It takes all sort of innovative concepts — some might even say wild ideas — to get humans to another planet.
Thousands of engineers and researchers are in the middle of tackling that challenge now as NASA works to send a crew to Mars in the 2030s. There are all sorts of technical hurdles to overcome that take some creative thinking — whether it’s developing lightweight, flexible inflatable spacecraft heat shields to be able to land more mass or designing a robotic grappling arm to capture an asteroid.
Those are a couple of ideas imagined and championed at NASA’s Langley Research Center that are now being worked on for possible use in future missions.
“In our branch we are encouraged to come up with far-out ideas that could help advance space exploration, ” said researcher Erica Rodgers. “There is even an innovation fund set aside every year to promote this kind of brainstorming and collaboration with our colleagues and students.”
One NASA Langley Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate Investment Fund Award idea was a concept that might some day allow the exploration of Venus: the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept or HAVOC. An animation that visualized airships over Venus captured a lot of attention and more than 739,000 views so far on the NASA Langley YouTube channel.
“We were surprised it got so much interest, especially since it’s just an initial concept we had in our heads,” said researcher Chris Jones. “But the animation was really spectacular and the idea of how we could explore our nearest planetary neighbor Venus, which is a pretty harsh environment, was something that really interested the team, so we thought it might be interesting to others.”
A more recent investment fund project involved a study of how mice might help humans get to Mars. Eighteen NASA Langley researchers and eight students proposed the idea of a MICEHAB, a Multigenerational Independent Colony for Extraterrestrial Habitation, Autonomy, and Behavior health.
“MICEHAB is a conceptual, long duration, autonomous habitat designed to house rodents in a partial gravity environment,” said Rodgers. “It could be used to better understand the effects of partial gravity on mammalian reproduction over multiple generations and how to effectively design a facility that could operate independently without human involvement.”
The designers say the idea could also be used to demonstrate future autonomous systems, like robotic maintenance and assembly.
“We had to take a lot of things into consideration when looking into the idea of sending mice into space so we might be able to learn more about how humans survive and successfully reproduce,” said researcher Matt Simon.
A scholarly paper and an animation produced by NASA Langley’s Advanced Concepts Lab help explain and illustrate their concept. But before anyone expresses concerns about the possible mice test subjects, the researchers want to stress this is just an idea. But it’s an idea that the engineers and scientists believe has merit to help better understand the effects of living for long durations in space.