NASA's chief space technologist says 'we're going to take some risks' to get to Mars

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – NASA's chief space technologist came to one of Wernher von Braun's historic test areas here Tuesday to support NASA teams ready to "take some risks" to get humans to Mars, and he said von Braun would approve.

"He would have said we waited too long" between tests of a new, lighter rocket tank, one Marshall Space Flight Center manager said from the audience, and Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for space technology, nodded in agreement. "We're going to take some risks," Gazarik said.

Gazarik came to Huntsville, where von Braun's team built the Saturn V that took men to the moon, to see a control center built to test a 5-meter diameter rocket fuel tank built of modern composite material. The tank has already had one test, and in two weeks, NASA technicians will fill it with super-cold liquid hydrogen, a key rocket fuel, and move and pull it to simulate launch pressure.

If the tank survives with no leaks or cracks, NASA will be one step closer to lighter tanks that can remove thousands of pounds of weight from future rockets. At a cost of $10,000 to lift one pound into orbit, lighter materials could be critical to the space program's financial viability.

NASA has tested a smaller, 8-foot-diameter version of the tank at Marshall last summer, but Gazarik said, "I don't think we waited for the (results) to come back to start building the 5 meter." That was his example of NASA moving a little more toward "speed" in what a test manager called the "inherent conflict of balancing speed with safety."

The idea isn't to risk astronauts, but to move development and testing of equipment along faster. That could risk test objects. Test manager John Vickers said in a statement Tuesday that NASA has "improved composite manufacturing without adding risks or costs to any of NASA's current projects." Vickers said, "We want to advance this technology, so tanks are ready as NASA's Space Launch System ... evolves."

Gazarik toured the new control room where test engineers will watch the tank test on big high-definition screens. Rows of computers will monitor pressure and the tank's response. The test will be done at night to keep the test area clear for construction workers building new stands for "back to back to back" tests of Space Launch System hardware starting next year. The rocket is scheduled to fly for the first time in 2017.

Gazarik also took a look at another key new technology being tested at Marshall. A California company's 3-D printer capable of making some of the basic tools astronauts use in experiments will be launched to the International Space Station this fall for tests in microgravity. An identical model – about the size of Keurig coffee maker - was on view Tuesday.

Astronauts are already calling the printer their version of "Star Trek's" replicator, and NASA believes future generations of printers will allow astronauts to use the native materials found on Mars and elsewhere to fashion building blocks and other useful items.



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