The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Journey to Mars
A NASA chart outlining its high-level approach for the “Journey to Mars.” While not at the same level of detail as an NRC report, or past mission architectures, NASA argues this is not necessarily at odds with them. (credit: NASA)

The pathways for a journey to Mars

Bookmark and Share

Last year, a report by the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee on Human Spaceflight offered some pathways for human exploration of the solar system. It argued that humans on the surface of Mars should be the “horizon goal” of human spaceflight, and offered different approaches to get there by way of the Moon or NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, or some combination of the two. It also warned that significant budget increases would be needed for humans to be able to get to Mars before the middle of this century, but didn’t offer a clear solution to winning the public support needed to get those increases. (See “A new pathway to Mars”, The Space Review, June 9, 2014)

“I think it’s wrong to say that we disagree with the [NRC] report,” said Gerstenmaier. “There are many areas where we’re in 100-percent agreement with the report.”

Several months later, NASA rolled out its general approach to human Mars exploration, dubbed the “Journey to Mars.” It splits up human exploration into three phases: the current era of “Earth Reliant” operations in low Earth orbit; a “Proving Ground” of missions in cislunar space, including the Asteroid Redirect Mission; and an “Earth Independent” phase of human missions to the vicinity of, and eventually landing on, the Red Planet.

But Journey to Mars has been criticized by some for a lack of detail: it is a framework of overall concepts for getting humans to Mars, but with little technical detail about how to accomplish that. That lack of detail is a deliberate decision by NASA, electing to defer decisions on design reference missions for going to Mars, or even whether the first human mission there should be an orbiter or lander.

So is NASA’s Journey to Mars a rebuke of the NRC report and its more specific architectures? Not so, agency officials say. “I think it’s wrong to say that we disagree with the report,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, during a presentation July 30 at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council at JPL. “There are many areas where we’re in 100-percent agreement with the report.”

Those areas of agreement, he said, including an endorsement of Mars as the long-term goal, as well as the use of modularity and sustainability in human exploration plans to avoid “dead ends” on the way to Mars. “All those concepts that are called out in the NRC report we agree with and we’re actually implementing in maybe a slightly different way specifically put into the report,” he said. “But the basis and the fundamental agreement is still there between us and the NRC.”

Gerstenmaier suggested that the perception of a disconnect between NASA’s plans and the NRC report was one of timing: NASA was coming up with its Journey to Mars plans as the NRC report neared completion last year, so there was no opportunity for the committee to formally review and consider it. “They got to hear some of that,” he said. “My discussions with [committee co-chair] Mitch [Daniels] were that he was very understanding of which way we were heading, and he said he wished he could have heard that earlier while they were still in the process of writing the report.”

“We were not disagreeing with them at all,” added NASA administrator Charles Bolden during the council’s discussion. “My interpretation, having talked to Mitch also, was that they were saying you need to give us an idea of how you’re going to approach sending humans to Mars. I didn’t think they were asking for a defined architecture.”

NASA’s new deputy administrator, Dava Newman, offered a unique perspective during the council’s discussion: prior to becoming Bolden’s deputy earlier this year, she served on the technical panel that supported the overall NRC study. “We didn’t pick one” architecture, she said, noting the committee examined several options, evaluating their individual strengths and weaknesses, without formally endorsing any one.

“It’s not helpful to say that NASA doesn’t agree with the NRC report,” she said. “I think, after another year of work, we’re very aligned.” The committee and the agency have similar thinking, but are coming from different perspectives, she said.

However, there are places where NASA and the NRC committee do appear to disagree. One of those areas is the budget. While the NRC made the argument that NASA needed significant budget increases to pay for any of the approaches for human Mars missions laid out in the plan, the council also heard from the JPL team that developed an alternative approach that fits into current (but inflation-adjusted) budgets for human spaceflight. (See “Impatience for Mars”, The Space Review, May 18, 2015).

It’s very clear this transition in the human spaceflight program… is one of the big, big challenges that faces the agency over the next decade and beyond,” Squyres said.

While NASA officials haven’t formally endorsed that mission architecture, some see it as an existence proof that a human Mars program doesn’t require budget increases that they feel are unlikely to come. “I think it has corrected, frankly, the view that the NRC promulgated in their ‘Pathways’ report that the journey to Mars is unaffordable unless you’re at three times the NASA budget,” said Greg Williams, NASA deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations, after hearing the JPL presentation at a July 27 committee meeting.

Council members, while intrigued with the JPL concept, didn’t race to endorse it. “Because it’s a minimal architecture, there are shortcomings with it,” said Ken Bowersox. “We could throw rocks at it all day. That’s not the point of this, for us to go and pick at it. It’s to show that if you take the elements are under development, it’s reasonable that we could get to Mars some day with those elements and the amount of money that we have.”

The NASA Advisory Council, though, noted that despite NASA’s planning efforts, it hadn’t formally responded to the NRC report beyond an acknowledgement it received it. “There is a letter already, but it’s pretty perfunctory and pretty high level,” Gerstenmaier said.

The council, later in its July 30 meeting, approved a recommendation calling on NASA to provide a more detailed report. While NASA is not required to act on that recommendation, Bolden suggested they would be open to providing a more formal response. “I would be more than happy to take the contents of Gerst’s presentation today and make it a NASA response to the report as we interpreted it,” he said.

That recommendation wrapped up the council’s discussion about NASA’s human spaceflight plans. However, Steve Squyres, the Cornell University planetary scientist who chairs the council, acknowledged that it would not end the overall discussion on how NASA should go to Mars.

“It’s very clear this transition in the human spaceflight program, from a LEO focus to a proving ground focus, is one of the big, big challenges that faces the agency over the next decade and beyond,” he said.