Going Mobile

Beyond the Moon To Mars

Going Mobile

Dr. Andrew Chaikin, book cover photograph. Banner image of Moon-Mars occultation, copyright, andrewchaikin.com.

Parts 1 * 2 * 3

NASA Research Park (NRP) launched a new Exploration Lecture Series at NASA Ames Research Center, to feature top researchers and academics, who will examine new technologies for human and robot-based exploration, as well as on-going and planned space exploration missions. The first lecture, “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” featured Dr. Andrew Chaikin, author of “A Man on the Moon: The Triumphant Story of the Apollo Space Program.” The book was the basis for Tom Hanks’ HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon,” which won an Emmy for best miniseries in 1998.

Chaikin has authored and edited several popular books about space, including “The New Solar System,” “Air and Space: The National Air and Space Museum Story of Flight,” “Apollo: An Eyewitness Account,” and ” Full Moon,” a collection of Apollo photography. Chaikin’s most recent book, “SPACE: A History of Space Exploration in Photographs,” was published in 2002 by Carlton Books.

Moon occulting Venus, the morning star, taken by the lunar probe, Clementine.
Credit: NASA/DOD/

A graduate of Brown University, Chaikin served as executive editor for space and science at Space.com until 2001 and was editor of Sky and Telescope magazine for many years. Chaikin is currently a commentator for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition program.

During Dr. Chaikin’s public lecture, he described the Moon-Mars exploration as ‘exciting and tremendously challenging’. His lecture featured a spectacularly symbolic image that he photographed from central Florida during last year’s closest approach between Mars and Earth–the nearest such view towards our sister planet seen in recorded history. Using a Celestron Nexstar 11-inch telescope and a webcam, Chaikin captured an occultation of Mars by our own Moon in silhouette. Six months later, the blue-ribbon Presidential Commission studying transits to the Moon, Mars and beyond formed with the same image in mind: How best to hopscotch humans safely to the moon first, followed by the challenging trek to Mars

Chaikin’s perspective is unique since he had unparalleled access to the 23 living astronauts who pioneered the Apollo exploration of the Moon. Chaikin noted that humans left the moon for the last time, thirty-one years ago. While posing the question, What can we learn from the Apollo astronauts about going back to the moon and onwards to Mars in the coming decades?, Chaikin recalled a story told to him by Bob Gilruth, a key mission planner at the Johnson Space Center during Apollo. Gilruth was walking on the beach while a full moon was out. He looked up to the light-grey, shining disk and said, “Someday, they’re going to want to go back to the moon, and they’ll realize how difficult it is.”

The importance of mobility was underscored by Chaikin, whether one is exploring the moon or Mars. Future Mars missions anticipate wheeled crew vehicles, and the latest twin robotic explorers have combined to surpass a mile of martian roving this month. During Apollo, NASA supplied the astronauts with a battery-powered car equipped not just to cover hundreds of feet. The lunar rover could cover miles at a time.

James Cameron DRM
James Cameron Mars Design Reference Mission, the wheeled surface transport.
Credit: J. Cameron

Chaikin emphasized that Mars explorers will need surface transport to get around, but also noted the Apollo experience that with increasing exploration distances, so too the risks increased. NASA struck a balance between mobility and risk on Apollo, when they considered if the hazards were acceptable in worst case scenarios. Two scenarios considered were, ‘what happens if an astronaut has to walk back more than a few miles after a rover breakdown?’ and ‘could a walk back be managed if one crewmember were short of oxygen?’. Both scenarios could be managed if limited to a driving distance estimated at three and half miles, and a buddy system was set up to share oxygen between crewmembers during normal work. But the ‘very bad’ scenario would be a kind of perfect storm when a rover broke down some great distance from the lunar module, followed by some failure in the buddy breathing system.

Chaikin presented one startling photograph from Apollo 15, where the rover was perched on an incline near a large boulder and hill. The back wheel of the rover is precariously off the ground, as an astronaut keeps the rover from sliding in the reduced gravity. Dave Scott, mission commander later recalled from the lunar transcripts his statement: “Uh oh, the rover is sliding down the hill, better hold it.”

During the last of the three missions that featured the lunar rover, Chaikin noted that issues of fine moondust circled back to jeopardize the driving on Apollo 17. On the first surface day, while commander Gene Cernan was helping to unfold the rover, a hammer at his hip snagged the rear fender and took it off. To minimize its launch weight, the rover was specially designed with as little mass as possible and thus could be disassembled from its fragile construction by the mishap. The problem could have restricted Apollo 17’s mobility, since the fender protected the astronauts from a fountain of dust kicked up by the tire tread.

The solution proved to be innovative, as the astronauts strapped on their own makeshift fender held together from an old map, clamps from a utility light, and grey ducktape. Chaikin said that even with the new fender, just moving around on the Moon made Cernan appear after the second day as if ‘he had rolled around in a coal bin’.

You are here. Earth as viewed from the surface of Mars Credit: NASA/JPL/MER

To Chaikin and the astronauts alike, the defining moment in moon exploration always seemed to revolve back to the view looking home. The picture of the tiny earth as an oasis in the sky, according to Chaikin, was the nexus for the greatest emotional, psychological and spiritual parts of the exploration. The infamous “Earthrise Over the Moon” image came from the first orbital mission, Apollo 8, during the Christmas season of 1968. Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders took the telephoto shot when he noticed the Earth apparently rising as they circled the moon. The telephoto image makes the Earth look even less distant than in reality, according to Chaikin, as the astronauts themselves often sized the Earth by simply blotting it out in the sky with their thumbs.

One anecdote told by Chaikin was how this story of taking the infamous photo had been told repeatedly as attributed as a prize to Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman, since the official lunar transcripts mislabeled who was taking the picture and who surprisingly was arguing that the Earthrise was a distraction from their scientific agenda. One voice on the audio tapes chides another astronaut as the Earth rises into window view, “Don’t take that, it’s not scheduled”, to which another voice responds defiantly “Quick, get me a roll of color film.”

According to the transcript, Anders was the astronaut worried about the science, and Borman the photographer, but later when Borman was told by Chaikin that the audio tape showed he opposite version was true–this exchange was wrongly misappropriated to Anders as the one arguing against taking the picture– Borman’s wife insisted on an apology to Anders, the real photographer, while Borman himself replied to his wife, “It’s such a good story, I’m sticking to the transcript.”

lunar module
Looking back
Credit: NASA

Regardless of who photographed the Earth from the moon, Chaikin reiterated that the lunar astronauts all had a profound sense–for the first time in human history–of leaving the Earth. Apollo 8’s Bill Anders gave his own reaction as two-fold, one riddled with danger and the other with bigger meaning. Anders reflected that the Earth looked small, so he at first “hoped they could hit it” upon return. The second reaction was that “Copernicus was right. The Earth may be precious to us, but it is such a small part of the universe. On the cosmic scale, we are such a small blip on the map.”

In contrast to the moon voyagers, martian travellers will confront yet another view of home. On Mars, an astronaut won’t even see the Earth as a disk at all. From Mars, the Earth will look in the martian sky roughly like what we see terrestrially as Jupiter–just another star. To Chaikin, the question to ask is, “Can we imagine on Mars, humans seeing the Earth as just as another star in the sky?”

To get that perspective on our own solar system, Chaikin said, the martian astronauts will ‘have to work their tails off’. Even during an accelerated six months of outbound travel, the human body will go through many dramatic biomedical changes. The first signs will be psychological changes, just as for the Apollo astronauts.

Apollo 15 lunar rover, with one wheel off the ground as it started to slide down the hill. Upper left, astronaut Irwin braces against the steep, soft slope and says: “Afraid we might lose the Rover?”
Credit: NASA

From his interviews, Chaikin hinted that many of the astronauts were cramped in close quarters with crewmates that were not their best friends. One could stand any proximity for hours or days, but six months filled with grating opinions ‘may not be fun’, recalled Chaikin from his interviews with those who had been to the moon. “Not everyone liked each other” on the moon missions, said Chaikin who said the psychological challenges may not be trivial. “One can get along with anybody for awhile, but it may not be easy for three years.” The Mars’ astronauts also “are not going to have the diversion to watch the Earth go by. They will be looking out the window into black space for most of their trip.”

The lack of what space station astronauts have come to rely on–a steady resupply vessel for life support–may further increase the sense of isolation and deprivation on the way to Mars. A terrestrial reminder as simple as a fresh orange has proven to lift spirits on long space station missions.

On the International Space Station, noted Chaikin, astronauts and cosmonauts can anticipate “weakened muscles, lower cardiovascular capacity and brittle bones. How do we keep these people healthy? Radiation itself will be a big long-term problem, since unlike the few days in deep space on the way to the moon, martian travellers will encounter cosmic rays and solar flare particles. These are deadly forms of radiation.” NASA estimates that everyday on space station is the equivalent radiation exposure to eight daily chest X-rays.

The human record for space habitability is a fourteen month stint on the Russian MIR space station. When filmmaker James Cameron asked the record-holding cosmonaut in Moscow, how long it took to feel okay again after returning to Earth?, the flippant answer was “One vodka, one sauna.”

James Cameron
As an artist and film-maker, James Cameron is fascinated by Mars: “There are a billion questions and about eight answers so far…NASA is the tip of the spear for human imagination.”
Credit: Lightstorm/ Earthship.TV

When combined with the preflight training, extensive exercise regime on board a space station and postflight recovery, a three year mission to Mars might take years to even a decade from human preparation to a healthy recovery. Such a lengthy stint exceeds most forms of voluntary military service.

The cosmonaut paused and reconsidered his recovery time when answering Cameron’s question, “About six months.”

Tomorrow’s installment addresses the question of exploration with humans or machines.

Related Web Pages

JPL Rovers
Spirit’s images and slideshow
Opportunity image gallery and slideshow
Making the Moon
Review of Theories of Moon-Forming Impact (Planetary Science Institute)
Big Bang, New Moon (SwRI)
Ion Drive to the Moon
SMART-1: Chips Off the Terrestrial Block
Treasures from the Lunar Attic
Lunar Scarface
End of an Era, Dawn of Another?

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