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Apollo Astronaut: Let’s Get Going to Mars

May 13, 2013

Buzz Aldrin, the man famous for being the second person to walk on the moon, has a vision of the future of space exploration that involves rocketing people to Mars in the near future.

In his new book, “Mission to Mars,” Aldrin argues that the best way for us to spend our limited space budget in the future is to send an international team to the Red Planet within the next 20 years or so – and to bypass a return to the moon altogether.

“We need the next generation to be our Mars generation,” Aldrin said recently.” I’m very passionate about getting man to Mars and starting a colony there. I’ve outlined my plan of how to get us there in my new book.”

Aldrin is not alone in that regard. Already, there are at least two private groups working on plans for a real mission to Mars.

The nonprofit Inspiration Mars Foundation, led by American businessman Dennis Tito, is planning a two-person flyover of the Red Planet in 2018 and is actively recruiting a crew for the 501-day roundtrip mission, which would have to travel 38 million miles each way (the closest that Mars will be to Earth in the near future).

The other group, called Mars One, has far more ambitious plans. Championed by Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft, they actually want to land on Mars and set up a small colony of about 20 people sometime in the next 10 years. They estimate the project will cost $6 billion and are actively raising funds.

For such an ambitious mission to succeed, it would need a spacecraft that is faster than anything around today. Surprisingly, such a model is in the works. Researchers at the University of Washington are designing a fusion-powered rocket that could, if all goes well, propel a manned spacecraft to Mars in just 30 days. But the NASA-funded project has some very big physical hurdles to overcome over the next 20 years of its estimated timeline. The biggest of these would be how to sustain a sequential fusion reaction in the first place.

And then there’s the separate matter of building a crew quarters, which would have to be both strong and lightweight. The obvious choice for a material that could meet the most strenuous specifications would, of course, be a titanium alloy.

When Aldrin flew to the moon in 1969, the aerospace industry had just begun to exploit the unique properties of titanium in high-speed aircraft and rocket components (the Apollo 11’s Command and Service modules used Ti-6A1-4V alloy). Today, we are using titanium to build even more sophisticated assemblies and components in aerospace applications, these include titanium in grades 2, 3, and 4. And given another 10 or 20 years, who knows how much more creative we’ll become in using it. Maybe even enough to send a colony to Mars.

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