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Race to Mars will benefit Sudbury - Some technology needed to reach red planet will be developed he

Published by MAC on 2005-06-08

Race to Mars will benefit Sudbury - Some technology needed to reach red planet will be developed here

By Rob O'Flanagan, The Sudbury Star

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

When U.S. president George W. Bush stated in early 2004 his intention to send a manned mission to Mars, the astronomical announcement set in motion vast problem solving machinery.

Mining expertise in Sudbury, a leading NASA official said Tuesday, is part of that machinery, and the region should be very excited by the prospect of participating in the mission.

Ronald Schlagheck is the element manager for NASA's In Situ Life Support Processes, arguably the most essential component of any future mission to Mars and beyond. He is in Sudbury this week for the Planetary & Terrestrial Mining Sciences Symposium, hosted by NORCAT and organized by GDM Group.

In his presentation to the symposium Tuesday afternoon, Schlagheck outlined the complex processes that must come together to enable so-called in situ (on site) life support systems to be produced on the surface of the Moon or Mars.

Air, food, water, radiation shields and replacement parts will have to be manufactured in space.

That is the only affordable way to travel great distances from Earth, he and others have said.

Engineers and scientists around the world, including here in Sudbury are developing the technology necessary to make such production possible. Leading scientists involved in some of that work are participating in the symposium.

"I think what the current administration, and the technical arm of the president felt was that we had to get beyond Earth orbit," Schlagheck said. "We weren't really advancing the technology or doing the kind of things in terms of a long-term vision, with a real objective."

Given that the budget is in place, and future administrations don't torpedo the plan, NASA will return to the Moon around 2010, and will work towards a 2025-2030 manned mission to Mars. On the Moon, astronauts will test robotic equipment capable of manufacturing life supports. Scientists and engineers in Sudbury are currently testing a space drill and other small-scale mining equipment with the financial backing of NASA and the Canadian Space Agency.

The enormity of the undertaking is only beginning to sink in, said Schlagheck. The technological advancements necessary to fulfill the mission could have untold implications for human society.

"As a NASA employee, I've been working with the NORCAT and associated people here for a little over a year," he said. "I see the mining and related technologies and research development items to make this stuff real on a planetary body. It ought to bring a whole new element in terms of enthusiasm, not only to these folks but to all the collaborating companies in Sudbury and surrounding areas."

Mars is not the end goal of space travel, Schlagheck said. The vision is to explore space and gain knowledge, which is the fundamental motivation for taking space travel to the next level. But there is a long-term, practical reason as well based on a somewhat gloomy vision of the future.

"The resources on this Earth will run out, and you have to find ways to get there, explore and get the knowledge to be able to survive," he explained. "You and I will be long passed on when, at some point, this planet will have used just about everything up, and will have to go to other places or get resources from other places."

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