Inflatable spacecraft on the drawing board?

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The dream of humans travelling to Mars has long been held in the minds of science fiction writers and the public alike, and if the latest rumours coming out of NASA are true, the answer to this age-old problem might be simpler than anyone ever expected.
One of the biggest challenges faced by anyone planning on heading to the Red Planet is just how a massive craft could be landed without endangering its passengers.  Solving such problems falls to the engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center and one of their current ideas revolves around the use of an inflatable heat shield which resembles nothing so much as a child’s toy, albeit on a grander scale. NASA’s finest believe that by deploying a lightweight shield prior to entering the Martian atmosphere, a spacecraft would be slowed down sufficiently enough to allow it to touchdown safely and smoothly.
The problem with travelling to Mars is that it unlike the moon, it has an atmosphere and which makes landing immensely difficult. Rockets alone are simply not up the task while parachutes won’t work as Mars’s atmosphere is much thinner than that of Earth’s. Such a device as NASA is proposing, should it prove successful, would truly open up Mars for exploration, as they believe that it would allow a much greater range of landing locations to be used, including the high altitude southern plains and other areas previously thought inaccessible.
This inflatable shield takes the form of a series of concentric rings which will be filled with nitrogen and surrounded by a thermal blanket. Once it is deployed, it will sit at the head of the spacecraft, cushioning it for landing and making it resemble nothing more than a giant space-faring mushroom. Neil Cheatwood, senior engineer at Langley who is responsible for designing entry, descent and landing systems, commented on the design philosophy behind the prototype, saying that one of their principal concerns was how to avoid carrying too much fuel and which prompted work into how to make the atmosphere work to their advantage.
NASA currently hopes to have humans on Mars by 2030, although they clearly recognise that the road will be a long and difficult one. Even if the inflatable shield proves successful, other challenges to be faced include the likes of designing new in-space propulsion systems; living habitats for astronauts; space suits; communications systems and a thousand and one other things that no one has even considered yet.

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