Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Anne Bromley:
August 9, 2011 — Here's a summer reading suggestion from the University of Virginia that involves space travel – and it's not science fiction.
Even though the space shuttle program has ended, it's not the end of the U.S. space program. NASA still plans to undertake a Mars mission around 2030. When the fall semester begins, a common reading program in U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science will have incoming first-year students and faculty members discussing "Packing for Mars," a nonfiction book about navigating in outer space.
Archie Holmes, a professor in the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Petra Reinke, associate professor of materials science, will lead an exploration of the topic for the Engineering School's common reading experience, which began in 1993.
In "Packing for Mars," author and journalist Mary Roach asks the questions and provides information and background about the answers NASA and other groups are actually pursuing, Holmes said.
"We hope that this will be a very engaging experience for our first-year engineering students to have with the faculty," he said.
Giving new engineering students an opportunity to interact with professors in a small-group discussion is one of the program's goals. "It's fun and engaging to lead the conversation," he said.
A trip from Earth to Mars would take about two years, depending on where the planets are in their elliptical orbits – 234 million miles away at their farthest, 94.3 million at the closest.
The most basic questions about going to Mars are still being studied for a not-yet-built spacecraft that could accommodate humans on such a trip – for instance, what would the travelers eat over that long period of time? Could part of the space ship's interior material be edible? Could some parts be detachable and left on the planet surface?
What are other things you need to worry about in sending humans on that trip? How will they sleep? Are they going to be able to get enough exercise so when they get to Mars, they'll be able to do the things they are supposed to do there?
Everything to be sent into space must be tested in zero gravity – you want to make sure it works before you load it onto a spacecraft traveling millions of miles. In addition, the "huge financial undertaking" should be taken into account, as well as philosophical and ethical notions, Holmes said.
"We probably have most of the technology. We should consider why we would do this and look at the difference between what we can do and what we should do," he said.
Holmes is also interested in the generational aspect. Unlike the faculty, the students didn't grow up with President Kennedy's launch of the space program, the moon landing, or the Challenger accident some two decades later.
Holmes has been leading the common reading experience at U.Va. for four years after participating in a similar program at the University of Texas at Austin. Members of the engineering faculty have the opportunity to suggest a book, and a committee makes a final list that is sent to the faculty for a vote.
First-year engineering students are required to participate. Twenty to 30 professors lead discussion groups of up to 30 students.
Last year's choice was "The Viking in the Wheat Field: A Scientist's Struggle to Preserve the World's Harvest," by Susan Dworkin, which deals with the importance of genetic diversity of plants and other species. Holmes said the students were mostly unaware of the issues involved. The book details Danish plant scientist Bent Skovmand's work to create a free seed bank with varieties whose genes resist disease and such environmental stresses as drought, flood and climate change.
The readers struggled with the writing style, Holmes said, and that brought up another lesson: How to communicate science so a lay audience will want to read about an unfamiliar but relevant topic and the science behind it.