As a child, Kavya Manyapu would stare into the night sky above Hyderabad, India.
Her father would identify the different stars.
He would tell her about man’s first steps on the moon.
He would fuel her dream to become an astronaut.
Later this month, Manyapu will spend two weeks on Mars — or, at least, the closest thing on Earth to Mars.
The Mars Desert Research Station in Utah draws aeronautical engineers such as Manyapu, geologists, physicians and astro-biologists to its small cylindrical habitat, where research for the first human mission to Mars is taking place. The station is a prototype for the base that astronauts could use on Mars.
Think a mission to Mars will never happen?
This year, under presidential direction, NASA is putting the brakes on its near-Earth missions to the moon and the International Space Station. On Wednesday, the space shuttle Discovery completed its final trip. Shuttles Endeavor and Atlantis will make their final planned flights later this year.
NASA’s new goal is to send astronauts to an asteroid and later to Mars. There is not enough money for NASA to achieve that and maintain the shuttle program at the same time. For example, the Mars Society, which founded the Utah research station, estimates a trip to Mars will cost $30 billion.
If a spacecraft took off tomorrow for Mars, Manyapu, 25, would like to be on it.
Manyapu’s family members had such faith in her dream of becoming an astronaut that they moved to the United States after Manyapu graduated from high school at the age of 16. She earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In between her studies, Manyapu worked at Lockheed Martin and held internships at Boeing’s Huntsville, Ala., site, where the company does space exploration work.
Today, Manyapu is a structural engineer on Boeing’s 777 commercial jet program in Everett.
“I have a plan to go back into the space program,” she said.
One step along Manyapu’s way will be the two-week research trip to the Utah desert. The competitive research program in Utah attracts participants from NASA and from space programs around the world. Manyapu’s academic adviser suggested she apply for the program, which should help her chances at becoming an astronaut.
Unlike a trip to the Moon, a mission to Mars will require astronauts to live on the planet for while. The Utah desert is thought to have attributes similar to Mars. The round research station in Utah is a two-deck structure, roughly 26 feet in diameter and is mounted on landing struts. All six crew members reside there, just as astronauts on Mars would.
The trip could take nearly two years to complete. The Utah station allows researchers to identify possible problems astronauts could face on a two-year journey. For instance, if the space station’s toilet should fail during the actual trip to Mars, the astronauts wouldn’t be able to call a plumber. They would have to figure out how to fix it themselves.
“They want to see how we can test out procedures (to solve different problems) that we could implement on Mars,” Manyapu said.
That means some of the conditions Manyapu may face in Utah won’t be pleasant. She and other crew members will be cut off from the rest of the world. Manyapu won’t be able to shower every day. She won’t get to decide what she eats. She’ll be a lab rat for the other crew members to study, just as she will study them.
“You have to study a lot of human behavior,” Manyapu said.
Astronauts will not only need to survive the conditions on Mars, they’ll need to thrive. They’ll be expected to be as productive as possible, gathering data and conducting experiments.
Similarly, participants at the research station in Utah perform tests, based on area of expertise, while there. Manyapu will fill four crew roles while she’s at the station: crew physiologist, human factors engineer, backup crew engineer and journalist.
Manyapu is interested in studying bone loss among astronauts, which has been a continued topic of interest among scientists. In her application to participate in the program, Manyapu proposed experiments centered around bone loss that she could do while in the Utah desert.
She’s also interested in ways to improve space suits, which astronauts to Mars would rely on heavily in their long trip.
“It’s so hard to move around in those,” Manyapu said.
At the research station in Utah, Manyapu will get a taste for walking around in those space suits. She’ll be required to wear one any time she leaves the station to go outside — just as a real astronaut would on Mars.
Manyapu still has some roadblocks between her and her dream. She needs to raise $1,500 in the next few weeks to participate in the research program. Having only landed her job at Boeing in November, she’ll have to take some unpaid time off to go. Still, Manyapu plans to report to the research station on March 26.
As for when Manyapu thinks the first manned mission to Mars will take place, she estimates 2035. Manyapu believes the technology needed to get to Mars and back isn’t what’s holding a mission there back.
“To keep the humans alive, that’s the greatest challenge of going to Mars,” she said.
Follow the mission
To learn more about the Mars Society and its research station in Utah, go to mdrs.marssociety.org. Manyapu’s crew will post daily reports on the same website beginning March 26.
For updates, go to reporter Michelle Dunlop’s blog: www.heraldnet.com/aerospaceblog.