Next Stop Mars

As space exploration speeds up, engineers and other visionaries help us imagine—and prepare for—life beyond our planet

Rescuing Spacecraft from the Breakdown Lane

When NASA’s fleet needs repair while in outer space, the agency’s engineers can’t easily look under the hood. Anytime a craft runs into an unforeseen problem, personnel back on Earth have to figure out what’s wrong and fix it from a distance, a lengthy process that often translates to a loss of valuable time for data collection. Fortunately, however, Evana Gizzi, EG20, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Engineering, is on the case.

Leading a team of civil servants, contractors, and undergraduate interns, Gizzi has developed Research in Artificial Intelligence for Spacecraft Resilience (RAISR) software that could diagnose spacecraft issues in real time without the need for human input. The technology relies on both AI and machine learning: Machine learning draws lessons from data about past failures, while AI facilitates reasoning when anomalies and new situations arise.

The next step for RAISR will be to actually address issues, serving as the “fault mitigation element” of a Radical Innovation Initiative (RI2) effort. The RI2 effort will play a key role in a mission to fly a constellation of small spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa and observe transient water plumes there. –Lynne Powers

An Astronaut Looks Ahead

In May of 1961, when Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut to reach space, Frederick H. “Rick” Hauck, A62, wondered if he could ever do something like that. Forty years later, he was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.

The road there was anything but straight. Hauck, who’s an emeritus trustee, honorary doctorate recipient, and Tufts parent (A87P, J92P, HO7), didn’t even apply for astronaut training until he was 36, after service in the Navy and in Vietnam. Yet he distinguished himself quickly and in 1983 was pilot of Space Shuttle Challenger, accompanied by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. The next year he commanded Discovery, on the first space salvage mission in history. Then in 1988, he commanded the redesigned Discovery—the critical first shuttle mission after the 1986 Challenger tragedy.

Hauck is convinced that space travel, including missions to the moon, should continue—and that interplanetary exploration is on the horizon. “The successes of the commercially developed rockets—suborbital Virgin Galactic and the orbital Blue Origin and SpaceX programs—are changing the landscape of space exploration,” he said. “The first Mars crew members may even be in Houston now.” —Heather Stephenson

Growing Bug Burgers for Dinner

Future travelers to Mars will need food that’s nutritious and tasty—and efficient to grow. A Tufts team is developing a promising solution: meat made from cultivated insect cells.

The project in the Kaplan Laboratory in the Department of Biomedical Engineering is one of 18 in the U.S. awarded funding last fall in NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge.

Insect cells, said David Kaplan, the Stern Family Professor of Engineering, check all the NASA boxes. He pointed out that nutritionally, they are “just as good, if not better, than animal-derived meats, and yet can be produced at much lower cost.”

Sophie Letcher, a Ph.D. candidate who’s working on the project, noted that insect cells can be grown in a wider set of conditions than those from a cow or pig. “They've actually already been grown in simulated microgravity,” she said.

Working with muscle and fat cells collected from eggs of the tobacco hornworm, the team aims to create food that will have the same look, flavor, and texture as traditional hamburgers or meatballs. Laura Ferguson

A Moon School Prepares to Launch

As plans for living on the moon take shape, and billionaire entrepreneurs, for-profit companies, and governments jockey for position in this new space race, the question is: Who should be in the driver’s seat?

“The everyday man or woman is saying, ‘Wait a minute, am I going to see a Big Mac sign on the moon?’” said Lakshmi Karan, F00, F09, co-founder of the nonprofit Future Frontiers Institute. The group, which has inked a cooperative agreement with NASA, hopes to bring together diverse people—representing academia, nonprofit groups, and the general public—to help the agency determine what its presence on the moon should be like.

Karan and her Future Frontiers colleagues see a place for commercial activity in space, but they want it to be for the public good. In keeping with that, they want the first lunar development to be “a learning institution, a place where the value system is not exploitation and power, but humility, curiosity, learning, boldness, and inclusivity,” Karan says.

The proposed institution would embrace the arts and humanities as well as scientific research. Potential partners could include space agencies in Canada, Israel, India, Japan, and Europe, and nations without established space programs could participate, too. —Heather Stephenson

How to Design a Martian City

Building future Mars settlements will require help from all types of experts—not just astrophysicists and entrepreneurs. SpaceX and Tesla CEO “Elon Musk is a really smart guy and everything,” said Tufts Professor Justin Hollander, A96, “but he doesn’t know anything about urban planning.” Hollander, who directs Tufts’ Urban Mars Project and teaches in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning, is working on a book about how to create permanent cities on Mars. Ahead, he shares some tips.

Take lessons from Earth.

Hollander has studied the challenges arising in cities on Earth that were built without long-term plans. But Mars is a blank slate, where new settlements can incorporate the most recent ideas around urban design. What Earthlings have learned in recent years about environmental psychology, for example—such as the need for centrally located public spaces, and access to sunlight and greenery—will be essential for creating thriving Martian metropolises.    

Think local.

Astronauts will be able to haul some construction materials from Earth, such as metals and fabrics. But it will be much more efficient to source most on Mars—particularly by using the planet’s surface soil, called regolith. “With minimal manufacturing, you can turn regolith into bricks, ceramics, glass, and concrete,” Hollander said.

Reuse and recycle.

“Natural resources are going to be very precious,” Hollander emphasized. Water is one example. It will take a substantial effort to extract water from the Martian atmosphere as well as from ice and minerals underground. But once it’s collected, it can be stored in a way that prevents evaporation, and it can be efficiently recycled from human and other types of waste.

Grow fresh food.

On Mars, so-called single-celled proteins can be extracted from organisms like bacteria, fungi, and algae. Some will require laboratories to process, while others can be cultivated alongside fruits and vegetables in expansive greenhouses built underground. “These greenhouses can be enormous,” Hollander said. “In many ways, it will be more efficient than raising cattle, which need acres of grazing land on Earth.” –Molly McDonough

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