The Science, Space, and Technology Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing Feb. 27 to discuss a mission proposal for a manned Mars-Venus flyby in 2021 using NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and the Orion spacecraft, which are currently under development. All the experts participating in the hearing underscored the need for a stable vision and appropriate funding for NASA, in order for the space agency to be able to have a long-term, sustainable human spaceflight program.
The recent hearing, titled “Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?” was a result of the House Science Committee’s dissatisfaction with the space policy unveiled by the Obama Administration, which calls for astronauts to visit a captured asteroid in cislunar space around the 2025 timeframe, prior to missions in the vicinity of Mars sometime in the 2030s. Although human trips to Mars are generally seen as being the long-term goal of the U.S. space program, NASA’s current plans for redirecting a small asteroid to an orbit around the Moon to be later visited by human crews, also known as the Asteroid Initiative, have gained little support among the scientific community, foreign space agencies, and the general public alike. This lack of support was also shared by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, whose proposed bill for a 2013 NASA Authorisation Act last year provided no funding for the space agency’s Asteroid Initiative.
As detailed in an earlier AmericaSpace article, the proposal for the 2021 Mars flyby discussed in the hearing was based on the plans made by billionaire and ex-space tourist Dennis Tito to send a married couple on a 501-day trip to flyby Mars in early 2018. During a testimony to Congress last November, Tito, founder of the non-profit organisation Inspiration Mars, offered the 2021 date as an alternative to his original plans, if the 2018 launch window couldn’t be met. Both dates were strictly dictated by celestial mechanics: The orbits of Earth and Mars will align in such a way that a 2018 launch would put the crew into a free-return trajectory toward the Red Planet, requiring a minimum amount of fuel and almost no in-space propulsion maneuvers for the return trip home. A launch in 2021, on the other hand, would require an additional flyby around Venus for a necessary gravity assist in order to propel the spacecraft toward Mars, thus extending the whole mission by 88 days.
The overall theme to come out of the experts’ testimonies was the deep need for NASA to have a clear and concise, strategic long-term vision, under which all of the agency’s efforts in space should be placed. “The most ambitious human Moon and Mars effort we can undertake, is one that is politically and economically sustainable indefinitely, not just a demonstration of ‘flags and footprints’ – or in the case of an asteroid, ‘flags and glove prints.’ We need a wider aperture and strategy, a vision of what it means to be the preeminent spacefaring nation, not just isolated missions, however interesting any such individual mission might be,” commented Dr. Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in his written testimony before the Committee. “We don’t have a really strong commitment for a long-term vision for our space program,” said Dr. Sandra Magnus, executive director, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, during the Q&A session of the hearing. “Any mission that we do, whether is a lunar mission or an asteroid mission, or the Mars flyby, all needs to be in a larger context of what are we trying to do long-term as a country in space.” Dr. Magnus underlined this issue facing NASA’s spaceflight program in her written testimony as well. “In the absence of a strategic vision we instead planned and executed [in the past] short-term tactical goals outside of a larger defined stable framework. This is the operational mode we are still working under today.”
Even though human missions to Mars are the ultimate goal of NASA’s human spaceflight program, an agreement on a specific long-term plan detailing the intermediate steps needed to achieve that goal hasn’t been made as of date. Doug Cooke, owner of Cooke Concepts and Solutions and former NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, proposed just such a plan in his written testimony. “Begin with a human Mars/Venus flyby mission in 2021, a unique mission opportunity with a free-return trajectory made possible by the exact Earth-Venus-Mars planetary alignment. A mission in 2021 would provide a near-term goal, achievable with a clearly focused effort to motivate and measure our progress in the most cost-effective way. In discussing Mars exploration, it is generally seen as a distant possibility. This flyby mission will make travel to Mars more real to the people of the world, by demonstrating previously unimaginable possibilities in the span of a few short years. After the initial Mars flyby mission, the most logical next step in exploration for the 2020’s, are missions to our own Moon which is only days away in travel time. The Mars flyby mission capabilities would support a possible cislunar space facility and landed missions. After initial lunar missions, Mars’moons Phobos and Deimos are very promising destinations for exploration, when capabilities become available for Mars orbital missions. A mission to Phobos or Deimos will be an incredible experience, inspiring the ultimate step of landing a crew on the Martian surface.”
When asked by the Committee’s chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) whether the 2021 Mars flyby mission proposal can benefit from the capabilities of the SLS, Dr. Pace argued that “they are a good fit for each other. If we are going to be a space-faring nation, going to the Moon, going to Mars, asteroids and other destinations, then a work-horse heavy-lift capability like the SLS’s, I believe is necessary for the nation to have.” Yet not all Committee members were ready to embrace the mission proposal. “I see the hearing title asks the question ‘Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?’ A question,” remarked Ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) during her opening statement. “Given that 2021 is 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’. I doubt that a flyby of Mars will ultimately be considered to be an appropriate first shakedown, of flight of a new crewed spacecraft, given the risk involved.”
Commenting on the overall risk of the mission, retired General Lester Lyles, Independent Aerospace Consultant and former Chairman of the Committee on “Rationale and Goals of the U.S. Civil Space Program,” noted in his testimony: “In my opinion, the Inspiration Mars proposal is high-risk, poses significant challenges to the crew because of radiation and life support concerns, has unidentified cost, and is being proposed at a time that NASA’s budget is already over-strained. An important question that should be asked and answered is: if the goal is to develop long-duration human spaceflight capabilities, is a Mars flyby the best near-term method for doing so? Such capabilities could be developed with a spacecraft that is sent to one of the Lagrange points, or orbits the Moon. In that case, if the astronauts encounter problems, they can easily return to Earth and will not have to wait hundreds of days for their orbit to return them.”
Rep. Smith, while acknowledging these risks, was more supportive of the mission, arguing that the challenges facing a Mars flyby would be equal to those faced by NASA when the space agency was directed in 1961 to put a man on the Moon by the end of that decade. “Great nations do great things,” stated Smith during his opening statement. “We must rekindle within NASA the fire that blazed the trail to the Moon. NASA, the White House and Congress should consider this Mars Flyby mission proposal. It will focus NASA’s energy and talent over the next decade, and most importantly, it will inspire our nation.”
The fact that the funding currently given to NASA is inadequate to meet the agency’s many different ongoing programs and commitments, not to mention the requirements for a 2021 Mars flyby mission, was also clearly acknowledged. “Upcoming and future budgets need to be commensurate with the value of [a] long-term plan with its envisioned achievements and the work needed to accomplish it,” observed Cooke in his testimony. “Human space flight budgets are well below 2010 Authorization Act numbers. The budgets have tended to be flat with no adjustments for inflation. That means buying power of appropriated funding continues to decline.”
Some lawmakers expressed their displeasure to the prospect of having the government fund the Inspiration Mars 2021 flyby mission. “When I first heard about this concept of the Mars flyby, I thought it was a great idea,” said Committee Vice-Chairman, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). “But it was a project that was [to be] fully funded by the private sector. And now all of a sudden, it’s not – it’s the same mission, but now it’s going to come out of the public sector’s money … I think this is a foolhardy use of very limited government resources.”
Cost estimates for the mission weren’t given during the hearing, with experts avoiding to speculate on the subject. “I think that question should be asked of NASA,” said Cooke. “To my knowledge there hasn’t been any detailed cost analysis of this [mission]. I would hesitate to state a number.”
Yet, cost and risk assessments aside, all experts agreed that given the right focus and political support, the Mars flyby mission proposal could act as a catalyst that could bring all of the different elements of NASA’s human spaceflight program together, providing a much-needed long-term direction for the space agency. “A Mars 2021 human flyby would provide a bridge between the end of the ISS era and a new era of lunar exploration and development, that would lead to Mars and other destinations,” wrote Dr. Pace in his testimony. “If borne out, the Mars 2021 flyby should become the top priority for NASA’s human space exploration activities, after the safe operation of the International Space Station.”