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Mission to Mars

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Dr. Ellen Stofan, NASA's chief scientist, discusses the future of interplanetary travel.
With her feet firmly planted on the ground, Dr. Ellen Stofan, NASA's chief scientist and a resident of The Plains just outside Haymarket, recently took an audience of area business people on a trip into outer space to explore the knowns and unknowns beyond planet Earth.

Travel to Mars is the most likely destination for future space travelers, she told attendees at the May 6 Signature Series Luncheon at Fauquier Springs Country Club.

“Water was stable on Mars for a billion years,” a length of time that could have produce life forms, she said. “We're talking about something real small” though, she added.

Though it would take eight months, getting to Mars is doable, she said. With no warp speed, space travel relies on the same propulsion system in use during the 1960s, she said. NASA has funded research projects into different methods, but some turned out to be more “wacky” than practical.

Scientists must also must help astronauts cope with the physical effects of long periods in space. Crews assigned to the International Space Station have been rotated home every six months. But astronaut Scott Kelly has been on the ISS since March for a year-long stretch, beyond the time it takes to get to Mars.

Kelly's identical twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, will be part of the first “twins study” of two people with the same genetics living in different environments.

While much information on the effects of life in outer space has been gathered from those on half-year missions, “we need data on what happens after six months,” Stofan said.

Bodies lose muscle mass, peripheral vision is lost and immune systems are affected after prolonged periods of space flight.

While going to Mars is still a way off “you have the potential to be the first humans on Mars,” Stofan said, addressing students from Mount Vista Governor's School seated near her.

While a robotic rover has been exploring Mars for over a decade, it's only traveled about 26 miles during that time, she said. And humans can do things robots can't.

“I would rather go to Mars rather than build a really smart robot” to do the job, Stofan said.

The first manned visit will likely be a short one. Visitors will have to cope with the thin atmosphere of Mars.

“Looking Outward, Inward, and Homeward” was the theme of Stofan's presentation.

“Are we alone, how did we get here and how does the universe work” are questions scientists still wrestle with, she said.

The possibility of life on other planets continues to fascinate. Then there are those who believe aliens have visited Earth.

“If NASA discovered alien life our budget would quadruple,” so it's not something they would want to keep secret, she said in a lighthearted response to a question about the rumored Area 51 that has alien life forms under study. She said that she regularly hears from people with suspicions about alien life.

“With the distance so far to travel does it make sense for an alien to pick up a farmer and then just leave,” she asked in jest.

Though NASA relies on Russian rockets to send Americans to the International Space Station since the shuttle fleet was retired, Stofan said Boeing and SpaceX are expected to have a have a launch craft ready by 2017 to carry astronauts.

As the chief scientist at NASA, Mars and Venus hold a special interest for her. She's a geologist and both planets have volcanoes.

“I love them. They have no vegetation to cover up the rocks,” she said. Studying other planets leads scientists to “push our model” of how we think things work and a better understanding of them.

Because of the Hubble telescope, which has been orbiting for 25 years, “we had to rewrite textbooks on early galaxy star formations and changed how we look at the universe,” Stofan said.

From Hubble and other satellites, scientists have identified more than 3,000 “candidates” for planet status. “Just about every star has a solar system,” she said. Solar systems can be arranged in ways unlike our own. “We are looking for planets that are kind of the size of Earth and where water may exist.”

NASA has formed partnerships with the space programs of many other nations in order to make the high cost of sending manned and unmanned missions easier to bear. Plus, scientists learn from each other.
“Not all the best minds are here in the U.S.,” she said.

Stofan said she is “a fan of the arts” but, not surprisingly, is a supporter of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education. She serves on the President's Committee on STEM Education.

More minds working on a problem in the STEM field lead to a better chance of solving it, she said.

“We need to keep the kids interested after middle school” when their interest in science drops off, plus “trained, engaged teachers.”
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