We’re NASA’s Real Martians, working to send humans to the Red Planet. Ask us anything about Mars.

The film “The Martian” takes the work NASA and others have done exploring Mars and extends it into the future– set in the 2030s– when NASA astronauts are regularly traveling to Mars and living on the surface. Fiction mirrors reality. Right now NASA is working on the capabilities needed to send humans to the Red Planet. NASA Mars experts are here to answer your question about the realism of the movie plus NASA’s journey to Mars!

Participants will initial their replies:

  • Michael Meyer, Lead Scientist, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program
  • Todd May, Deputy Center Director for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
  • Brian Muirhead, JPL Chief Engineer and former Project Manager of Pathfinder


Real Martians Feature: http://www.nasa.gov/feature/nine-real-nasa-technologies-in-the-martian

Proof pic: https://twitter.com/NASAJPL/status/651071194683146240

Is Mars the best place to go, or just easier than the other places you would like to go, like Europa?

[Todd May] I am a big fan of Europa because there is no question it has a LOT of water, and where there’s water, there can be life.

[Michael Meyer] Mars is certainly the best place to tell us about the origin and evolution of a terrestrial planet. It is, in my humble opinion, the only place in our solar system that promises a human sustainable environment. Europa is very interesting and a great candidate as a possible place to discover alien life, but the radiation environment is extremely severe. Where would you like to go?

I was wondering how important you think the propulsion systems are for space exploration. For example, if somebody were to come up with a new propulsion system which gets you to mars within a month, would NASA all of a sudden fund more manned missions?

[Brian Muirhead] YES!!!!! We spend a lot of time researching propulsion systems but their performance is dominated by the rocket equation. I’m working on a mission the uses solar electric propulsion, the asteroid redirect robotic mission, which is much more efficient for moving large payload in deep space than chemical.

What’s the biggest issue excluding funding preventing us from being able to do this today?

[Todd May] The technological challenges are huge. We know how to lift people from Earth, and how to survive in space. We need to figure out how to be truly Earth independent to survive a multi-year journey to and from Mars.

What defines “truly Earth independent?” As in, what all would we need available to achieve that?

[Todd May] A simple answer is that we cannot come home quickly if something goes wrong. The deeper we go, the more we need to rely on the resources at the immediate disposal to the explorer. In the long run, it could also include being completely self-sustaining including crop growth and fuel generation in-situ.

Are there any plans to deal with property rights issues? What if we develop a colony and another country shows up some day and says, “This part of Mars is ours now, you guys need to leave.”

[Michael Meyer] I don’t think property rights on Mars will be an issue anytime soon. A good international model is current research on Antarctica. Although there are multiple countries with territorial claims on Antarctica, all have signed a treaty foregoing exercising those claims in order to preserve and promote international research there. I hope we can do the same for Mars.

What can a current medical student do to get a career in space medicine/exploration, and potentially go to mars one day?

[Todd May] We actually have a number of folks working in Houston on life sciences and human factors, in particular understanding the effects of space on the human body. Astronauts are also trained in medical skills, and for long-distance exploration missions this will be even more important as they will have to address any medical situations without help from Earth.

Long term, could life be sustained on the planet? With no plate tectonics or much of anything what could be achieved realistically? And beyond a milestone of human achievement what would be the good from it?

[Michael Meyer] Yes, although there aren’t any plate tectonics there is energy in the core and there is evidence of volcanoes. We can take advantage of that. Once we have an established atmosphere, everything else will follow. Our species is forever vulnerable to the fate of Earth. However, if we establish a sustainable colony on Mars, then we at least have the potential to continue the human species on another planet.

I think the lack of any real magnetic field is the barrier to entry. Only the southern hemisphere has any sort of field, and it’s very weak, like 1/3,000th as strong as ours. Anyone on Mars for too long will get cooked.

[Michael Meyer] Yes, a lack of magnetic field making you vulnerable to cosmic rays is a real challenge, but we may find ways to mitigate it. One simple solution is to live on the subsurface or even establish our own magnetic field.

When you say “establish a magnetic field” do you mean small scale to protect a colony or small settlement or large scale as in planet wide? Also how would we go about either?

[Michael Meyer] We can generate magnetic fields. We do it all the time, for example with motors. The difficulty is making the magnetic field large enough. It’s a question of how much energy you have. There are magnetized rocks on the surface of Mars that provide mini “umbrellas” of a magnetic field. We may be able to take advance of these to enhance a magnetic field.

What is a realistic time frame for a person to be sent to Mars?

[Todd May] We’re currently working toward the 2030s. There are many technical challenges that we are working on today, like the ability to send humans back into deep space with the Space Launch System and Orion Capsule. We are also working on long-term closed-loop life support systems on the International Space Station. We still need to work on a transport habitation system and, ultimately, a human lander.

How will the selection process work for sending people to mars with the hopes of colonizing it? Will you only use Scientists and Astronauts or will other occupations be used like engineers, agriculture specialists, and etc?

[Michael Meyer] I would think that the selection process for sending people to colonize Mars would involve making sure you have multiple occupations/experts participating. I’m curious: do you have any suggestions on the selection process? A lottery for all qualified people? How do you narrow it down?

What kind of rocket propulsion would be used, I hear good things about the vasmir engine, any ideas?

[Todd May] For the time being, chemical propulsion will be how we lift from the Earth’s surface into space. Once you get into space, we are working on a number of technologies for the long-distance legs. These include Solar-electric, ion propulsion, thermonuclear, and solar sails.

Are there exotic lines of research at NASA in modifying humans either surgically or genetically to better meet the demanding environmental issues?

[Todd May] Not that I am aware of…or that I can talk about…

Are you planning on making one launch to get to Mars, or building a ship in orbit with several launches?

[Brian Muirhead] We will need multiple launches of the Space Launch System to deliver all the payload and propellent need to send and return people to Mars. We will have to do in-space assembly robotically to build up some of the vehicles we’ll need before we send the crew.

Is it truly possible to grow food in martian soil?

[Todd May] I’d love to find out!

What’s the long term maintenance and care plans for Martian clothes? As a sewing enthusiast, the astronaut suits and underclothes are going to need mending and maybe alterations for efficient longevity off Earth. Is there a “Space Sewing Machine” being developed? Poor Watney, I bet he would have appreciated some Hab canvas pj pants in that rover at one point or another.

[Todd May] Great question! I can’t speak to clothing, but I’ll bet there will be a sewing kit on-board. We are also working on 3-D printing which will allow us to send up drawings for just about any part that breaks and have that part ready-made. We are currently doing 3-D printing on ISS today, and are printing rocket engine parts on the ground.


While going to mars would allow us to learn much about Mars itself, do you perceive us being able to learn much more about the universe that we maybe don’t already know?

[Michael Meyer] Mars, as a terrestrial planet most like Earth, also has an ancient surface. Because of that, it has a record of the first billion years of our solar system. Because of this, studying Mars tells us about the origin and evolution of our solar system. Studying Mars can teach us about ourselves.

Are you guys working with Matt Damon?

[Brian Muirhead] JPL and NASA have been working with the producers over the last couple of years. Some of the actors visited JPL during production to research their roles. Matt Damon visited JPL recently to take a tour and do media interviews.

[Michael Meyer] NASA has been advising the film crew. The director wanted to get the science as accurate as possible and still have a big movie.

[Todd May] If he really was waiting for us on Mars, we’d love to come bring him home.

What are some interesting facts about Mars that the average person might not know?

[Michael Meyer] Mars has 1/100th the atmosphere of Earth. It’s almost totally CO2, which is what we exhale. Pure water (not salty water or brine) is not stable on the surface because of the low pressure. Mars has about one-third of Earth’s gravity, so you would weigh one-third as much. Jenny Craig would love this place.

What is the best possible future outcome for space exploration in the next decade?

[Todd May] Astronauts to low Earth orbit are launching from American soil. Humans have returned to deep space (beyond the Moon), and the development of the pieces for Mars missions are in full development.

A trip to Mars has many dangers. Which part of the trip do you think is the most dangerous?

[Brian Muirhead] I asked that very question of Sally Ride many years ago. She was most concerned about how we’d maintain the mental health of the crew. We can test for physical effects but understanding how a small crew would behave under the conditions of long duration spaceflight away from the home planet under such a high risk/stress conditions is not testable. Picking and training the crew will be a very hard problem.

With the discovery of water, coupled with the fact that we also know of organic compounds like methane on Mars, how much has the probability of discovering life increased?

[Michael Meyer] The probability of discovering life on Mars has increased in that our interest is growing in learning about the possibility of life on Mars. We’re barking up the right tree. The actual probability of life being on Mars – past or present – hasn’t changed. It’s just that our likelihood of discovering it has.

Can I get a tour of JPL?

[Brian Muirhead] Yes, JPL offers public tours and they fill up quickly. At this time, they are fully booked about five months in advance. You can reserve your spot here: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/events/tours/views/ We also have an Open House one weekend every year and it happens to be this coming weekend. Open House is very popular, we had 40,000 people show up last year (if you want to come, arrive EARLY).

How early? What is the process for getting in to the Open House? There’s very little information online.

Here’s a page with more info on Open House: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/events/open-house.php I tell everyone to arrive by 8:30am (we open at 9am). The place will be packed by 10am and parking will be difficult to find and the lines will be long. When you first get in, ignore the outdoor exhibits and make a beeline to the buildings that will get the longest lines: Spacecraft Assembly Facility and the Space Flight Operations Facility (aka mission control). You’ll find a link to a map on the above link. These two buildings are #5 and #14/15 on the map. The outdoor exhibits are great, but you can see those after. Bring water. It’ll be hot. -VM/NASA-JPL Social Media Mgr

What’s the single most difficult part of a mars mission?

[Brian Muirhead] Besides getting the funding? Landing! Landing on Mars is much harder than landing on the moon or on Earth because it has just a little atmosphere, not enough to slow you down but enough to hurt you.

Will there be a botanist trying to farm potatoes with his own feces? Or do you have another crop in mind?

[Todd May] I sure hope there are more food choices and more music choices than in the movie. Disco sux!

What do you need? What technical innovation, feasible in the next 5 years, would be most beneficial to the Mars program?

[Todd May] The tricky part to this question is “feasible in the next 5 years”. Technology on the order of what we’re talking about takes a little longer than that to bring to fruition. Propulsion systems for deep space such as nuclear thermal or solar electric are big enablers. Robust closed-loop life support will be important. A Mars lander sized for human descent is also a big challenge.

I was wondering what you guys thought of Matt Damon’s movie? What impact do you see “The Martian” having on the general public?

[Brian Muirhead] I think all of us “space-geeks” loved it!!! We know how hard space travel is and the director, Ridley Scott, did a great job of showing how much individual skill and team effort is required to be successful. I hope it will inspire more interest in the study of science and engineering by making it look as exciting and sexy as it really is!!

Would it be possible to eventually terraform Mars by doing things like trying to grow plants all over the surface, and trying to bring tons of water in? If so, how long would this process take?

[Michael Meyer] James Lovelock and Michael Allaby wrote a book about the greening of Mars. This science fiction book was based on the scenario of taking all the CFC’s and cold war rockets and sending them to Mars to create a greenhouse atmosphere. This is conceivable, though I’m certainly not advocating it. How long would it take? Hmmm…more research is needed, as any good scientist would say.

I guess my question is why? What do we ultimately want from Mars?

[Michael Meyer] Right now we don’t know how life started in our solar system. Evidence on Earth has been erased by plate tectonics and life itself. Because Mars is the only terrestrial planet that looks like was potentially habitable early in its lifetime, it could also preserve the best evidence of how life began in our solar system.

[Brian Muirhead] From my POV it is to answer the question of are we alone? and provide a possible future home to humanity.

[Todd May] I kinda like Steve Squyres answers to this question. http://www.space.com/6972-steve-squyres-robot-guy-humans-mars.html

** SPOILER ALERT ** Waking Pathfinder up, and using it to communicate in an emergency situation. How realistic was that scenario?

[Brian Muirhead] Pretty realistic. The Pathfinder lander has a fully redundant pair of radios and an antenna that could talk directly to Earth. What wasn’t realistic was the ability to just pull off a cover and plug in a connector and have that work. It’s more complicated than that.

Do we have any idea if Pathfinder is in good enough condition to be restarted, or would the electronics have been destroyed by now?

[Brian Muirhead] Pathfinder could realistically be restarted. Some troubleshooting, e.g., disassembly and adding a power supply would be necessary.

Sending someone to Mars takes a lot of resources. (Let alone bringing back Matt Damon.) What justifies such expensive trips to, say, Mars? Is it just about human exploration or is there a practical benefit?

[Todd May] Sometimes these things are hard to predict up front. We are still benefiting from the technological advancements achieved during the Apollo program.

If a child wanted to be on one of those manned missions to Mars when they grow up, what do you suggest they study?

[Todd May] Whatney was a botanist. That said, an engineering background is always a good thing. I’m a materials engineer by trade. Good luck!

How would finding life in Mars affect the plans for sending humans there?

[Michael Meyer] Great question. Two ways: one, we have to consider the awesome discovery that life is possible elsewhere. Who knows the ramifications? Second, we would need to discuss how we should approach Mars. Does Mars become off-limits to preserve life? Does it become a giant laboratory for studying alien life? Or does it still become our next beachhead?

In many space movies, I’ve seen space stations and ships have sections that spin to produce artificial gravity. Is this something you guys are planning to use? Is it even feasible/realistic?

[Brian Muirhead] Artificial gravity could be important and the way it’s shown in most movies, including 2001 Space Odyssey, is reasonably realistic, but it won’t be that easy to build. One of the questions we have is how much artificial gravity is needed to prevent unacceptable physical degradation. Part of the research going on the ISS right now is to understand better the long term impacts of 0’g.

[Todd May] It is feasible, and realistic. Large centrifuges will require a lot of upmass. Our work on ISS has produced a number of countermeasures to zero gravity which mitigate atrophy.

Do you guys personally believe that there is life somewhere in the universe?

[Michael Meyer] Personally, I think it’s frightening to comprehend that we would be the only life in the universe. Our galaxy has over 100 billion stars, and there are something on the order of 100 billion galaxies. How could there not be life out there? Perhaps the more important question: is there life in our own neighborhood? (our own solar system?)

Was Mars the only option for the next planetary visit or were there any other planets or moons that we the public may not be aware of, which were also in the running at some point?

[Brian Muirhead] One of the options we’re looking at would be to explore an asteroid before moving on to Mars. We’re also looking at landing on the moons of Mars before attempting a landing on the surface. The Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM), currently in formulation, is a first step along this path.

What would be the biggest difference between living on earth vs living on Mars that most of us wouldn’t think of?

[Michael Meyer] Phoning home to Earth from Mars would have at least an 8-minute delay, making conversation nearly impossible.

In The Martian, we see the Chinese space agency work with NASA to save Matt Damon. How likely is it we will be working with other countries on the mission to Mars?

[Todd May] Very likely. We are currently working with many space agencies today on the International Space Station.