NASA plans to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024 and Mars in the 2030s. And plans for those space voyages are already underway.
“It’s a really exciting time for human space flight” said U.S. astronaut Christina Koch, who along with astronaut Col. Nick Hague, spoke to Yahoo Finance’s On the Move Friday from their posts aboard the International Space Station, ISS, some 220 miles in orbit above the earth. “We know that we are going to have to take some big technological leaps in order to make a deeper space mission, such as a Mars mission, happen.”
Koch and other astronauts are conducting several experiments aboard the ISS that will help future missions to the Moon and Mars. She said some involve technical issues, “like autonomous robotic refueling of vehicles in space” as well as propulsion systems and electricity generation.
“It’s fun to sort of see the program through the eyes of a futurist, or you could say through the eyes of a science fiction writer, and see that we’re actually exploring those technologies today,” she said.
“We’re up here pushing the boundaries everyday and we’re discovering new things and it’s important that we do that and that’s why we take the risks,” Hague said.
Safer space flights
Hague experienced a life threatening challenge in October 2018, when his trip aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft was aborted a few minutes after launch as their rocket raced toward space.
“Every spaceflight has inherent risk. And you know, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t worth it,” he said.
This week’s successful launch and test of NASA’s Ascent Abort system shows how space flight risks can be mitigated, Hague said. The system allows the command module carrying astronauts into orbit to separate from their rocket and safely return to earth if something goes wrong after a launch.
“It has personal significance to me,” Hague said. “It has personal significance to every astronaut, every person that’s going to ride or potentially ride on that rocket. I can assure you that my wife was glued to the TV watching that Ascent Abort test.”
Private space race
NASA recently awarded $45 million dollars to 11 American companies. SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Boeing were among the companies helping to develop reusable systems to transport astronauts to the moon as soon as possible. NASA’s goal is to use the moon as a Gateway for missions to Mars within the next 20 years.
The space agency also announced its International Space Station Commercial Use Policy to allow private companies to pay a fee and send their own astronauts to the ISS to conduct their own experiments as soon as next year.
“I think it’s a great way to capture the innovative spirit that American industries have and to apply that thinking to a realm that we have taken the first steps into,” said Koch.
Getting there is only half the battle
Other experiments underway aboard the ISS look at ways to help people stay in space for longer periods of time. “We spend our whole lives on the ground trying to accommodate the force of gravity,” Hague said. “Your body up here is constantly trying to adapt to the environment that we’ve put ourselves in.”
Astronauts in space have to take countermeasures to prevent muscle atrophy but changes occur at the cellular level too. “We’re just starting to study those on experiments here on the space station” to see how microgravity changes cell function, Hague said.
“We’re always changing, and we’re going to continue to look into that and try to understand better so that when we do push out into space and go back to the Moon, go to Mars on these long duration missions, we’re going to be successful and keep our astronauts healthy,” he added.
Koch will learn first hand about those changes if her mission, which started in March, goes well. She’s scheduled to set a new record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman. Most astronauts stay aboard the ISS six months, but Koch will remain aboard the station 328 days, almost a full year.
Koch, who is scheduled to return to Earth in February 2020, takes it one day at a time saying, “It’s not the total number of days that you’re up here but it’s what you do with each of those days.” But Koch hopes her record is broken as soon as possible, “because that means we’re continuing to push the boundaries and to push the envelope.”
Adam Shapiro is co-anchor of Yahoo Finance On the Move.