Several students recently vied for and won the opportunity to design and carry out a small space mission using pint-sized astronauts at a proposed price tag of $10 million.
The goal behind the Translife mission is to launch a crew of mice into low-Earth orbit for about two months in a one-meter space ship simulating Mars' gravity, then bring them back down to Earth and see how they fared. It won't be the first time mice have flown in space, but it will be the first time mammals of any kind have lived in partial gravity. The spin of the spacecraft will create an effect equivalent to Mars' gravity, about one-third that of Earth.
"Astronauts living on space stations have encountered serious health problems, such as bone loss, due to their weightless environment [in zero gravity]," said the students in a statement. "The first crew on Mars could experience similar effects; scientists do not yet know whether partial gravity is sufficient to prevent these health hazards. A crew of mice will provide the first answers."
The multi-university group, led at MIT by senior Paul Wooster and graduate student Erika Brown, both of aeronautics and astronautics, plans to send up between six and nine mice, half of whom will be pregnant at launch and give birth during their 52 days orbiting Earth.
"We don't know what would happen if humans were born on Mars, whether they would develop normally and be able to return to life on Earth," said Wooster, who will graduate in December and stick around afterward to work on the Translife mission.
The group intends to study mice bone density, muscle mass and changes in the cellular structure of the muscle in response to reduced gravity.
The mice will be in cages containing small tubes they can enter for comfort and protection. The simulated gravity of Mars will allow the mice to keep their feet on the bottom of the cages; they'll be able to "lope" around for exercise, said Wooster.
The mission's sponsor, the Mars Society , selected the MIT student team to provide overall systems engineering and project management, to design and build the payload section of the craft, and to be responsible for designing and carrying out the scientific experiments. Students from the University of Washington at Seattle will design and build the spacecraft bus, which contains the power, propulsion and communications components. Re-entry and recovery systems will be done by students at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.
Designing, building and recovering the spacecraft is expected to cost about $5 million. An additional $5 million could be needed to get it into orbit.
The plan calls for launching the spacecraft in June 2004, either on a decommissioned Russian spacecraft for a hefty fee, or as a secondary payload on a space shuttle or commercial launch vehicle, at a much lower cost. "The trick to that is to get someone who thinks your project is worth launching," said Wooster, who obviously prefers the second, cheaper method.
BIG MONEY REQUIRED
An anonymous private donor to the Mars Society has agreed to match donations up to $5 million, Wooster said. The students expect to raise a portion of those matched funds. The Department of Aeronautics and Astronuatics has awarded $6,000 to get them started. Col. John Keesee, a senior lecturer in the department, is faculty advisor to the student group, which has about 15 active members.
"The Mars Society is going to raise some of that money, but we can't just wait for them to give us the big check," said Wooster, who is thinking already of potential donors. The usual science funders--NIH, NSF, NASA, and private corporations and individuals--are on his list of possibilities, along with some more unusual avenues, such as biomedical companies, and even Disney, which he hopes might possibly have interest in the story line, he said.
"Pizza Hut paid about $2 million to have 'Pizza Hut' emblazoned on the side of a Russian rocket. Radio Shack paid $1 million to appear on a probe to the moon," said Wooster, who doesn't know yet which, if any, corporation might pay to be associated with the first student-run biosatellite in space.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 10, 2002.