Op-ed: One small step for man — but let’s wait on the giant leap
By Anthony Yan, MEng ’20 (ME)
This op-ed is part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate a topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” A famous quote by Neil Armstrong five decades ago as he first stepped foot onto the moon’s surface. Fast forward 50 years — we are now pushing the boundaries of human space exploration forward from the moon on to Mars. NASA officially announced in late 2019, “We are going to the moon, to stay, by 2024.” This is an ambitious goal.
I don’t think we will make it to the moon again by 2024 and I’m not sure if we should send humans for these space exploration missions at all, until we can ensure the safety and protection of their lives.
Over the last 50 years, NASA has launched numerous robotic spacecraft for lunar and planetary exploration missions. With the goal of preparing the way for humans, these preliminary reconnaissance missions were naturally targeted at Earth’s natural satellite, the moon. Through these missions, we have successfully mapped out the entire moon and obtained quality insights of potential landing sites. Of all gathered information about the moon, the most groundbreaking news was reported only a little over a year ago.
New questions from water ice discovery
On August 20, 2018, Dr. Shuai Li, alongside with other scientists, published a paper claiming to have found “direct and definitive evidence for surface-exposed water ice in the lunar polar regions.” This discovery is especially significant for water ice that hides in the darkest and coldest parts of the moon’s polar regions, as shown in Figure 2; these ancient water ice deposits could be used by as a resource for future expeditions to explore and to stay on the moon.
Water ice could drastically change the way humans interact with the moon. The problem is our lack of information about the water ice. In spite of being so close to the moon, we yet to gain proficient understanding about this water ice. One of many questions that remains unanswered is “Does water ice on the moon behave the same as water and ice on Earth?”
NASA’s optimistic VIPER timeline
NASA recognizes the limitation of our knowledge about these potential resources on the moon. Its solution is simply to extract samples and investigate. NASA is actively hiring engineers to help develop “Volatile Investigating Polar Exploration Rover” (VIPER) as shown in Figure 3, a lunar rover that use robot navigation and computer vision to locate the “wet” area. This complicated rover will then deploy a drill, called “The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain” (TRIDENT), to extract water ice. The samples will be brought back to the Kennedy Space Center for analysis.
Due to the difficulty of its proposed projects, NASA has a reputation for not meeting deadlines. The planned deployment of VIPER is December 2022. I remain skeptical of whether NASA will meet this proposed deadline once again. This rover will be an integration of sophisticated technologies from separate industry leaders. Competition might slow down the development process. Even after assuming that there will be no hiccups throughout the research and development of VIPER, time allocation of a little under two years for research on water ice is simply too optimistic. Especially when preparing for human interaction with these resources in the toughest terrain possible, space.
Hearing from an astronaut himself
One might argue, however, that setting ambitious goals drives missions forward. I was one of these people until a recent interaction with Michael Barratt, an active NASA astronaut. During the Space Health Innovation Conference held on November 2, 2019, I learned from Michael some of the pressing challenges faced by humans in space. The conversation altered my stance about human space exploration.
Having spent over 900 days under microgravity conditions to conduct research up in the International Space Station (ISS), Michael shared that human health is the limitation to the duration of space missions. The ISS orbits just 254 miles above Earth’s surface, as shown in Figure 4, and was established just under 20 years ago. Besides serving as a home for astronauts and cosmonauts, the ISS is a science laboratory.
In recent years, it has been discovered that adaptation between gravity fields is trickier than it sounds. Astronauts, including Michael, have a hard time with spatial orientation, hand-eye coordination, and balancing, etc, after returning to Earth from space. There is evidence the under microgravity conditions, human bones lose minerals with “density dropping at over 1% per month.”
Without Earth’s atmosphere, the deadliest factor about space missions is space radiation. Not to mention the effects on the mental health and hygiene of astronauts who have to stay in a confined space for an extended period of time. After my conversation with Michael, I realized that space exploration missions were more dangerous than I had imagined.
60 years and counting
Since the establishment of NASA, we have lost an average of one astronaut every three and a half years due to mission failure. Being risk-averse when it comes to human lives is only reasonable and ethical. Frank Borman once said, “Exploitation is really the essence of the human spirit.” Astronauts were once heroes of many but human space exploration is simply too risky and costly.
“Being risk-averse when it comes to human lives is only reasonable and ethical.”
About the author:
Anthony Yan is a current Master of Engineering candidate at UC Berkeley studying Mechanical Engineering with a focus on the control of robotics and autonomous systems. Connect with Anthony.
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