Economic Analysis for In-Situ Resource Utilization on Mars in Support of the Generation of Rocket Fuel and Potable Water; The Absence of Passion in Space Exploration Policy and How to Find It

Tanaka, Cameron, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Anderson, Eric, EN-Chem Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Neeley, Kathryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

The future of space travel is simultaneously an exciting concept and a daunting one. The technological and social changes that humankind will see will be drastic, which will require tedious attention to the way these changes are approached and handled. Based on science fiction works about these concepts shows an obsession of our culture with the amazing technology and the conflicts we may face, such as war and colonization. The projects in this portfolio focus on discussing ways to safely prepare for the uncertain future of space travel. The technical project focuses on an exciting technology that can save money on fuel for sending people to and from Mars and the sociotechnical project focuses on the lack of international space policy that should ensure exploration of space can be peaceful. These projects connect in that when working towards the technical aspects of improving space exploration capabilities, it is essential to concurrently build our political and cultural understanding of the requirements to ensure this exploration can remain peaceful and safe.

The technical project is an in-depth design of a rocket fuel processing unit to be stationed on Mars. The process uses carbon dioxide separated from air vacuumed in from the atmosphere and water obtained using ice drills in the Martian soil to produce methane and liquid oxygen. An electrolyzer will convert water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen will then react with the carbon dioxide to produce methane and water. Our process makes enough of these products to fuel a return journey from Mars back to Earth. Economically, we predict that factoring the pure water we produce as a side product or having the process run for multiple production cycles will be considerably more cost effective than shipping enough fuel to fly back to Earth on rockets from the Earth. Each cycle lasts approximately 8 months.

While making this project, I began to think about the potential social and political issues that could surround space travel as it develops at the current rapid pace. Looking at the current international and national policies that have been made about the exploration of space resulted in the discovery that there is not nearly enough specificity and agreement on how to handle international conflicts by influential countries in space technologies, such as Russia, the US, and China. These policies can be unilateral, with some being competitive and aggressive. Considering this, history and science fiction are discussed as potentially sources that have strong cases for developing the policies we need to keep space scientifically focused and peaceful. Using frameworks that discuss ethics, inevitability, and most importantly the value of virtuosity, which relates to pursuits of passion and creativity, it becomes clear that the way politicians sees space travel is an approach that does not account for the values inherent to the desire to explore space. I conclude that there are several reasons that science fiction writers are better suited to providing a sense of direction for space travel. Policy makers seem to have a concerning lack of understanding of new technologies. On the other hand, science fiction writers are more in touch with the technical aspects of their stories and the hopes, fears, and perceptions of the general public. They also have a strong creative ability to imagine the variety of scenarios we could encounter in space.

Overall, these two topics address important issues surrounding space exploration. Having the process of making these projects coincide, I grew a greater appreciation for the importance of these two different subjects being understood by those that are either creating the technology or the cultural and social rules surrounding space exploration. Understanding the technology is just a piece of what is necessary to understand in order for it to be implemented successfully. The STS courses that I took this semester showed me that technology that is implemented without a comprehensive understanding of and connection to the ethics, safety measures, and social implications of implementing the technology can cause the system to fail. In terms of space exploration, it is essential to have both of these topics in mind to ensure we can explore space freely and peacefully for the benefit of all humankind.

I would like to thank Professor Kathryn Neeley, Professor Eric Anderson, and Professor Ronald Unnerstall for aiding and inspiring me during the writing of these projects. I would also like to thank my capstone team members for their great work and cooperation. I would like to thank my family for always being there for me these last four years.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Mars, In-Situ, Fuel, Science Fiction, History, Methane, ISRU, Economics, Virtuosity

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, Donovan Hensley, Lessanu Mequanint

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