Where Can We Launch a Human into space?

Sending a human into outer space requires some special facilities. Going to space is still not routine and is not something particularly easy to do.

A piece of history

Humans have only ever been launched into outer space in three countries: Russia (ex-Soviet Union), USA and China. The Soviet Union was the first nation to send a cosmonaut to orbit.  Yuri Gagarin was launched on April 12th, 1961 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome located in Kazakhstan. USA followed on May 5th, 1961. The astronaut Alan Shepard was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida (USA). Finally, China sent the first taïkonaut Yang Liwei on October 15th in 2003 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC) in the Gobi desert (China).

In space today the human race is continuously represented onboard of the International Space Station (ISS). Usually, there is a crew composed of 6 astronauts. Right now on board the ISS there are 3 Russians, 2 Americans, and 1 Japanese. It is very easy to know how many people are in space right now thanks to this website: How Many People Are In Space Right Now ?

Launch sites around the world

The following map represents these launch sites and also some other interesting points.

Places where humans can reach space.

Places where humans can reach space.

Since the American Space Shuttle retired in 2011, only Russia is able to carry a crew to the ISS via the Baikonur Cosmodrome. USA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan all rely now on the Russian Soyuz program for transporting humans to the ISS.  Regrettably, it reduces launching sites available to launch humans into space from three to two. Actually, NASA and ESA are jointly developing a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) known as the Orion capsule. It is planned to be launched on-board of the Space Launch System (SLS) around 2020 probably from the Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX is also developing a variant of the Dragon capsule capable of transporting a crew on-board of a Falcon rocket. However, Soyuz has demonstrated that it is a reliable program and the technology has been developed for 50 years, making it the most experienced human space program. In 2013, President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia will launch crew to the ISS from Vostochny, a cosmodrome in eastern Siberia, near the Chinese border. This facility is currently under construction and is expected to be available around 2018.

China has also showed some capabilities to transport humans to outer space. Since the beginning of their program in 2003, they have already sent 10 people (including 2 women) in 5 missions to space. The future for Chinese human spaceflight from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC) seems to be very promising. The Chinese have a vision for the Moon in 2020 and then, why not, Mars!

 Will India be the fourth nation to carry a human into space?

India invests a large amount of money into its human spaceflight program. This program should commence around 2020. The best India launch site is the Satish Dhawan Space Centre located in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. They plan to build facilities for astronaut training at this site.

Disappointing Europe!

ESA human space exploration especially with launching capability is underdeveloped! It means that the Guyana Space Centre, spaceport of France, in Kourou is not where people will lift off the ground anytime soon. ESA possesses one of the best launch sites in the world, due to its position being close to the equator and facing the Atlantic Ocean, but they only use it for commercial, military, and scientific purposes.

Many locations around the world have the potential to be wonderful space gates for astronauts.

Because we are all Born For Space!

Afronaut: an astronaut for Africa

Afronaut: Africa has a role to play in human space exploration

Africa is constantly progressing on sciences, technologies and education. This progression could greatly benefit the local development of the space sector.  In turn, the space sector would provide communication, navigation, global monitoring and would drive towards development of the whole continent. They have a role to play in human space exploration.

Afronaut, an African dream - Credits: Cristina De Middel

Afronaut, an African dream – Credits: Cristina De Middel

Afronauts for Africa

So far, three people may deserve the title of Afronaut. First, Patrick Baudry is a French astronaut of CNES (French Space Agency) born in Douala in Cameroun. He flew on Discovery in 1985 for a NASA mission. Second, Mark Shuttleworth is a British-South African entrepreneur, and was the second space tourist. In 2002, he flew on-board of a Soyuz Russian mission and spent 8 days on-board of ISS (International Space Station). He “bought his journey” for almost 20 million US Dollars and had to train for a year mainly in Star city, Russia. Finally, Mandla Maseko is an engineering student from Mabopane in South Africa. He is one of the winners of the global Axe Apollo competition. If he successfully passes his medical tests, he will fly on-board of the Lynx Mark II in 2015. So, fingers crossed for Mandla.

And…that’s it! Actually, Africa doesn’t really have a formal astronaut born, raised, educated, selected and trained by Africa.

Past and present ambitions

In 1964, the Zambian Director of the National Academy of Science, Edward Makuka Nkoloso, came with the ambition to send a human in space. He planned to send one 17 year old girl and two cats to the Moon. Unfortunately, the freshly independent government of Zambia was not ready to support such a space program and Nkoloso never managed to collect enough funding. Today, this Zambian adventure is qualified on the web as “fiction” or “fantasy”. We prefer to believe that this man dared to breach the limits and restrictions for the scientific and technological ambitions of his country. Zambia in space, for sure!

In 2013, the Nigerian Space Agency NASRDA announced they will train one astronaut by 2015. The director general of the agency, Dr. Seidu Mohammed declared:

“The possibility of this has been demonstrated by a lot of research done in the past and we have decided that by 2015, a Nigerian can go to the space and conduct research at the highest level”.

We are now waiting for this afronaut! Full text here.

Currently, only five African countries have developed a solid space program: Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco, and South Africa. They have in place policies, laws, investments and scientific programs.

The best way for Africa to prepare regular afronauts will be an African cooperation. At the moment, most of African countries  haven’t yet defined any national policies and programs to develop space industries and sciences. What could be the future of spaceflight in Africa?

The global situation of space in Africa is described in the Geoffrey Onyango’s article on the African Sciences News website.

Because we are all Born For Space !

Nuclear Propulsion for Human Spaceflight

Is nuclear the future? (Source: NASA)

Is nuclear the future? Credit: NASA)

We have sent spacecraft to other planets using traditional chemical rocketry (technique briefly explained in our article here), however this requires an amount of time which is not feasible for human space flight. In order to advance humans to other planets we need to reduce the travel time so that we minimize the exposure to radiation, bone density loss and other adverse effects of space flight. A number of solutions to chemical rocketry have been proposed including solar sails, warp drives, and matter-antimatter engines. Based on current technology it appears that nuclear is the most feasible for reducing spaceflight times within the solar system to allow humans to travel further faster.

Nuclear Thermal Rockets

Nuclear energy is not a new concept to the space industry and has been around longer than you may expect. The Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s used landers which were powered by Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs). Nuclear Thermal Rockets (NTRs) could be a solution to the transport of humans to other celestial bodies in reasonable time frames. Liquid hydrogen is a common type of NTR which has the potential to have two times the specific impulse (efficiency) of chemical rockets.

Schematic of a NTR (Source: Stanford University)

Schematic of a NTR – Credit: Stanford University

In NTRs usually liquid hydrogen is heated through a fission reaction to expand through a nozzle, producing thrust to propel the rocket, and the astronauts on board.  Due to the thrust capability of NTRs they take up less space on the rocket and therefore are capable of carrying a large payload. There are three main types of NTRs; solid core, liquid core, and gas core. The solid core is the simplest of the three and is the only one that has ever been built. Testing of NTRs has only occurred on the ground and no tests in space have been conducted. Since some of the cryogenic hydrogen may not be used for days or weeks in a long mission they are subject to cryogenic boil-off in space which may reduce the restart capability of the rocket. Although a promising technology issues such as cryogenic storage may prevent us from seeing NTRs get off the ground for a couple of years.

Nuclear Fusion Rockets

Perhaps a more distant source of propulsion for spaceflight may be a nuclear fusion rocket. A nuclear fusion rocket would use the energy generated from nuclei of two or more atoms combining to generate thrust and propel the spacecraft. Nuclear fusion is the same thing that powers our sun and other stars. The sun converts the energy generated from fusion to produce light. Although the nuclear fusion rocket technology has not been completely demonstrated on the ground, scientists at the University of Washington (funded by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program) have demonstrated fusion using plasma, compression and a magnetic field which seems to be a step in the right direction.

For further information visit:

  • NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts here.
  • University of Washington website.

Theoretically using nuclear fusion rockets you could make it to Saturn in a matter of months in comparison to the almost 7 years it took the Cassini spacecraft to enter Saturn’s orbit. If this technology succeeds the future of human spaceflight would look very different!

Because we are all Born For Space!

The chemical use of water in ISRU

Equitable and sustainable access to fresh water is a major challenge of the 21st century on Earth. The presence of water is also a key challenge in space. It is a major condition of human settlement in outer space and the presence of carbon based alien life. In space, water is the most precious element.

Why is it so important to have water on Mars?

For a trip to Mars, a large amount of water is required. Water is useful for daily life: drinking, growing food (see our article about algae), hygiene, thermal control, protection against radiation. Launching one kilogram of water from Earth to space is very costly regarding money, power, and storage.

North polar ice cap on Mars - Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter- Credit NASA-JPL

North polar ice cap on Mars – Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter- Credit: NASA-JPL

Ice was discovered on Mars by the Phoenix Mars lander in 2008. The presence of water on Mars is a great opportunity. This offers astronauts the chance to mine regolith and extract water directly from the ground.  The success of human space exploration depends on the control and the access of water in ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization).

The chemistry of water

Water can also be seen as H20, a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. This is a simple molecule that can be broken into H2 and O2 through, for example, a process named electrolysis.

2H2O + ENERGY = 2H2 + O2

In this case, an electric current goes through water; resulting in separation of water into hydrogen and oxygen. This is an endothermic reaction, the system absorbs energy. In order to be efficient, a catalyst must be added to speed-up the process. On Mars, oxygen and hydrogen could be separated using electrical power generated through solar panels.

Electrolysis of water - Credits: Instructables

Electrolysis of water – Credits: Instructables

Additionally, it also possible to convert hydrogen and oxygen into water. This is an exothermic reaction, also known as combustion reaction where the system releases energy.

2H2 + O2 = 2H2O + ENERGY

If the chemistry of water still remains obscure to you, please find more details here.

Applications in ISRU

Water, hydrogen, oxygen, energy…. have many applications in ISRU. Actually, the chemistry of water has two main advantages in ISRU; it could store power and produce fuel.

During sunlight, solar panels would provide power to space vehicles, devices and habitats while storing power produced by the electrolysis of water. During dark periods, oxygen and hydrogen would be recombined to generate electrical power. That would be a continuous supply of energy for the crew and equipment on Mars.

Plus, the reconstitution of hydrogen and oxygen into water produce a high amount of energy rather quickly. It is also a very powerful chemical propellant that rockets use. The fuel obtained in ISRU is a mass that doesn’t need to be carried from Earth. This allows the spacecraft to carry more valuable payload.

Limits

Many problems must be solved before these technics can be used on a large scale. The process of electrolysis to separate oxygen and hydrogen is not optimal yet and requires more research, mainly on the catalyst, before being ideal. The storage of hydrogen is also challenging. This gas is extremely volatile and its liquid form requires cryogenic temperatures (–252.87 °C). Finally, the overall process must be fully controlled to insure the safety of the method. Due to the amount of energy involved and the presence of hydrogen, any uncontrolled combustion reaction would lead to tragic events.

More about mining water on the Air&Space Blog.

Because we are all Born For Space !

Mars-X: Exploring Mars from the Martian Orbit

Mars-X logo

Mars-X logo

During the academic year 2012-2013, Phillippa and Angélique were involved in the ISU (International Space University) Team Project named Mars-X. Every year ISU proposes to its students to work in teams on a space related problem from an interdisciplinary point of view.

This team project has been developed by 27 students representing 16 different nationalities during 6 months with the support of two generous sponsors: Lockheed Martin and NASA.

The Mars-X mission statement is:

“Mars-X proposes a scenario to explore Mars by landing humans on a Martian moon and returning them safely to Earth, in order to prepare the foundation for the first human mission to the surface of the Red Planet.”

Mars-X proposes orbiting Phobos, to land some of the crew on the surface of Phobos and also to remotely operate scientific experiments on the surface of Mars. Orbiting Phobos is a different solution to furthering our technology to land humans on Mars than other existing propositions.

Mars-X proposes to step by Phobos before going to Mars

Mars-X proposes to step by Phobos before going to Mars

It advocates innovative technologies and scientific experiments such as nuclear thermal propulsion, artificial gravity and, advanced radiation shielding. It also addresses side issues such as: political, economics, ethics, legal, fundraising, education, international cooperation and, Private-Public Partnerships. Key researches focuses on the Martian geology, In-Situ Resource Utilization, the atmosphere, radiation, volcanism and ultimately life on Mars.

Why land on Phobos instead of Mars?

The Mars-X mission is positioned as a step towards going to Mars. Phobos has the advantage that it is both a moon and an asteroid. This mission will contribute to demonstrating the feasibility of humans landing on the Martian surface.

Exploring the surface of Phobos will benefit humankind. Going to Phobos will be a great achievement for humans involving a lot of technological and scientific challenges. Landing on Phobos is an opportunity to test new technologies and extend the boundaries of human knowledge.

Moreover, it would be a great opportunity to test international cooperation between participating countries and Public-Private Partnerships. Mars-X would involve governments, space agencies and the private sector. Furthermore, the mission aims to increase public interest for space missions. It plans to achieve this partly by broadcasting a TV show which monitors crew achievements to show the public the process of the journey.

We invite you to visit the Mars-X website which contains the full documents, the executive summary, videos and, pictures.