“It is good to renew one’s wonder, said the philosopher. Space travel has again made children of us all.” — Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
To get to Mars, astronauts will have to boldly drink what no one has drank before.
The key to keeping humans alive on the voyage — which will last about 1,000 days round trip — will be sustainability. Not in a hippie, organic-farming way, but in a cold, scientific, gather-every-drop-of-sweat-that-drips-from-your-pores (like the Fremen in the science fiction novel Dune) way.
“You can’t bring enough water and oxygen for people for that long,” says Gary Adamson, principal engineer at United Technologies Corp.’s Aerospace Systems’ facility in Windsor Locks. UTC Aerospace Systems will provide life support and thermal control for the Orion spacecraft, NASA’s next-generation spaceship designed to carry humans farther into space than we’ve ever gone and provide a stepping stone to Mars.
Because of storage limitations and the duration of the future Mars mission, Adamson says, “We have to generate everything, recycle everything, so we’re creating a closed-loop environment like we have on the Earth. We’re recycling all of the water and cleaning out the air and regenerating oxygen, to keep the environment livable for people.”
In addition to gathering sweat, urine will be filtered. All this is done to some extent on the International Space Station, but on the way to Mars they’ll take things a somewhat disgusting step further thanks to a state-of-the-art “space toilet” that won’t let anything go to waste.
“Your feces is 50 to 55 percent water, so we can dewater that, you can dry it out and compress it and stabilize it,” Adamson says. He adds that, once stabilized, the water collected from astronaut excrement can be filtered, distilled and used to generate breathable oxygen as well as drinking water.
Adamson explains this last part almost sheepishly, as if trying not to giggle.
Or maybe that’s me trying not to giggle.
We’re in a nondescript conference room inside building 9A of the sprawling, multi-building United Technologies complex in Windsor Locks. Though the conference room is typical, the building is anything but. To get inside I have to provide my country of birth, country of citizenship, name of my company and its country. I must be escorted at all times in the building and, even accompanied by employees, the areas I’m granted access to are limited.
On the way to the conference room, where I meet Adamson and another engineer, I’m led down a long hallway stretching the length of city blocks in both directions. I briefly glimpse a mammoth room filled with more cubicles than I’ve ever seen. We pass a door that warns foreign nationals from passing beyond it.
The precautions are intense but not without reason. UTC Aerospace Systems often does classified work. I have never gained access to the UTC Aerospace site in Danbury despite multiple requests. (In the 1960s and ’70s, the recently declassified Hexagon spy satellite’s optical system was designed there, and information about current work is sparse.) Inside this building in Windsor Locks, about 100 men and women are working on making the next epoch of humanity’s exploration of space a reality.
The first step toward NASA’s ultimate goal of carrying humans to Mars is the Orion spacecraft. In December 2014, Orion had its first unmanned test flight. Launched from Florida on the Delta IV Heavy rocket, it flew two orbits around Earth in 4½ hours, reaching an altitude of 3,600 miles above the Earth, 15 times higher than the International Space Station, before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The next test is scheduled for some point in 2019, but there have already been delays and may be more. This next mission, called Exploration Mission-1, will also be crewless but will last 25 days. During the mission, Orion will make a large orbit around the moon, going farther into space than humans have traveled in the past before returning to Earth. Then, in the 2020s, Exploration Mission-2 will travel the same path as Exploration Mission-1 but with humans on board.
Ultimately, future Orion missions will establish a base beyond the moon at what’s called a Lagrange point, a spot in space where the gravitational pull of multiple celestial bodies creates an equilibrium that allows an object to remain stationary. “They’re parking lots, basically; there’s no gravity, so you can sit there,” Adamson says.
Future missions may take astronauts back to the surface of the moon or even an asteroid. Then, if all goes as planned, in the 2030s, the base will serve as a launching point for a journey to Mars which will take place in a modified Orion spacecraft or a new craft.
The primary contractor for Orion is aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, but that company has subcontractors working on the project in 48 states and Puerto Rico. In addition to UTC Aerospace Systems, more than 20 other Connecticut companies are involved, but UTC Aerospace Systems is among the largest Connecticut subcontractors and one of the most important anywhere, as it is tasked with creating a living environment for astronauts.
“UTC Aerospace Systems has been a partner of NASA’s for over 50 years,” says Diego Mugurusa, Orion’s lead systems engineer of space systems, repeating key UTC talking points. “Our life-support systems kept John Glenn alive as he first orbited the Earth and enabled Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. We were there for every shuttle mission, keeping astronauts alive in space with our life-support-system equipment and we’re the prime contractor for the extravehicular mobility unit (EMU), also known as the spacesuit. The EMU is like a mini spacecraft, it provides everything that an astronaut needs to stay alive in space. Water, oxygen, temperature control and CO2 regulation.”
UTC Aerospace Systems will provide active thermal control, power management and distribution hardware for the upcoming unmanned Orion mission, and will add environmental-control and life-support systems for subsequent crewed Orion missions.
Robert Kundrotas, the Orion program manager at UTC Aerospace Systems who has been working on the spacecraft since 2006, says Orion and the Mars mission overall present many new challenges. “It’s not necessarily that the technologies are different from [the] shuttle or from [the space] station or some of the other programs we’re working on, it’s really the environments that they’re subjected to. There’s a big difference between being in low Earth orbit [where the International Space Station is] for hardware, and having that same hardware go all the way out to Mars.”
To ensure that the hardware designed and built by UTC Aerospace Systems can withstand missions to space, each piece of equipment is rigorously tested. To recreate the violent rocking of takeoff and landing, shaker tables are used, while vacuum chambers simulate the vacuum of space, and thermal cycle chambers produce the extreme temperatures the equipment will have to endure, among other tests.
Though we think of space as cold, it can also be extremely hot. During the Orion test flight in 2014, the temperature outside the spacecraft soared to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures also tend to soar inside the craft as machinery generates heat. The thermal-control system’s job is to pump the heat out of the aircraft.
Orion will be used to establish what NASA calls a deep-space habitat — likely a small space station of some type — that will be used as a launching ground for a future mission to Mars. It is on this future mission that the sustainable work Adamson is primarily focused on becomes important.
Many environment-recycling techniques have been tested on the International Space Station, but Adamson says to get to Mars this recycling loop will have to be closed tighter. “The space station is probably about 50 to 75 percent loop closure for oxygen and water. We’d like to raise that up to 98 percent. As you can imagine it’s always the last pieces that are the hardest. That’s why now we’re looking at solid waste matter. The space station doesn’t do anything with that; they compress it, and it’s garbage.”
As we sit talking in the conference room, Adamson reminds me water is being shed constantly from our bodies, and that on the spaceship to Mars fans will snatch up all that humidity in the air and convert it to drinking water.
Of course, surviving the trip in a healthy manner will require more than water. Exercise devices will be designed, and Abramson says “all of our systems have to be able to handle so much exercise a day, so much eating, sleeping, all that. When you exercise you’re generating a lot more moisture and your metabolic rate is a lot higher, so our system has to be able to handle that peak load of activity.”
Exercise on a mission to Mars would be staggered to decrease such peak loads as much as possible. Adamson says exercise will be important for astronauts to keep up bone strength.
There is also work being done at NASA to ensure astronauts stay connected to those on Earth during the mission, through video calls and frequent interaction. In September, six NASA researchers emerged from an eight-month experiment in which they lived in a Mars-like habitat on a remote Hawaii volcano since January. They ate primarily canned or freeze-dried foods and wore spacesuits when they left their small, domed living space. Their communications with the outside world were subjected to the same delays astronauts will encounter on a mission to Mars. The study was designed to measure the effects of long-term isolation on stress, overall psychology and team dynamics.
Like this mission-to-Mars simulation, the work Adamson, Kundrotas and other engineers at UTC Aerospace do can be difficult. It requires long hours and lots of calculations and tests.
“You have to keep it at that level over there,” Adamson says, gesturing to a picture of the International Space Station. “That’s the exciting stuff. What we do every day is a lot of grunt work.”
Kundrotas says, “It’s a tough place to work in, in space. Especially because of what that equipment has to do, everybody here knows that.” He adds that all the hard work becomes worthwhile when you actually witness a rocket launch and see and feel something you’ve helped build launch into space. “That’s when you really know that you did something really well, because you get to see your hardware go.”
A few weeks after my initial visit, I return to Windsor Locks. Once again security is tight. I take a picture as I approach the building, and almost immediately I’m politely but firmly told to delete the photo from my phone.
Today, officials from NASA and Lockheed Martin are on site, including former NASA astronaut Dominic “Tony” Antonelli, now director of advanced programs of Lockheed Martin’s civil space line. U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5, a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, is also on hand to tour the facility and hold a press conference with other officials.
“On the science committee there’s broad support for deep-space exploration,” she says during the press conference. “Frankly, most of us on the committee are on the committee in part because of our commitment to basic science research and to the U.S. being at the forefront of exploration.”
However, there is not universal support for Orion and the ultimate mission to Mars it’s designed to enable. Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle wrote a column in October with the headline “The mission to Mars is one stupid leap for mankind,” arguing that funds for space exploration would be more wisely spent on making life on Earth better.
And when it comes to Mars exploration, NASA is not the only player. SpaceX founder Elon Musk is one of several billionaires who have expressed interest in a civilian-funded voyage to Mars. Musk has even said in the past that he wants “to die on Mars, just not on impact.”
Esty acknowledges, “We’re seeing some competition, some private companies that are competing for this work,” and says agencies need to be nimbler, and Congress and taxpayers want to see transparency from this work. She adds that much of it, especially the type of recycling work being done in Windsor Locks, could have uses on Earth.
After the press conference, all the UTC Aerospace employees working on Orion gather in an auditorium. Antonelli, the former astronaut, addresses them, emphasizing how important the work they do is. “Somebody is literally counting on you for their next breath. I don’t spend a lot of time when I’m on Earth thinking about if I’m going to get my next breath, [but] there are folks right now in orbit that are counting on you for their next breath.”
At the conclusion of the speech the Boeing and NASA officials present the team with a banner. On it is an artist’s rendering of the Orion spacecraft flying through space. Below the craft, written in bold movie-poster letters, are words that recall the spirit of adventure of yesteryear: “the road to Mars goes through Windsor Locks.”