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Moon Walker

Susmita Mohanty designs for future space explorers and lunar residents. And dreams of watching earth-rise and earth-set from the moon

Written by Kavitha Iyer |
February 20, 2011 11:19:14 pm

Even from somebody who introduces herself in a short bio as ‘spaceship designer,entrepreneur,provocateur’,this was a bit shocking: “You and I can go into space. It is faster to get to earth orbit than get to your office in Mumbai.”

But Dr Susmita Mohanty,Arthur C Clarke protégée and India’s first space entrepreneur who is as determined to “democratise” space travel as she is to make her own moon sortie,doesn’t intend to shock. She’s merely stating facts. In fact,a flight all the way to the moon and back may be idle dreaming for some,but for space-travel designers,architects and engineers,it’s a fairly realistic goal. And it’s one that has caught the fancy of this 39-year-old who has worked with the International Space Station programme at Boeing,on Shuttle-Mir missions at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and plays consultant to aerospace companies,the European Space Agency,NASA and the Indian Space Research Organisation.

“It has been nearly 40 years without any new lander missions,” she says.  The last of the lunar landings were in the late 1960s and early 1970s,the American American Apollo missions and the Lunokhod rover landings by the Russians. “India’s Chandrayaan-2,in that sense will be historic.” she says about the plan to partner with Russia to land a rover on the moon and have it traverse the lunar surface.

“The reason I am eagerly looking forward to these lander-rover missions is—we (that includes the Americans and Russians) have yet to perfect soft precision landing on planetary surfaces. Once landing technology matures routine landings will become possible. Only then can we truly embark on human exploration and set up human presence on the moon,” she says. Susmita holds multiple degrees,including a Bachelor’s in electrical engineering,a master’s in industrial design from National Institute of Design,Ahmedabad,a Master’s in Space Studies from the International Space University in Strasbourg and a PhD in space architecture. But her tryst with space travel started much earlier—her father an ISRO pioneer,she was only in school when she wrote her first letter to NASA.

She has since designed futuristic systems for human habitation and transportation to the moon and space,prototypes for space shuttles and microgravity restraint systems. With no atmosphere on the moon and gravity about 1/6th that of the earth,the biggest challenges for those designing for space travel and space habitability,are dust and radiation. While the Apollo astronauts had no real protection against radiation from cosmic rays and solar flares,new research is directed towards radiation shielding,including using (lunar) regolith walls. “Moon dust is another huge concern. It is much more jagged than dust on Earth and extremely abrasive,because there’s no water or wind on the moon to toss it around and grind down its edges. It’s created when meteorites,cosmic rays and solar winds slam into the moon,turning its rocks into powdery topsoil. Thus,lunar dust is extremely abrasive. Moon dust gets onto spacesuits,rover wheels,equipment,just about everything. It can scratch lenses,corrode seals,get into astronauts’ lungs. Under prolonged exposure,lunar explorers are at risk of everything from mechanical failures in spacesuits and airlocks to lung disease,” she says.

Look up Eugene Cernan,Apollo astronaut,on the Internet,she suggests,and you’ll find a photograph of one of the last men on the moon,still inside a lunar capsule and just back from a moonwalk. “He looks like he has been in a coalmine,” she says. That’s why aerospace designers are developing concepts for suitports,suitlocks,and dust showers that will keep lunar dust out when explorers return to their capsules. Susmita’s company in Vienna recently designed a future pressurised lunar rover that can take a crew of four astronauts on long distance sorties on the moon. “We incorporated a suitport in our design such that the astronauts returning from suited lunar walks on the lunar surface have to leave their spacesuits outside to prevent dust from getting into the rover’s living quarters,” she says. For now,however,these are only concepts whose real test is still to come.

These and other practical problems of space travel (“how will people make love on a long space mission,how will they fight,make up,live with nothing to do,deal with medical emergencies,what if they lose their mind”) keep Susmita’s sense of design constantly evolving,but they’re not the only things she’s busy with. She also actively promotes music bands from the north-east,works with a handful of non-profit organisations including an orphanage in Nagaland,lectures at architecture and design colleges. Her favourite audiences are always children,she says,because they don’t appear to be limited by ideas of what’s possible and what is not. “I see faces of kids on billboards,and I cant help thinking that they could be residents of the moon in the future,” she says.

Susmita keeps abreast of the latest in space exploration,and enthusiastically explains details of the Mars 500 Study,a 520-day Mars mission simulation underway in Moscow right now. But the fascination,clearly,is with the moon. “Imagine sitting back,mixing yourself a drink,putting on some music and watching a pale blue dot that we call home—float by,” she says. Watching earth-rise and earth-set from the moon apart,she is also fascinated by how different illumination on the moon is. “Remember,the moon lacks an atmosphere. On earth we take the sun’s illumination and the entire gamut of colours,it brings to us for granted. If you look at the Apollo expedition photos,they are all black and white and gray for most part. Colour (or the lack of it) plays an important role in design and in influencing the human condition.”

Also,a flight to the moon would be shorter and more manageable— a few days as opposed to the few months it would take to reach any other planetary body of interest. “Besides,we need to test new technologies and human adaptability on the Moon first before investing in longer journeys through the solar system,” she says.

There are most favorable sites for human landings too. The Shackleton Crater,an impact crater at the south pole of the moon whose peaks are exposed to almost continual sunlight,while the interior is perpetually in shadow,is one site that everyone interested in lunar exploration is taking a close look at. “Measurements by the Lunar Prospector spacecraft showed higher than normal amounts of hydrogen within the crater,which may indicate the presence of water ice,” she says. The northern rim of Peary Crater is another likely site for a future Moon base due to steady illumination,which would provide both a relatively stable temperature and an uninterrupted solar power supply.

Her future plans include commercial parabolic flights from her company Earth2Orbit in partnership with a cargo airline,setting up exploration centers in all major cities that will give people access to space mission simulators,virtual rides,lectures,games and maybe space food. Ask her how soon her dream of democratising access to space may be realised and she says that it’s only a matter of time before what happened to commercial aviation happens to commercial spaceflight,in our lifetimes.

“It is already starting to happen,” she says,citing examples of Zero-G Corporation which offers commercial parabolic flights to paying customers,. Bigelow Aerospace which is testing prototypes for an orbiting hotel and Virgin Galactic which is building a spaceport and a space plane to take paying customers on sub-orbital rides.

“But first,we need to put in place strict environmental regulations for planetary exploration or else we will trash the moon like any other place we inhabit or visit,” she says.

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