Marshall Space Flight Center Expert discusses the future of the mission to Mars

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WHNT News 19's Steve Johnson chats with Les Johnson of MSFC Advanced Concepts Office

Huntsville, Ala. (WHNT) – It’s no secret that the topic of Mars is very hot right now.  The Curiosity rover is currently feeding back images and video of the red planet, and scientists and curious individuals alike wait anxiously for the latest update.  The movie, The Martian is entertaining the nation with the idea of sending a manned spaceflight to Mars.  Right here in Huntsville, the people at Marshall Space Flight Center are working to make that idea a reality.  This week Les Johnson of MSFC Advanced Concepts Office stopped by WHNT News 19 to offer his perspective on how close we are to reaching the dream of a manned flight to Mars.

Recently the Curiosity rover has sent back evidence of water on Mars.  This discovery was monumental.  “That’s right,” Johnson confirms, “there’s water ice on Mars. We’ve seen it sub surface when some of the landers scraped dirt, they found ice frozen. But to have recent evidence of liquid water flowing implies there’s a reservoir of liquid water somewhere that you could tap into.”

Curious onlookers watch with fingers crossed to see what the rover discovers next.  Who knows, maybe there is life on our neighboring planet?   “I think we might look for that eventually,” explained Johnson.  “I think right now the Mars exploration is all about the science of what makes Mars tick.  Look for things like water and the conditions that might have enabled life at some time.  But I don’t think we’re really looking specifically for life at this point. I hope we do in the future.”

Even though Mars is a fairly close neighbor, it would take a long  time and a lot of resources to make that trip.  “I think the first few expeditions we’ll probably take everything with us that we need, because we’ll still be trying to understand how much water there is and where it is, and depending on how much water there is on Mars, that could become the basis for not launching a bunch of stuff from Earth, which makes it a lot easier to travel to Mars.”

Just how long of a trip are we talking about?  “The distances are still huge.  It’s half, again, the distance of the Earth from the sun, and that’s if you could go in a straight line.  But you have to launch when they line up and you have to follow a trajectory that you coast for a couple of hundred million miles.  We’re talking about two and a half years for a round trip.  Going there is about a third of that, and you have to spend time on the surface, or the moons of Mars, wherever you’re going to go, and then you’ve got to get back.  And it all depends literally on how the planets line up and when you launch.”

The Marshall Space Flight Center is currently developing the new Space Launch System rocket and a new capsule, the Orion, but they have never been intended to take us to Mars.  “That capsule is part of getting them to space and getting them to the vehicle that will probably take them to Mars.”  says Johnson.  “Now there is no set vehicle decided yet, and we’re doing a lot of studies.  In fact in our office at Marshall, we’re looking at a lot of concepts for deep space habitat.  Everything from a habitat derived from a something on the space flight system itself, similar to what we’ve done with Skylab, to a habitat you assemble in space, like the space station where you take up the parts and put them together, or perhaps to something you take up there and inflate. There are a lot of different options, but we’re going to need more room than the Orion, there’s no doubt about it.”

Watch more of our conversation with Les Johnson here in three parts:

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