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Mars, Martians and the Marvelous March to Space

Unless you happen to be marooned somewhere on Jupiter or beyond it has been hard to miss all the talk about Mars in recent days and weeks. What actually is on Mars? Water? Life? Can we send humans to Mars? Should we send humans to Mars? If we can and should, how can and should we do it? 

Perhaps a good place to start is this video I highly recommend watching - "Guys build amazing 7-mile-long model of the solar system, to scale". As I watched the video it brought back vivid memories of grade school for me. My amazing teachers had the wonderful idea to setup a solar system on the playground where kids held a picture of each planet and orbited (well, we walked around in circles) the sun (one of my young classmates held a picture of the sun at the center of the playground). An excellent and memorable object lesson for sure, but the video I linked above is even better as they did everything to scale.

Talking of Mars, the previous video illustrates just how far away Mars is. Getting there will be a huge challenge. More on this later.

The existence of water on Mars has been a point of much discussion. NASA made a big announcement yesterday about surface water on Mars (NASA Detects Liquid Water on Mars). A few weeks ago I read an article on the discovery of a huge amount of Martian ice: "Strange Crater Shape Leads to Enormous Mars Underground Ice Discovery".

It seems whenever water on Mars is discussed this brings up the question of life on Mars. An interesting side issue here is whether we have or will "contaminate" Mars with life from Earth. And then "discover" there is life on Mars - which we accidentally put there. See "If there is liquid water on Mars, no one—not even NASA—can get anywhere near it". Some are already speculating about how the existence of water on Mars will impact a manned mission: "Water on Mars Could Help Put Astronaut Boots on Red Planet".

There is nothing like a good Hollywood movie to raise awareness - and Hollywood seems to make at least one movie a year that relates to Mars.  This Friday will bring us Matt Damon as "The Martian". The filmmakers got some assistance from NASA so hopefully the movie hits the mark.

I have written in the past about my experiences working in the Space industry. I will draw on that experience to make some observations.

Over this past weekend I was taking in a Rockies-Dodgers baseball game in Denver with one of my sons. He is studying mechanical engineering and he told me (again) about how he is a huge fan of Elon Musk. Mr. Musk is regularly in the news and he has talked not just about sending a mission to Mars but about colonizing Mars (Elon Musk wants to put a million people on Mars). 

It has been pretty clear for many years that sending humans to Mars is something that is quite possible. One of the many challenges, though, is supporting humans for the two to three years it would take to send a vehicle there, land, stay there until a favorable orbit presented itself again, then fly back. 

Of course a manned mission to Mars will be extremely expensive. Today the USA does not have the ability to send astronauts even to the Space Station - which is merely in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) just 200-300 miles/300-450 km up. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet the USA depends on Russian rockets to launch American astronauts. New rockets will need to be designed and built for a Mars mission.

With all of the problems in the world today, is this how we should be spending our money? Going to Mars? Why? What will we get for it?

This is a serious question that is asked frequently about the entire Space program. There are many answers to this question that would best be saved for a different time. Here I will focus on two.

First, it has been pointed out there always have been and always will be world problems. The European venture to the New World was very expensive and came at a time of many problems in Europe. If they had waited until Europe's problems were first solved to send Christopher Columbus west they would still be waiting. 

Second, there are many references to the spinoff technologies created by the Space program. One of those is the existence of Applied Flow Technology itself. The technology behind AFT Impulse and AFT Arrow drew heavily on my experience in the Space industry. And the philosophical approach to AFT Fathom was greatly influenced by my experience there as well.

With all that said, I disagree with most of the manned Mars plans which I have heard about. My problem with these plans is they tend to focus on our next step being the Mars mission itself. I think this is a mistake. A far better approach is a return to the moon. We need to learn how to support humans in space for long time periods (i.e., years). A permanent lunar base is the best way to do this. We can then take the lessons learned and apply these to a Mars mission. The basic problem with this idea is not technical but political. Namely, we have already gone to the Moon and a return there would be considered somewhat boring compared to Mars. Nevertheless, it is the obvious strategy.

Before concluding let me make sure any Space industry engineers reading this article know that AFT software has been written from scratch to handle the unique situations found in Space applications. Whether the application is 0.37 earth g's (Mars), 0.16 earth g's (the Moon), zero g's (planetary orbits and interplanetary parking orbits), or even varying g levels with time (rocket engine starts and shutdowns), AFT software can handle it all. Just last week we had a technical support call from a major launch vehicle company asking how to account for this in their AFT Impulse waterhammer model. Answer: it is a hidden, undocumented feature that can be easily enabled when needed. We told the engineer how. Ask us if you ever need that capability!

One of the keys to making fluid dynamic software Space application friendly is to write all of the fluid dynamic equation solvers using pressure as a fundamental variable and not head (which is the typical approach in most software, especially in waterhammer software). AFT software was written using pressure - thanks to my experience in the Space industry. This makes it an excellent candidate for Space applications and is one of the reasons we have so many customers in the Space industry. See, for example, this application of AFT Impulse for NASA.

It is exciting to see Space exploration coming back into the public's attention and imagination. And the marvelous march to Space!

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