Mars on The Big Island

Nov 16, 2016


The last time the United States put an astronaut on the moon, Richard Nixon was president and Elvis Presley played a concert in Honolulu. That was 1972—and while moon shots are part of history, a mission to Mars is still in the future. NASA is working on it—and Hawai‘i Island is playing a role. HPR contributing reporter Sherry Bracken has more on the story from Kona. 

Five time space shuttle astronaut Jeff Hoffman once helped repair the Hubble Telescope in space. Now he’s spending some time at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park….representing NASA.

Hoffman says “Exploring Mars is going to be very different from exploring the moon.  When astronauts were on the moon…..they had cameras that they would transmit pictures back to the earth.   There was a whole back room full of geologists and scientists.  There was very close communication between people on the earth and people on the moon. The moon is not that far away.  Mars is tens of millions of miles away, you can’t have a real conversation.”

Hoffman says a two-week field exercise on Mauna ‘Ulu on Kīlauea Volcano is a real scientific mission.  “We are trying to learn things about the composition of the lava and the life forms.  So we have pseudo-astronauts, they’re not wearing space suits but they are carrying backpacks with all sorts of communications equipment, television cameras, instruments that they can analyze the chemical content of the rocks.  We set it up to simulate the kind of communications we’ll have with Mars.”

That means recording what the astronauts and their Mars-based ground crew say and playing it back for the simulated mission control scientists 15 to 20 minutes later.  Hoffman says the communication piece is critical to figuring out how to handle a Mars mission.  This exercise is one of a series of Mars simulations, but Hoffman says it’s different because the science is real—and so is the pressure….and the results will be published.