Traveling to Other Worlds

For the final post of the semester, I thought it would be interesting to look at space travel beyond Earth orbit. Contact with extraterrestrial life, or just visiting other worlds, is a topic that has been floated around in both the public and professional circles for quite a while now. Following the successful landings on the Moon, missions to Mars and other objects in our planetary neighborhood captured the imaginations of many. Furthermore, while America’s manned space program is currently in a bit of a hiatus, the planned successor to the Space Shuttle, the Space Launch System, is being designed with the hope of transporting astronauts beyond the confines of low Earth orbit.

Towering at a height of 363 feet and weighing in at staggering 6,699,000 pounds, the Saturn V remains the most powerful rocket ever used for manned spaceflight. Its three stages provided a total of 8,873,000 pounds of thrust to transport 3 astronauts from the Earth to the Moon (fast forward to about 6:57 in the video above for footage of the launch of Apollo 8).

Size wasn’t the only thing that made the Saturn V a marvel of engineering and exploration. The very act of getting to the moon required a level of execution simply unimaginable. One of my friends knew someone who worked at NASA during the Apollo program. The way he described it was that trying to hit a dime across a football field with a bottle rocket was significantly easier than going to the Moon, and nobody died if you screwed up.

Obviously, the challenges of going to Mars and other worlds will be much greater. The designing of a rocket and capsule for this voyage depends on a variety of factors, perhaps the most important being the utilization of the Hohmann transfer orbit. I mentioned this in an earlier post. Basically, this is the method used to take a spacecraft from the orbit of one object to another. The Hohmann transfer offers the most efficient utilization of resources (i.e. fuel) for this process. Missions would have to be planned around this orbit, both for the journey to and the return from another world.

Source: The Astronomy Cafe

The duration of this kind of trip is also much greater than that of the Moon missions. The crew of Apollo 11 took about 4 days to journey to the moon. A trip to Mars would take about 9 months. When traveling through space, crews must take everything with them, as there is no hope of refueling or restocking on items such as food and water. The design must account for extensive travel through the harsh void of space (radiation and cosmic debris are no joke). The mission must also take into consideration activities done when reaching the planet, whether it be staying in orbit or landing on the surface. And then, of course, there is the return leg of the journey. After all, what good is getting the chance to go to Mars if you don’t get to come home and tell people about it?

In short, planning for this thing is a logistical nightmare. But, I think it is possible. We have used telescope and probes to explore the our universe. The next logical step is sending people to observe these things first-hand. It will take a lot of time, money, and effort. Then again, so does any worthy endeavor.

The launch of Apollo 11, July 16, 1969 (Source: NASA)

Best of luck to everybody on the final.

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