Where does a mission to Mars begin? In this case, with a curious student in professor Hans Mark's "History of Spaceflight" class.
Inspired by a 1991 study by Mark's students on how to carry out a manned mission to Mars, aerospace engineering senior Susanne Plaisted began assembling a team known as the Mars Research Group.
"You can see Mars from Earth. It's not like an asteroid that's streaming by. It's something that's real, that everybody knows is there," Plaisted says.
In spring of 2012, the Mars Research Group began designing a multiphase plan that will use existing technologies to get humans to Mars within a decade, all while staying within NASA's space exploration budget.
The team is advised by Mark, who is a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics and former chancellor of The University of Texas System, and Humboldt Mandell, a research fellow at UT's Center for Space Research. Mandell, former manager of the Mars/Lunar Space Exploration program at NASA's Johnson Space Center, uses his expertise to advise the team on the financial side of mission planning as well as how to interact with NASA. Mark, former NASA deputy director, former director of NASA Ames Research Center and former secretary of the U.S. Air Force, uses his vast experience to advise the team on both the technical and structural aspects of the mission.
The proposed mission could last up to a year, maybe more, including a 30-day stay on the Martian surface. Since staying within a reasonable budget is one of the team's main challenges, their design revolves around using existing technology. For example, the team would like to use Falcon Heavy, a launch vehicle in development by private aerospace company Space X.
"We want to use any technology that's available unless we need something that's just not," says Ryan Witte, aerospace engineering senior and a member of the Mars Research Group. "We want this to be something that if we gave it to NASA tomorrow and it got approved, they could start working on it immediately."
The main force driving the project is the possibility of generating governmental support for its implementation.
"I hope our mission will set up the existing infrastructure and that there will be many more missions, maybe even a colony on Mars," Plaisted says. "Mars can be a jumping point for further space exploration, whether that's manned space exploration or a platform to send things further."
The team's research is structured in levels. Level one concentrates on project goals, objectives, the duration of the mission and a plan of action for exploring Mars. Level two focuses on design specifics, including the launch vehicle, propulsion, landing procedures and human protection. Level three is still under development, but focuses on the team's knowledge base of the Martian surface and environment. The expected release date for the project is Spring 2014.
The team intends to present their research project at conferences, including the Mars Society Convention. With the support of Mark, they hope to capture the attention of field experts and legislative officials.
For this team, the project isn't just about designing a mission to Mars, it's about improving life on Earth. Mandell says that for the first billion years of Mars' existence "some life scientists [still] think Mars may have been even more suitable than Earth for the generation of life."
For Mark the most compelling reason for going to Mars is to further the search for evidence of past life within our solar system. "Life on Mars answers the important question as to whether we are unique in the universe or whether we're just one other village somewhere in the cosmos," he says.
The mission design incorporates Martian soil sample return, atmospheric studies and the creation of a lasting infrastructure for future missions not only to discover evidence of life on Mars, but also evidence of what could have happened to destroy past life on the planet.
Forty-four years ago, humans made it to the Moon in a decade with far less technology than exists today. Modern-day rockets are much better today, but Mark says the remaining question "is how to provide for the safe travel of humans for an extended period of time."
Using the knowledge from the progress already made on Mars with rovers and orbiting satellites and the experience of extended human spaceflight onboard the International Space Station, the team of Longhorn undergraduate aerospace engineers hopes to reach the next frontier within a decade.
"Why not?" Plaisted says. "I'm a college student going out into the world. I should be overly optimistic, right? It's the time in our life to try to change things."
A version of this story appears on the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics website as part of a celebration of Space Week 2013.
Many aerospace engineering alumni, students and faculty have been involved with the Mars Curiosity Mission. Watch the Longhorn Network's video, "Longhorns on Mars" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hd3A5nj67yA)