BTN LiveBIG: Purdue student aims to be the 'Neil Armstrong' of Mars

BTN LiveBIG: Purdue student aims to be the 'Neil Armstrong' of Mars

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Inspired by their experiences in college and elsewhere, these Pathfinders are passing by the typical, well-trod career paths and blazing their own trails. We’ll explore the unconventional approaches these Big Ten alums are taking to work.

Purdue_Fagin2Most of us dreamed of fantastic, far-fetched careers when we were kids. Cowboy. Pop star. Professional athlete. Astronaut.

That last one captured the imagination of Max Fagin as a boy. But unlike the majority of us, who alter our dream career many times based on changing interests and perceptions of what’s “realistic,” this Purdue aerospace engineering graduate student has spent his life trying to make this childhood ambition a reality.

“I have always been fascinated by space travel, and I have always wanted to be an astronaut,” Fagin said.

For as long as he can remember, he’s been working towards the specific goal of traveling to Mars. So when he learned that one-third of all space flights to date had included Boilermakers, he decided West Lafayette would be the perfect place to earn his master’s degree.

Beyond the fact that he’s attending Purdue, Fagin’s background seems tailor-made for someone trying to become the “Neil Armstrong of Mars.” In affiliation with the Rapid Design of Systems Laboratory at Purdue, Fagin has investigated systems that would allow for entry, descent and landing on the Red Planet.

And after winning the International Inspiration Mars Student Design Contest with his team for designing a hypothetical two-person mission to Mars, Fagin is eager to see these plans materialize.

“I have a wide background in many disciplines of engineering,” he said. “I know how to build things with limited resources. And on top of that, my research here in aerospace engineering is directly related to the problem of landing human-sized vehicles on the surface of Mars, which is still one of the biggest challenges yet to be overcome.”

Fagin advocates for a Mars trip in part because he believes the field of space exploration needs more manned missions.

“In the 27 years that I have been alive, humans have gone from living in low Earth orbit to … still living in low Earth orbit. I find that profoundly frustrating,” he said. “The revolution in commercial space travel that has begun in the last 10 years has given me reason to be optimistic that the dry spell in human spaceflight may be ending.”

Fagin says he knows how to get an expedition to Mars off the ground quickly (no pun intended), but there is a catch: It wouldn’t be round-trip.

“One-way is a lot easier,” Fagin said. “It’s cheaper, there’s less technology that needs to be developed, and that makes it more likely to be accomplished.”

The possibility of not returning to Earth doesn’t faze him. In fact, he said he looks forward to adapting to the new environment.

“My work will probably be dedicated more towards expansion and development,” Fagin said. “Mars provides all of the resources that a growing branch of human civilization requires — water, energy, building materials, etc. But extracting and refining them presents some fascinating problems. Solving those problems would be the day-to-day work of an engineer in a Martian colony, and I find that I am happiest when I have a difficult engineering challenge to bend my mind on.”

Whenever he arrives, he hopes to help make the planet a bit more comfortable and familiar for whoever might follow in his footsteps.

“I would like to help take the first steps in terraforming Mars, to make it more like Earth,” he said. “There are steps that even the first visitors can take to help initiate the process. I think that would be a beautiful accomplishment to build my life on.”

Although it may be more than a decade — and potentially much longer — before he sets foot on Mars, Fagin is determined to fulfill his dream.

“Aerospace engineering and human spaceflight give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘delayed gratification,’” Fagin said. “Projects can take years, even decades, to fully come to fruition. There will be a lot of false-starts and wrong turns while waiting for the rocket to leave the pad. Though when the rocket finally does leave the pad, it’s definitely all worth it.”

And when that moment comes, he’ll be ready. With the support that he’s received from both his family and peers, he’s prepared to take that one-way journey to Mars.

“My family has always encouraged me to do exactly what I wanted to do,” Fagin said. “And the feedback I have received has been overwhelmingly positive. Almost everyone has wanted to be an astronaut at some point in his or her life. It makes it very easy to explain the reasons why I want to go and be willing to spend so much of my life working towards this goal.

“Going to Mars is the one thing I’ve been preparing for my entire life. Everything I’ve done has been with the goal of being ready for Mars when the time comes.”

By Ashley Lemaine

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