Economic Analysis for In-Situ Resource Utilization on Mars in Support of the Generation of Rocket Fuel and Potable Water; Analyzing Apollo Program Failures and Their Applications to Future Mars Missions

Hensley, Donovan, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Anderson, Eric, EN-Chem Engr Dept, University of Virginia

Analyzing Areas of Possible Cost Cutting for Manned Mars Missions
Captain Picard puts it best, “Space, the final frontier… to boldly go where no one has
gone before!” In our quest to continue exploring things beyond Earth, Mars serves as the next
stepping stone to branching out into this final frontier in terms of manned missions. Both of my
projects focused on improving the viability of a manned Mars mission mostly through cutting
costs. My technical project, in collaboration with my team, designed a rocket fuel plant on Mars
that would produce enough methane and liquid oxygen for a return trip to Earth in one mission
cycle. My STS researched focused on reviewing the Apollo program and its shortcomings so that
those mistakes would not be made when planning and carrying out said manned Mars missions.
The technical portion of my thesis produced designs for a rocket fuel plant on Mars. As
putting things into space is expensive, specifically about $10,000 per pound, my group sought to
determine whether or not sending this rocket fuel plant to Mars would have been economically
advantageous compared to shipping rocket fuel. This was accomplished by utilizing the cold
Martian environment as a heat sink, its atmosphere as a carbon dioxide source, and the ice on
Mars as a source of water. Water was electrolyzed to produce oxygen and hydrogen in which
hydrogen was used to react with carbon dioxide to make methane with water as a byproduct. As
there are many unknowns with a Mars mission, my group determined a few economic outcomes
for the rocket fuel plant. If only one cycle is considered and the water byproduct is not needed,
our process costed about $100,000,000 more than just shipping rocket fuel. However, if water is
considered then there are possible savings up to $225,000,000. If two cycles of generating rocket
fuel is considered without water, about $552,000,000 could be saved. If both water and two
cycles is considered, about $1,200,000,000 could be saved.
In my STS research, I compared the Apollo program to possible plans for Mars missions.
In particular, I focused on the shortcomings, failures, and scrapped missions of the Apollo
program in my research. The findings of this research culminated in a few major points. The first
major point is that the safety culture relating to the missions has to be risk adverse. While the
Lunar missions were able to save astronauts from some failures, a Mars mission will not have
such liberties. Furthermore, planning ahead is absolutely important. While the Apollo missions
were planned in advance, the later missions were scrapped due to budget constraints and initial
failures in the program. Finally, the first mission must be successful for a Mars program to
continue. The cost of a Mars mission is magnitudes higher than that of a Lunar mission, meaning
that there likely won’t be any second chances if the mission fails. It is also worth noting that
during my research I realized there is still much more to do on the Moon in terms of research, so
currently it is more advantageous to go to the Moon. This is currently happening with the
planning of the Artemis program which also plans to test Mars mission equipment in the later
As both projects handled roughly the same subject matter, I was able to dedicate more
time to deeper analysis overall of a Mars mission. Furthermore, as the two didn’t have exactly
the same subject matter, the overall knowledge learned from both projects was greater than that
if I had only done one of them. The overlap from the projects did help me understand that a
manned Mars mission maybe closer than we expected in terms of technology, the limiting factor
in this case is money. In terms of STS themes, the project as a whole exemplified ethics and
professional responsibility. These missions have many moving parts which requires each
engineer to constantly be making the “right decision” even if it is a hard one, and to always focus
on safety. While many engineers are working on these projects, it is absolutely necessary for
each of these engineers to have a vested interest and maintain their professional responsibility to
the mission for it to be successful.
I would like to acknowledge both Professor Eric Anderson and Professor Ronald
Unnerstall of the Chemical Engineering Department at UVA for their help and expertise on
designing the technical portion of my project.
Why Space Related Projects?
Ever since I was young, I have always been fascinated by space. From Star Trek, Star
Wars, the lesser-known Babylon 5 series, and all the shows from the Science and Discovery
channel the absolute scale of space paired with all the unknowns was interesting. Learning how
large the universe was and how insignificant I was comparatively was rather cool than
intimidating as it is to most people. Pushing the limits is something I also love, and space one of
those final frontiers we’re still pushing today. While I wanted to be an astronaut when I was
younger, I realized that it was extremely unlikely and was put down about it by my advisors in
elementary school. Therefore, even though it may be too late for me to try and be an astronaut,
I’d still like to contribute in some form to helping further humanities journey to interplanetary
travel and maybe even interstellar travel.

BS (Bachelor of Science)

School of Engineering and Applied Science

Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering

Technical Advisor: Eric Anderson

STS Advisor: Kathryn Neeley

Technical Team Members: Hannah Alexander, Lessanu Mequanint, Cameron Tanaka

Issued Date: