Out of this world

By Aarsh Sachdeva

Mars One announced in May 2012 it would establish a permanent human colony on Mars by 2023. So far, over 200,000 people have applied to settle on the neighboring Red Planet. Interest in the Martian world has pushed many countries and institutions to explore different planets, regions of space and improved methods of space travel. Students, faculty and alumni at the University are contributing to this stellar trend. Recently, space travel and study has gained some acute attention at the University.

Braven Leung, senior in Engineering, led a team of nine students in the Illinois Space Society to third place this previous summer in the National Institute of Aerospace’s program called Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage, which is a nationwide space exploration competition.

Leung and his team competed in the Mars manned-mission segment of the program because of their collective interest in the planet. To Leung, Mars is the “next logical step.”

For the competition, the team of nine formulated a conceptual mission architecture for a manned mission to the Red Planet. One highlight of their work was the proposal to innovate upon human technologies, including specialized space suits.

Competitions like this highlight the continued interest in space exploration, despite some of the struggles the space industry has faced recently. As it stands now, a combination of factors such as high costs, financial crises and public opinion have put a damper on NASA’s budget and space exploration missions. But, the industry is figuring out ways to overcome these obstacles.

The rise of private space companies such as SpaceX have ushered in a new wave of possibilities. Many people, such as Leung, are hoping that the private sector will uncover a solution to current space exploration issues, namely cost efficiency, before the diminishing government sector can.

Without an adequate flow of cash, NASA hasn’t been able to maintain its edge as well over other countries such as China – which is currently building its very own space station. China isn’t NASA’s only competitor. On Nov. 5, India launched its first rocket to Mars at nearly a tenth of the cost of what the U.S. paid.

NASA’s challenges aren’t limited to international competition or even appropriate funding. The organization that sent the first man to the moon has changed significantly over the years according to some. Dr. Robert William Farquhar, an Illinois alumnus and renowned former deep space mission director at Johns Hopkins University, said, “NASA’s changed a lot. I wouldn’t want to work there anymore. They do everything they can to discourage creativity and innovation.” Perhaps Dr. Farquhar is exaggerating a bit, but his point could explain why NASA seems to be losing its lead in the space race.

There is an undeniable competition between different nations when it comes to space exploration. These tensions between nations’ space sectors are typically rooted in political tensions between countries.

But now, more than ever, space exploration requires an increased amount of collaboration. Given NASA’s circumstances and the rise of space programs in countries such as China, a collaborative effort would be beneficial to all parties involved.

Farquhar is working with Victoria Coverstone, associate dean of graduate and professional programs at the University, to establish a joint study between students at the University and the Harbin Institute of Technology in Harbin City, China.

Farquhar strongly advocates collaboration across borders. His respect for China’s space program has him pushing for cooperation between NASA and China.

“Everybody else in the world cooperates with the Chinese. Why aren’t we doing it? It doesn’t make any sense,” Farquhar said.

Farquhar is planning on visiting Harbin City next summer to work out the logistics of the joint study before launch. If successful, this study would allow both institutions to work together to explore the diversity of Kuiper-Belt objects, such as comets, asteroids, icy rocks and more. Coverstone will be in charge of the joint study and its execution.

“I see this (study) as not just aerospace only, but it would be interdisciplinary across the college and even into the sciences,” she said.

All sorts of engineering and non-engineering departments reap the benefits of space exploration and research. Farquhar said that recent space missions bring together a wide range of engineers including in nuclear, mechanical, electrical and computer science engineers.

Missions to any part of the solar system allow for scientific discoveries – history is packed with breakthroughs and innovations made possible through space exploration. If it weren’t for NASA confronting the obstacles of space travel, the world may not have “luxuries” such as water filters, long-distance calling or shoe insoles. Breakthroughs in technology and science that come about from exploring space and distant worlds are what motivate students such as Leung to dedicate themselves to exploring space.

Aarsh is a freshman in Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected]