Designing for the Planet Mars

Living and Working on Mars

“Creative design concepts of USC students meet the challenge of the harsh Mars environment.”

  Bob Calverly

USC ETTC intern Madhu Gupta, a master’s degree candidate in the USC School of Architecture, has designed living quarters for a Mars habitat as part of an aerospace engineering class at USC this spring. Her modular habitat design, which she calls a “hoberMars,” was reviewed recently by a team of experts that included Mars scientists from JPL and space-related toy designers from Mattel. Gupta and a few of her classmates will travel to Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston in May to present new concepts for a mobile Mars habitat to Mars mission planners there.


The temperature ranges from a balmy 80 to minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide and too thin to breathe. So thin, in fact, that it barely slows down the barrages of micrometeorites. There�s no ozone layer to block the sun�s intense ultraviolet radiation. And, where there aren�t sheer cliffs, deep chasms or bomb-like craters, the landscape is littered with rocks and boulders.
Exploring Mars will be a monumental challenge for humanity, but for the students in Aerospace Engineering 599, �Space Exploration Architectures Concepts Synthesis Studio,� exploring Mars was a far more serious problem: It was their midterm.
For their midterm project, each student had to present a concept of his or her own for some phase of Mars exploration.
Mike Myers, for example, suggested that one way to get around the inhospitable Martian environment would be a blimp. Myers� blimp was 20 meters long, 10 meters in diameter and propelled by two small fans; it carried a payload of 12 1/2 kilograms. It wasn�t big enough for people � just instruments, including a harpoon-like device that could be shot into the side of a cliff to pull back a sample of rock for analysis.
Myers noted that the blimp, or something like it, could be tethered to the Martian surface and act as a cheap relay for radio communications. Since Mars is much smaller than the Earth, the closer horizon makes line-of-sight communications a very real problem.
Some of the dozen or more aerospace experts in attendance to evaluate the presentations � including the entire Caltech Mars design team, Mars scientists from JPL, and even space toys designers from Mattel � seemed to have some doubts about the blimp�s feasibility. But they also appeared impressed with the idea.
�These are visions and are not necessarily technically correct or viable,� explained Madhu Thangavelu, an adjunct professor, architect and aerospace consultant who prefers to be called the �conductor� of the class rather than its instructor. �If you can dream it, you can build it. But surely you can�t build it without the dream.�
And the students � most of them young, recent graduates already working in the aerospace industry while pursuing master�s degrees in aerospace engineering or architecture � had big dreams. Manasi Khopkar�s six-wheeled, pressurized, battery-powered Mars rover with swivel captain�s chairs for its crew was a particularly beautiful dream. The elaborate color drawings depicting it rivaled automakers� marketing brochures, but the engineers had reservations.
�How are you going to make this?� one of them asked.
�The engineers can build it, that�s how we architects figure it,� she said to gales of laughter.
�You forgot to put in a bathroom,� another commented dryly.
And without hesitation, she responded, �I�ll just stop by one of the habitats.�
     
Such as the one Madhu Gupta envisioned. Her �hoberMars� module consisted of a lightweight IMAX theater-like dome frame covered with several layers of tough, pressurized plastic membrane, including a mesh layer designed to stop micrometeorites, and two airlocks, which could also connect to other habitats. One 3,000-square-foot habitat constructed from materials weighing 70 pounds (on Earth) would house a crew of six for 28 to 80 days in �House Beautiful� comfort, judging by Gupta�s impressive drawings. Again, the expert panel was impressed, although somewhat skeptical.
Thangavelu explained that the class was truly interdisciplinary, and that he was aiming students� creativity at the zone between the soaring concepts of architecture and the number-driven reality of engineering. Students tackle complex problems, debating merits and limitations of space exploration concepts with experts on hand to guide the process.
�Most ideas are inadequate during the initial iterations but get better with time,� said Thangavelu. �This is how resilient, strong-boned ideas are born in the real world.�
Aaron Kiely, who already has his Ph.D., came as close as anyone in the class to hitting the mark with a design for a workspace-laboratory facility that was both extraordinarily clever and very realistic. Like the hoberMars, it had a lightweight frame, but the outer structure consisted of hollow plastic bricks. Each brick was made from identical halves that could be snapped together and filled with Martian dirt. Then the individual bricks would be fitted together to form a tight shell over the frame.
Kiely planned to heat the habitat and pressurize it with the Martian atmosphere. Therefore, inhabitants would have to wear scuba-type gear to breathe and would only use the facility for short periods. �This is not a hotel room,� he said, �it�s a pup tent.�
The light plastic brick halves were designed to be stackable so that large numbers of them could be easily transported to Mars. Kiely passed around a pizza-box model of the brick, which most of the expert panel examined with great interest.
The students presented many other ideas for exploring Mars, including a plan for designing components that could be used on both the moon and Mars, a system of communications satellites, a drilling vehicle to look for water, a power plant to tap geo-thermal energy, and other vehicles and habitats. All of the concepts fit into one of three phases of Mars exploration, said Thangavelu.
�First there are the precursor or scout missions, then the mid-size or arrival missions, and finally the long-range settlement missions,� he said.
The final presentation, by Takayuki Tsuchiya, probably didn�t fit into any of the phases. He proposed a spacecraft propulsion system employing a vortex of swirling electrons that would �dig a hole in the space-time continuum� to create a �planetary tornado bridge.�
�We cannot keep using the upside-down cannon method. It simply takes too long to go anywhere,� said Tsuchiya.
While there was considerable doubt about the viability of Tsuchiya�s concept, Norm Haynes, manager of Mars exploration at JPL and a USC alumnus who got his master�s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1961, noted that it will take about three years to get humans to Mars and back ballistically. Ad-dressing students after their presentations, he congratulated them on their work and ideas and said he looked forward to their final project.
For their final, the AE 599 students will pull their separate concepts together to create a single, coherent vision for exploring Mars, Thangavelu said. Five students will present the group project at a NASA-sponsored conference on May 6 and 7 in Houston where they will be critiqued by Mars mission planners from NASA�s Johnson Space Center.

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