Mission to Mars? Engineers discuss NASA’s innovative Space Launch System

Should humans go straight to Mars or stop at the moon first?

It’s an actual debate in international space exploration circles, NASA engineers told a group of Vanderbilt University School of Engineering students and professors Friday afternoon. It’s also one where NASA has a strong voice — thanks to development of a vehicle that can transport astronauts and payload to either place.

NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, is the first launch vehicle large and powerful enough to reach and operate in deep space while carrying all the necessary materials for a mission. The first mission planned: deploying astronauts in the agency’s Orion spacecraft to visit an asteroid.

A panel of NASA experts discusses the SLS. (Brenda Ellis/Vanderbilt University)

Chris Crumbly, manager of payload integration and evolution; Kimberly Robinson, SLS strategic communications and a Vanderbilt mechanical engineering alumna; and Tracie Prater, an aerospace engineer in the materials and processes laboratory and a Vanderbilt adjoint assistant professor, all explained their roles in the project and answered questions.

Ryan Colletti (ME’15) asked about the rationale of one component mentioned in the presentation: taking a 3D printer on a mission to Mars so astronauts can make what they need instead of transporting it. He pointed out that they’d still have to bring feedstock and wondered if there might be ways to use materials on the surface instead.

Prater said using materials at hand sounded like a good opportunity for research, but engineers are working on a solution to make traditional use of the 3D printer a more efficient option.

Ivan Biggs (ME’16) asked if NASA is working on plans for terraforming Mars or other planets for human inhabitants.

“We’re always looking at the future,” Robinson answered. “NASA engages a medical ethicist. As you may know, some private companies are talking about making Mars a one-way trip. We got together with leaders in the industry and talked about how we, as humankind, undertake these endeavors.

“The one thing everyone agrees on is that we need this very large vehicle to make the journey.”

NASA’s current SLS-related research

  • Human mission to Mars
  • Asteroid redirection
  • Space stations
  • Mars sample return
  • Europa exploration
  • Ultra-large space telescopes
  • Interstellar probes


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering