Break the Ties: Why Ending Reliance on Earth is Vital to the Mars Mission

Ending the reliance on Earth for resources during space missions is essential for the success of the manned Mars mission, according to Sam Scimemi, NASA’s director of the International Space Station.

Introduced as “Mr ISS” this morning at the final day of the Humans 2 Mars conference in Washington DC, Scimemi explained how several logistical and technological issues needed to be tackled and tested before such a mission could take place.

“There are no flowers on the road to Mars,” said Scimemi, adding that parties with a vested interest in the Mars mission needed to be careful about what they wanted from it.

“If the goal is getting to Mars, and eventually getting to the surface… how we actually do that is a matter of how much money we have and what are our technical and human health risks,” he added.


At present we are “earth reliant”, meaning that all space missions are tied to the earth for communications, crew supplies, hardware, emergency return on crew and, of course, rubbish disposal.

“The simulations that we do on station are all reliant on these things,” explained Scimemi. “And we’re trying to learn how to break these connections to the earth in our simulations, in our research, in our technology development.

The aim is to go from a situation where we are “car camping in space” to a scenario where the only connection the spacecraft has to earth is a communications link with a delay of up to 42 minutes.

The key to breaking this reliance is the research and development being undertaken at the International Space Station.

“The two major things we have going on is our life support system, and the upgrades to that to be able to build the next Mars life support system, and our crew health research and our crew performance systems development,” said Scimemi, adding that crew support activities and vehicle activities such as rendez-vous and docking were also being researched, alongside Mars simulations.


From here, NASA is looking to break the chain of logistics and, as a result, reduce the day-to-day reliance on Earth. This should mean that the time spent out of communication with Earth should grow, which in turn should enable further distances to be travelled.

The challenge of maintaining crew health and performance is essential to this. In particular, issues such as food supplies and health assistance need to be addressed carefully, and NASA needs to develop an effective system to provide emergency care if it is required.

Other factors include the development of reliable and low-maintenance life support systems and ensuring adequate performance from the crew throughout the mission time.

For Scimemi, all of these factors must be resolved before a Mars mission can be tackled.

He believes the best way to ensure that the space agency is ready for such missions beyond low-earth orbit is to combine the technologies and solutions developed to break ties with Earth in a shakedown cruise: a  test run in cis-lunar space (the area the moon’s orbit covers) where any issues can be safely resolved.

Featured image courtesy of NASA.
Body images screenshots from Humans 2 Mars Webcast.

Planetary Policies: Why the Mars Mission is Shaking Up International Space Law

Manned missions to Mars are becoming a serious prospect, with NASA chief Charles Bolden suggesting yesterday that they could turn humanity into a multi-planet species.

However, according to the research professor of space policy and international affairs at the George Washington University, Dr Henry Hertzfeld, space law has a lot of catching up to do if it is to address the issues raised by missions to the red planet.

Speaking at today’s Humans 2 Mars Summit in Washington DC, the US, Hertzfeld explained that existing treaties do not cover the possibility of visiting Mars.

“There’s nothing, nothing at all that prohibits us from going to Mars in the space treaties,” explained Hertzfeld. “In fact they are organised for exploration, for scientific purposes, for freedom of access, for international cooperation and of course, underlying all of them, for peaceful purposes. But there are a couple of issues which we’ll have to deal with.”


One of the issues that Hertzfeld believes could occur is the matter of sovereignty. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prevents governments from claiming ownership of celestial bodies such as the moon or other planets.

In principle, this makes a lot of sense: it stops certain countries claiming other planets before other countries have developed the means to leave earth, and ensures that space-based resources are there for everybody to enjoy.

But if Mars becomes colonised, this could muddy the waters. Would the inhabitants be permitted some form of ownership similar to earth? Or would ownership be treated differently from its equivalent on our home planet?

“People when they go somewhere want to own things,” explained Hertzfeld. “We do not have a solution to how we handle that yet, but there are many ways that we can address this issue without a serious problem.”


Other issues relate to the role of private companies in space travel. Over the past few years private companies have taken on a lot of roles relating to space missions, but the law has not changed to reflect this.

“There are major regulatory differences depending on whether a government is doing the project, whether a private company is or if it’s some sort of partnership, be it partnership between governments and companies, or international cooperative partnerships,” said Hertzfield.

One of the key issues in this area is liability – who is to blame if something goes wrong? With space travel in particular, there is a high element of risk, and clarifying liability before projects go ahead is vital for long-term mission success.

Another concern is the types of activities being performed in such missions. Is the mission purely research-focussed, or are companies looking to make a profit?

The biggest question is whether Mars should be treated the same as the moon, and so follow the same rules and regulations relating to exploration, or whether it should be treated differently and a potential second home for humanity.

NASA’s other missions may also bring similar concerns – with a planned asteroid mission underway, there is a question of whether asteroids should be treated the same as the moon.

“At least emotionally we think of [asteroids] differently, and we may have to have some sort of set of rules that will deal with these,” said Hertzfield.

Featured and first body image courtesy of NASA.

Second image screenshot from Humans 2 Mars webcast.