November 4, 1997 in Nation/World

Mars Mission Plans Are On Life-Support Nasa Tests Chamber With Eye Toward Future

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Two men and two women have locked themselves inside a three-level chamber at the Johnson Space Center, where for 90 days they will recycle air and water, their bodily fluids and bath water, and grow fresh lettuce.

Their mission?

Learning what it takes to survive on Mars.

NASA’s “advanced life support” test began with little fanfare Sept. 19 when the four closed the hatch on their 950-square-foot chamber. With portholes, connecting pipes and complicated apparatus, the chamber has the look of a sci-fi project dreamed up by Jules Verne with an assist from Rube Goldberg.

It’s the fourth such undertaking in two years and the last until a 425-day test beginning in 2006.

In 2013 or 2014, “perhaps even a few years earlier,” a mission to the Red Planet could be possible, predicted Donald L. Henninger, NASA’s chief scientist for regenerative life support.

The life-support mission has gained only a smidgen of the attention afforded the controversial Biosphere II ecology project in Arizona, which gave eventual “colonization of Mars” as one of the purposes for sealing eight researchers into a 3-acre glass structure six years ago.

“I think Biosphere did some useful things,” said Robert Ash, an aerospace engineering professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., who worked on NASA’s Viking program.

“We found that it’s not easy running a fully closed loop, life-support system,” Ash said. “The oxygen level dropped dangerously low, and it was way too big to go into space. When you mix scientists and pseudo-scientists, you come up with a stew that’s neither a pop cultural item nor a scientifically viable result.”

Now, reaching for Mars doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The landing of the Mars Pathfinder robot in July has heightened interest in a manned mission.

And NASA hopes the current experiment can lead to the dispatch of a life-support system that will provide habitat and food for a minimum of 500 days on Mars.

That wasn’t always the case. In response to President Bush’s 1989 call to send man to Mars, a three-month NASA study said a $450 billion program would be required. That amount, said Aaron Cohen, then-director of the Johnson Space Center, was beyond political reality.

Not all agreed with NASA’s view.

“I called it the ‘Battleship Galactica’ approach,” said Robert Zubrin, a Colorado-based engineer who was prompted to work with others on a far cheaper way. As a result, Zubrin is credited with helping bring about a sea change in thinking about a voyage to Mars.

Zubrin and his colleagues worked out scenarios in which a “pump and suck” apparatus would take naturally-occurring carbon dioxide from the Mars atmosphere and, with hydrogen carried from Earth, manufacture water, oxygen and, significantly, enough fuel to return to Earth.

He called his strategy “going native.”

“It was extremely controversial, but to me it was obvious,” said Zubrin, co-author of the 1996 book, “The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.”

“Lewis and Clark couldn’t have crossed America if they had to bring all their food, water, and air for them and their animals,” he said.

To prove his point, Zubrin scavenged $47,000 from his employer at the time, Lockheed Martin, and built a machine that transformed carbon dioxide.

“Zubrin’s got a valid point,” said Cohen, a professor at Texas A&M; University. “Theoretically, we’re there. The physics is there. The question now is: How do you implement it? Now you have to engineer it.”

The once-fringe concept has found general acceptance at NASA, said John Connally, 37, an exploration engineer at the space agency. “It wasn’t very well accepted back then (in 1989). It’s worked its way through the NASA mainstream.”

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