“It is good to renew one’s wonder, said the philosopher. Space travel has again made children of us all.”
― Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
When Bradbury imagined humans voyaging to and colonizing Mars in the early 1950s, he saw Mars as an inevitable evolution of humankind and an expansion of our civilization. While reaching for the stars, he imagined it might also be an escape from the Earth, as he envisioned what we would be leaving behind. Today after fifteen missions to Mars from various space agencies around the world, including our own NASA, there are currently three operational rovers exploring Mars, plus even a helicopter drone that sends back their data to scientists on Earth eager to understand more about our neighboring planet. The Red planet has been successfully explored in what could almost be described as a series of technological miracles. And with this technology enabled from afar, we have successfully explored and completed many important science research projects, collecting volumes of data to better understand what needs to happen for humans to be able to take the next big step to travel to and colonize the fourth planet.
Can humans reach and live on Mars?
None of these early victories, and our present reality would even be possible, without the tremendous financial investments numbering in the billions of dollars (and yen, and rubles) in science and technology. And we wouldn’t have reached where we are today, without one of the most important technological advancements in the 20th century – composite plastic materials, and of course – composite plastics machining.
Plastics machining has made reaching for the stars, and getting there, a reality. And it will make the dream of one day living on Mars a reality as well. Let’s take a look at how plastics machining will play a major role in our passage to and colonization of the Red Planet. This should give you an appreciation of how important plastics machining of composites has been and continues to be in our journey towards making it possible for humans to one day live to Mars.
First, a look at what are the ingredients needed for humans to be able to reach Mars, and why there might be a good chance we’ll see the first human foot print on Mars before 2030 – less than 8 years from now.
What does a spacecraft need? Since the early 1950s rocket scientists have been using aluminum for making space craft light enough to escape the gravity of our planet, yet sturdy enough to be exposed to the stress and violent conditions and forceful physics of space travel. We are all familiar with pictures of Apollo rockets lined up in launch pads at Cape Canaveral ready for blast off. Titanium alloys played a big role in enabling the success of the NASA Space Shuttle program in the 80’s and 90’s. As years passed, our space programs have developed new and innovative technologies exceeding their earlier designs and surpassing our original ideas of what was possible. Composite plastics materials like G10 FR4 have been designed and perfected, strengthened, and re-engineered with aeronautics and space travel in mind, creating a wealth of options for spacecraft and space exploration scientists and engineers. These advanced composite materials serve in a number of high expectation performance conditions, providing things like navigational and computational units, circuitry systems and electronics boards, electronics shields, machine boxes, fine mechanical components like gearing and tension rods, airtight seals for pressure locks and air locks, and a large variety of mission critical pieces in spacecraft controls and interiors.
progressive innovations in composites led scientists to select composite plastic materials as one of the primary materials for the International Space Station. In addition, many companies developed and improved their space-grade plastics making them stronger while remaining light and flexible, enabling a number of other companies to develop what we can now be called space grade resin composites.
Billionaire and space entrepreneur Elon Musk says “I’ll be surprised if we’re not landing on Mars within five years” in a recent story published in Time magazine. He sees our colonization of Mars as a step “to make life multi-planetary and enable humanity to become a spacefaring civilization.” Though his predictions for his own technology sometimes tend to be overly optimistic, missing some of his stated goals on earth for things like autonomous taxis, and fully self-driving cars, his investment in space exploration and what his company has achieved already are quite notable. He sees a future on Mars where cities are fully self sustaining with vast hydroponic farms, and eventually a kind of Noah’s Ark in which animals will be transported to Mars as well. Whether we can do this within five years is up for debate, but fortunately, we know we can get there, because we already are there.
Traveling through space that far for humans will be dangerous though, and even Musk concedes that he knows some of our first brave pioneers will not make it. Rocket travel to Mars takes about seven months, and for the first pioneers it will be a one way trip. There won’t be a propulsion system or rocket for their return. And being in space for travel that long is also quite dangerous and not conducive to life. Radiation is a potential hazard and can be harmful to humans. Being in space for that much time will also put astronauts at risk for bone density loss, muscle atrophy, and a number of other serious dangers to humans. To shield against radiation composites will certainly used, and probably will also be combined with other materials like metals and alloys sheeting to keep our astronauts safe. These materials will of course require high quality machining and assembly, and strict quality control to assure the safety of our astronauts and improve their chances for success.
Living somewhere that doesn’t support life
But getting to Mars is not the biggest of our struggles. The materials we will need to survive on Mars will be numerous, heavy and almost everything we will need will have to be brought along with us and assembled once we arrive at our destination. We’ll need tools to build with, and also need to try to work with materials already on Mars. Plastics machining materials ahead of time here on Earth will make living on Mars possible.
Once we get there, Mars presents many challenges for humans to be able to colonize it. But the biggest challenge of them all is the environment. It’s so different from Earth that astronauts will need very special space suits, with carefully constructed joints and interlocking elements on them. They’ll need airlocks for their living spaces, as well as careful planning to survive on the surface of Mars. The spacesuit our first colonizers will wear during spacewalks on Mars will be built especially for survival capability in a low-pressure and toxic martian atmosphere. These first Martians will rely heavily on composite plastics, and therefor machined plastic components to be able to live, work, and survive on this harsh planet.
The dangers on the Martian surface are many: Temperatures on Mars average about -81°F. However, temperature’s can range from around -220°F. in the wintertime at the poles, to +70°F. over the lower latitudes in the summer. While the locations for the first landing and the construction of colonies will be carefully chosen to avoid such extremes like there are at the poles, the first people will face many environmentally harsh conditions. Composite plastics will be so very important because of their abilities like being able to withstand large fluctuations in temperature extremes, and their resiliency against harsh environmental conditions. Also the repeated physical use scenarios (think about continued daily air and pressure ducts opening, closing and sealing, as well as mechanical gears and parts that will be susceptible to expansion and contraction, as well as fine Martian dust).
We live in a wonderful time for space exploration. The future is bright, with many new possibilities. Composite plastics will be invaluable tools in our quest to explore the stars, and even settle there. They represent a huge step forward in our ability to make and use composite materials on a planetary scale.
Article by JMJ Profile Inc – a supplier of composite plastic machining for aerospace and industrial applications, having worked with NASA to supply machined plastic parts to their Advanced Aerospace Systems Branch.