19–22 August 2019
JW Marriott, Indianapolis, Indiana

Designing Propulsion For Mars Travel

Posted: 12 July 2017, 5:30 p.m. EDT

Speaker: Vigor Yang
, William R. T. Oakes professor and chair, School of Aerospace Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology  

by Tom Risen, Aerospace America staff reporter

Engineers must revisit and improve rocket engine design to achieve ambitious goals like sending humans to Mars, said Vigor Yang, chairman of the School of Aerospace Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, during a speech July 11 at the 2017 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum in Atlanta.

Tremendous rocket design progress has been made since the dawn of space flight six decades ago, but as Yang reviewed the numerous rockets the U.S. has built over the years, he looked to the future and said the aerospace industry must “consider different design philosophy.”

Yang said engineers should ensure a broad input to approve propulsion designs — rather than individuals approving designs. He added that new advances in machine learning could also advance design review.

Launch propulsion to exit Earth orbit must improve to make access to space more reliable, routine and affordable, Yang said. Sending material into orbit can cost about $10,000 per pound of payload, according to NASA, and Yang placed a special importance on reducing that expense to hundreds of dollars per pound.


Vigor Yang, William R. T. Oakes professor and chair, School of Aerospace Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, delivers remarks on "Rethinking Space Propulsion: Enabling the Future of Space Transportation and Exploration” July 11 at the 2017 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum in Atlanta.

“The biggest challenge for liquid propulsion these days is reliability,” Yang said of new liquid-fueled booster engines in development that aim to move beyond traditional solid rocket fuel.

In-space propulsion must be durable and cost-effective to traverse deep space without using too much energy, he said, adding that he is “very optimistic” NASA can send humans to Mars by the 2030s on a round trip that will take less than two or three years.

“If we do not substantially improve the performance, then any trip — especially any human space flight to Mars — will not be practical, because we are talking about two or three years’ time, and that’s just a little bit too long for deep space flight,” he said.

Non-chemical in-space propulsion options include solar electric power and solar sailing thrust generated by reflecting light, but Yang said nuclear thermal propulsion is the best option for in-space propulsion to carry a ship to Mars.

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Dates to Remember

  • Abstract Deadline: 31 Jan 2019
  • Manuscript Deadline: 15 Jul 2019

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