Mars 2021 and the quest for direction in human spaceflight
by Jeff Foust
|“The mission provides an opportunity for an incredible first step that will make travel to Mars real to the people of the world, demonstrating previously unimaginable possibilities in the span of a few short years,” said Cooke.|
The new budget proposal may include new details about NASA’s asteroid mission plans, or other initiatives. One thing it’s unlikely to include is a proposal to send astronauts on a Mars flyby mission in the early 2020s. Yet, some in Congress and elsewhere in the space community are pressing NASA and the Obama Administration to tackle just such a mission, seeing it as the best way—if not the only way—to provide direction to the agency’s human spaceflight efforts.
Those arguments emerged from a hearing held Thursday by the House Science Committee. The title of the hearing, released nearly a week before the hearing itself, asked a tantalizing question: “Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?”
At the hearing, the mission concept in the hearing’s title emerged as something derived from the Inspiration Mars proposals for a Mars flyby mission. Exactly one year earlier, multimillionaire former space tourist Dennis Tito announced plans to privately finance a mission launching in early 2018 that would send two people—a married couple—on a mission to fly past Mars, returning 501 days later (see “A Martian adventure for inspiration, not commercialization”, The Space Review, March 4, 2013).
By November, Tito and Inspiration Mars has changed course. In testimony before the same committee, Tito said he was now seeking cooperation with NASA, including use of the SLS launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft, as well as accelerated development of other elements, like a new SLS upper stage, that would cost NASA hundreds of millions of dollars. While he was still seeking to carry out the mission in 2018, he left open the possibility of an alternate mission profile that launched in 2021. That mission would take longer—about 590 days—but would also include a flyby of Venus as well as Mars (see “Inspiration Mars: from nonprofit venture to space policy adventure,” The Space Review, November 25, 2013).
The mission concept discussed at Thursday’s hearing was that 2021 mission profile, although run, apparently, solely as a NASA mission and not by Inspiration Mars. Doug Cooke, a former NASA associate administrator for exploration who also served on Inspiration Mars’s advisory board, outlined the mission concept in his testimony. Launching in November 2021, the two-person spacecraft would fly past Venus in April 2022 and Mars in October 2022, returning to Earth in June 2023.
“It is the least complex mission profile for reaching the Mars vicinity. The next comparable flyby opportunity is not until 2033,” Cooke said. “The mission provides an opportunity for an incredible first step that will make travel to Mars real to the people of the world, demonstrating previously unimaginable possibilities in the span of a few short years.”
This concept also has the endorsement of Tito, who appears to have backed away from any private funding for such a mission. “The window of opportunity in 2021 is challenging but achievable and waiting to be claimed,” he said in a statement after the hearing, adding that he was “very encouraged” by the discussion during the hearing.
|“While consensus on Capitol Hill might be hard to find, there is general agreement that the President’s asteroid retrieval mission inspires neither the scientific community nor the public who would foot the bill,” said Smith.|
Just because something is not complex, though, is not reason alone to do it. Instead, witnesses—and some committee members—saw the mission as providing direction to NASA’s long-term human spaceflight efforts. Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said there was “international consensus” behind human space operations in cislunar space as the next step in human spaceflight beyond the International Space Station, but that the proposed Mars flyby could support those later missions on and around the Moon. “The Mars flyby mission serves as an interesting bridge between where we are with the ISS, where we would like to be with Mars, and where our international partners and commercial opportunities are with human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit,” he said.
In particular, Pace said, the firm deadline of the Mars flyby mission, dictated by the orbital mechanics of the mission concept, would serve as a sort of forcing function on human space exploration planning. That inflexible schedule “would drive near-term program planning and decisions on how to rationally trade cost, schedule, risk, and performance goals,” he said.
NASA’s asteroid mission plans could also support future cislunar operations—the asteroid, after all, would be redirected into a high lunar orbit, where astronauts would visit it—but that mission hasn’t captured widespread interest, at least in the opinion of members of the committee. “While consensus on Capitol Hill might be hard to find, there is general agreement that the President’s asteroid retrieval mission inspires neither the scientific community nor the public who would foot the bill,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the committee, in his opening statement. “NASA, the White House, and Congress should consider this Mars flyby mission proposal.”
The hearing, though, offered few details about the mission proposal beyond the timeline and its use of SLS and Orion. The mission would make use of some kind of habitat module, and Cooke said there were “initial conversations” with an unnamed international partner to provide that module. He was also unable to provide a cost estimate for the mission. “There’s more work that needs to be done on the 2021 mission,” he said. “I think that question should be asked of NASA, to go look at this mission seriously and get to an understanding of what it takes.”
While Smith and some other members of the committee supported at least studying the idea of 2021 Mars flyby mission, the concept had its critics as well. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), vice-chairman of the committee, said he initially supported the Inspiration Mars concept when it was privately funded. “Now, all of a sudden, it’s not funded by the private sector any more,” he said. “I think this is a foolhardy use of very limited government resources.”
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the committee’s ranking member, also had her doubts about the mission, offering an answer for the question posed by the hearing’s title. “Given that 2021 is the currently the estimated date for the very first crewed mission of Orion, period, not just its first deep space mission, I would guess that the likely answer will turn out to be no,” she said. “I doubt that a flyby of Mars will ultimately be considered an appropriate first shakedown of flight for a new crewed spacecraft given the risks involved in a year and a half trip to Mars and back.” She also criticized committee leadership for not including any NASA officials as witnesses.
|“It’s time for NASA to tell us how they intend to achieve that goal, what technologies will be needed, what sequence of intermediate destinations should be pursued and why, and what are the risks that need to be addressed,” said Johnson.|
Even some of those witnesses expressed concerns about the 2021 flyby mission concept. “This proposal has not been independently vetted technologically or financially. It is entirely possible that there are major show-stoppers in the proposal,” said retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles in his prepared testimony, recommending that a “vigorous independent technical evaluation” of the concept take place before making any decisions about it.
Asked by Rohrabacher in the hearing if he would bet his “mortgage money” on the success of the mission, Lyles demurred. “Right now, in terms of a vision, an innovative idea, I like it,” he said. “In terms of understanding all the risks, I would be reluctant to put my own money into that until I better understood what all the challenges were.”
“Any mission you can come up with to send people to space, you’ll have plenty of volunteers for” among NASA’s astronaut corps, said another witness, AIAA executive director and former astronaut Sandy Magnus. However, she said she would likely raise a number of questions before agreeing to fly such a mission, including regarding safety and long-term health implications from the radiation exposure of the mission. “I would also ask, as someone who is going to be an operator on a mission like this, what am I going to do during the mission itself?” she added. “If you’re going to send two people to Mars on a flyby, they’re going to need something to occupy their time.”
Even those skeptical of the 2021 mission concept, though, said there was a need for a more structured approach to human spaceflight, with better definition of goals, timelines, and requirements. “This hearing does provide a good opportunity to again stress that we need a clear, thoughtful roadmap for our nation’s human exploration program,” said Johnson, supporting human missions to Mars as a long-term goal. “It’s time for NASA to tell us how they intend to achieve that goal, what technologies will be needed, what sequence of intermediate destinations should be pursued and why, and what are the risks that need to be addressed.”
After the hearing, Smith and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that funds NASA, sent a joint letter to NASA administrator Charles Bolden. “We believe it is time for NASA to begin to develop a clear, well-planned technical implementation plan for the future of human spaceflight over the next few months,” they wrote. Their request included analysis of the proposed Mars flyby mission opportunity: “What systems must be developed to successfully mount a Mars Flyby mission by 2021 to take advantage of this unique planetary alignment?”
Smith and Wolf were also critical of NASA’s asteroid plans in their letter. “Upon review, a majority of experts said that such a mission did not demonstrate sufficient technical applicability to an eventual Mars landing,” they claimed. However, their letter did ask NASA how human missions “in proximity of asteroids” as well as in cislunar space and on the Moon would serve as a “sustainable, stepping stone approach” to human space exploration.
In a prepared statement, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, noted she proposed NASA develop a “clear roadmap that would lead to an eventual human mission to Mars” in an authorization bill she introduced last year. Without such a plan, she stated, “NASA cannot provide us with specifics on Mars mission risk areas, potential risk mitigation approaches, and the rationale for planned intermediate destinations. Nor can it articulate how its programs or selected interim destinations contribute effectively to making progress on such a roadmap.”
|Rohrabacher said he supported the Inspiration Mars concept when it was privately funded. “Now, all of a sudden, it’s not funded by the private sector any more,” he said. “I think this is a foolhardy use of very limited government resources.”|
NASA didn’t directly comment on the mission proposal or the hearing, but some agency officials used the occasion to make the case that NASA already has a plan in place to eventually send humans to Mars. “NASA is developing an ambitious human spaceflight mission to Mars using a stepping stone approach that will take us beyond the Moon, to an asteroid and ultimately to the Red Planet,” wrote David Weaver, NASA associate administrator for communications, in a blog post Thursday that did not directly mention the hearing or the 2021 flyby concept. NASA’s experience in both human and robotic spaceflight, he said, “give us the confidence—and knowledge—that we can carry out these never-before-attempted missions.”
However, the comments at last week’s hearing, and the letter that followed, indicate that many on Capitol Hill, at least, are last least seeking more details from NASA on its long-term human spaceflight plans, if not dissatisfied with its current direction. NASA’s 2015 budget proposal likely won’t include a Mars flyby mission—and it would be difficult for Congress to force it on NASA if the agency and the White House don’t want to do it—but it’s clear many in Washington want more details, and soon, about what it plans to do instead.