Limitless Mission to Mars
Notre Dame research helps propel NASA ambition
Two-thirds of the way through the longest open-ocean leg of a circumnavigation of the world, Notre Dame alumna Dava Newman suddenly lost control of her 47-foot sailboat. She and her husband discovered that the steering system failed because all the hydraulic fluid had leaked from a crack in a copper hose.
It was about 1 a.m. and both were exhausted. They were stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean 1,000 nautical miles from the nearest land.
“You have to get creative when in a crisis.”
“It was definitely our Apollo 13 moment,” said Newman, the deputy administrator of NASA, referring to the aborted moon mission in 1970 when engineers innovated a return to Earth using only the materials on board the space capsule. “You have to get creative when in a crisis.”
Newman had bought four liters of extra virgin olive oil in Panama. As an engineer, she knew the olive oil had the same viscosity as hydraulic fluid. So they filled the system with olive oil, clamped the hose, rigged up a sort of IV system to capture and recycle the still-leaking oil, and sailed for more than a week to reach the Marquesas Islands.
That lesson in surviving a harsh environment has served Newman well in her leadership of NASA and its “horizon goal” to put people on Mars in the 2030s. It also helped fuel her ambition to push further into space, an endeavor supported by academic research that includes several NASA-funded projects at Notre Dame aiming to expand the limits of human exploration. These projects range from scientists developing new ways to find the nearest earth-like planets to engineers studying the origins of the moon or the conversion of solar energy into electricity.
“It’s important to point out how far away Mars is,” Newman said. “Like when I was sailing, you really have to be autonomous out there because you will be Earth independent.”
Newman said NASA’s investment in university research is “absolutely critical” to its future because the knowledge and equipment needed for long-distance space travel are still under development. For instance, she cited the work of David Go, the Rooney Family Associate Professor of Engineering, who is developing new methods to generate electrical power from solar and thermal energy.
“We need to think about new ways to produce power and energy because we can’t bring power plants with us to Mars,” Newman said.
Notre Dame Researchers
These researchers are working with NASA on projects with a broad range of applications.
Tom Corke and Flint Thomas
These Notre Dame aerospace engineers are involved in a number of NASA-funded research projects related to aircrafts and engines. Corke is the director of the Institute for Flow Physics and Control, as well as the Hessert Laboratory for Aerospace Research, where Thomas conducts his research.
Their wide range of projects for NASA aim to reduce aircraft noise coming from landing gear, prevent stalls in jet engines, reduce friction drag, create models of fluid separation, and control hypersonic turbulence.
This astrophysicist studies supernovae and is part of the Kepler ExtraGalactic Survey that uses the NASA K2 mission to find and study supernovae and cataclysmic variable stars.
Garnavich was lead author on a paper this year on the shock breakout from a core-collapse supernovae, the first time the Kepler telescope caught the flash of an exploding star on film.
Go’s team, funded through a NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship, is exploring thermionic emission, where metal is heated so hot that it shoots out electrons to create electrical current. The team is experimenting with new materials and microscale processes, as well as introducing a microplasma to increase the conversion performance.
Go won the 2013 National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research selected him for the 2011 Young Investigator Program.
Newman also noted the inspiring work of Justin Crepp, the Freimann Assistant Professor of Physics who won a NASA Early Career Fellowship in 2013. Crepp’s team used NASA and other funding to build the world’s first spectrograph that corrects for the blurring effects of Earth’s turbulent atmosphere. This infrared device, named “iLocater,” will identify planets with Earth-like qualities and take the next step in the search for extra-terrestrial life.
Astronomers measure fluctuations in the brightness of a star to identify the presence of a potential planet whose orbit periodically dims the star’s light. In 2014, Crepp and other NASA scientists announced the detection of Kepler 186f, a planet orbiting a dwarf star observed with the Kepler Space Telescope. One of the star’s five planets is located in the habitable zone, a region with the right distance from the star to create a moderate temperature and the potential for water in its liquid state – the building blocks for life.
Notre Dame alumni whose work extends beyond our atmosphere.
Kevin Ford ‘82
A native of Indiana, Ford piloted the Space Shuttle Discovery for a 2009 trip to the International Space Station, which he visited again in 2012. A retired Air Force Colonel and experienced pilot, Ford has received awards such as the Meritorious Service Medal and has served in many roles at NASA since 2000.
Michael Good ’84, ‘86
Good, an Ohio native, flew aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis for its final servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009 and to the International Space Station in 2010. A retired test pilot and Air Force Colonel, he is one of only two Air Force navigators selected as astronauts.
James Wetherbee ‘74
A New York native, Wetherbee is a veteran of six Space Shuttle missions (1990-2002) and the only American to command five spaceflight missions. A former naval officer, aviator and test pilot, he has logged more than 7,000 hours of flying time in 20 different types of aircraft.
“The universe is teeming with planets but we haven’t been able to characterize their atmosphere,” Crepp said. iLocater will be “able to probe their atmosphere and chemical composition to tell us: Is there the potential for life to develop on these nearby planets?”
Crepp’s team is designing and building iLocater in the experimental astrophysics laboratory at Nieuwland Science Hall at Notre Dame. Recently, they have successfully tested a prototype in Arizona using the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory, an international collaboration of top research institutions that includes Notre Dame.
Newman also praised the leadership of Clive Neal, a Notre Dame planetary geologist who chairs NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group. Neal’s research explores the origin and evolution of the Moon, focusing on the petrology and geochemistry of returned samples coupled with geophysics and other remotely sensed datasets.
“The Moon is on the route to Mars,” Newman said. “Clive’s studies of its resources are critical because we really need to learn to live off the land.”
Newman grew up in Helena, Montana, and turned down basketball scholarship offers to attend Notre Dame because she liked the combination of athletics and academics. She made the women’s basketball team as a walk-on, and counts the players and others she met as life-long friends.
Since she didn’t know what engineering was, she registered as pre-law and enjoyed the liberal arts courses. But her father was a private pilot, as was her grandmother, so she always loved airplanes. The Apollo astronauts and other great explorers in history were also inspirations. She decided aerospace engineering – where science, math and physics come together in service of human exploration – was “the hope for humanity.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1986, Newman earned three graduate degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she later taught and conducted research on a radical new spacesuit design that is less bulky than pressurized gas suits. The long-distance flight to Mars and the extended time in space and Mars’ atmosphere was always in her mind.
She did not hesitate to accept the presidential appointment to the NASA post because it’s “an incredible opportunity for service,” she said.
Newman said an important part of NASA’s mission is the adaption or commercialization of their discoveries and inventions for humans on earth. For instance, her new spacesuit design incorporates assisted locomotion necessary in a heavier atmosphere. The system is being tested for applications to help people with various walking disabilities.
“Any technology we build, we have to ask: How can we serve people,” she said. “That has to be at the center of our work as engineers. That’s something instilled in me at Notre Dame.”
While the goal of putting people on Mars in 20 years seems far off, Newman placed it in context of current exploration. Today, there are two robotic rovers on the red planet and three orbiters, part of NASA programs going back half a century.
“It’s a three-phase plan, and we’re well along in the first phase at the International Space Station, where we’ll be until 2024,” she said. “We’ll see the realization of the Space Launch System and Orion capsule in 2018 on our Exploration Mission -1.”
The Space Launch System is the most powerful rocket ever built, enabling travel deep into the solar system. The second phase, known as the Proving Ground, will test the technology and life support systems needed on the journey to Mars by exploring deep space beyond the moon. The third phase begins with a Mars orbit and then puts “boots on Mars in the 2030s”.
As long as Newman is providing the vision for NASA, you can bet that astronauts will keep pushing the limits of exploration – and they’ll have extra virgin olive oil on board.