sending humans into space at all, saying we should be leaving the inhospitable void to unmanned craft.
Gerard Faeth, a University of Michigan scientist who sent an experiment on Columbia objects for reasons of science.
"Robots work best for observational science, where a satellite looks at the terrain and reports back the images. On the shuttle, we had an active laboratory. Humans are necessary," he says. "Robots are rarely used in labs here on Earth. I don't think they would be very effective in space."
Others object for more complex reasons. Humans are hardwired to explore, take risks, sail uncharted waters. It's no coincidence that the shuttles - Endeavour, Atlantis, Discovery - were named for sailing ships with daring crews. The original Columbia was the first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe. The shuttle Columbia equalled the feat, only a little higher.

"Curiosity is the essence of human existence and exploration has been part of humankind for a long time," said Gene Cernan, the Apollo 17 astronaut who in 1972 was the last man on the moon. "The exploration of space, like the exploration of life, if you will, is a risk. We've got to be willing to take it."

Mars is constantly in the science news these days with the flurry of spacecraft from Europe and the US studying the Red Planet. In this book, Kevin Nolan, a physics lecturer in the Institute of Technology Tallaght, sets out the case for the exploration of Mars, the reasons for going there, what we have learned from the missions to date and how we should prepare for the inevitable human journey to explore the fourth planet from the Sun.

The book commences by discussing the possibilities for life across the universe, how it may have formed on earth and how our understanding of life is continually evolving. The relevance of this section in the book becomes quite clear in the later chapters when Kevin discusses the search for life on Mars and how our exploration of the red planet can further increase our understanding of life across the universe.

From this point on we start to look at Mars specifically with the usual discussion about canals etc which no book on Mars goes without. Kevin then fast-forwards into the space age and discusses in some detail the Viking missions. What’s interesting here is how the experiments for life on these missions were cutting-edge for their day but which we now realise were perhaps a bit premature due to the lack of overall knowledge of the planet as a whole. The lessons learned from Viking and the (sometimes failed) missions thereafter have forced us into a much more structured approach to Mars exploration which attempts to take it in a step-by-step approach – hence the reference to stepping stones in the title.

In the middle section of the book Kevin discusses in some detail the approach required to search for life on Mars and why a mission like the Viking reached conflicting results about life on the red planet. Here we learn the complexity of the planet and how it has changed significantly in time from one awash with water to the dry, and perhaps sterile, landscape we have become familiar with now.

To support this, Kevin explains in detail the phenomenal level of science we have learned in a few short years from the Pathfinder, Mars Reconnaissance and the amazing Spirit & Opportunity rovers which just never seem to give up. Here we can learn in great detail the science gathered from these missions. Personally, I think we sometimes take for granted the basic press releases from NASA on these missions and perhaps miss out on the “big picture” of what the missions in their entirety have learned. I’m glad to say that Kevin covers the science elements in quite some detail but keeps it in a very readable fashion which acts as a great reference guide which one can read time and time again.

Finally the book finishes on the practical problems which we face in attempting a human mission to Mars. Apart from the financial and political implications, issues such as the complex nature of the mission stages, fuel requirements, health issues etc are all covered. What is refreshing to see is that the author doesn’t push the case for us to go there straight away and actually cautions us against rushing such a move. Rather, Kevin explains how we need to explore Mars with unmanned probes much more thoroughly first to develop a greater understanding of the formation of the planet, structure a human mission based on this knowledge and develop the necessary technology to make such a mission as safe as possible.

Overall, the book is a very enjoyable read and is highly recommended. In particular I noted just how well thought-out and how well structured the book is, which must have taken quite a considerable level of effort to produce, and how it naturally flows together to gives us a excellent guide to the past, present and future of mankind's exploration of Mars.


Michael O’Connell


Kevin Nolan’s book "Mars, A Cosmic Stepping Stone" is available from Amazon and all good bookshops nationwide. Kevin will be speaking at the Burren Star Party on Saturday 27th October 2009.