Experts Emphasised Need for Long-Term Vision and More Funding for NASA During Recent Congressional Hearing

The long-term goal in NASA's human spaceflight program, are human trips to Mars during the mid-2030's. Will the 2021 manned Mars-Venus flyby mission proposal discussed at a recent Congressional hearing, help to accelerate the agency's plans by gaining the political support of Congress? Image Credit: NASA
The long-term goal in NASA’s human spaceflight program is human trips to Mars during the mid-2030s. Will the 2021 manned Mars-Venus flyby mission proposal discussed at a recent Congressional hearing help to accelerate the agency’s plans by gaining the political support of Congress? Image Credit: NASA

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.

Conceptual art of Inspiration Mars' flyby around the Red planet. Image Credit: Inspiration Mars Foundation
Conceptual art of Inspiration Mars’ flyby around the Red Planet. Image Credit: Inspiration Mars Foundation

As detailed in a previous 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 own 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.”

NASA's Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which is currently under construction, would be a key component of the proposed 2021 Mars-Venus flyby, if the concept was approved by the space agency. Image Credit: NASA
NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which is currently under construction, would be a key component of the proposed 2021 Mars-Venus flyby, if the concept was approved by the space agency. Image Credit: NASA

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. “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.”

If the 2021 Mars-Venus flyby mission lifts off, it will be launched on the first manned flight of the SLS. Some experts and lawmakers at the hearing viewed this as an unacceptable high-risk. Image Credit: NASA
If the 2021 Mars-Venus flyby mission lifts off, it will be launched on the first manned flight of the SLS. Some experts and lawmakers at the hearing viewed this as an unacceptable high-risk. Image Credit: NASA

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 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.”


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  1. I will side with those that see a multiplanetary flyby as a first manned mission as foolhardy.

  2. The Congress is one of the reasons that the US does not have a consistent plan – they keep valuing current jobs in their districts far higher than having a consistent plan. The President (all of them) also wildly changes directions without consultation with the acknowledged experts.

    The headline writer also needs to emphasize use of spell checker.

    • Charles, I couldn’t agree more with you, regarding the lack of consistent long-term vision and direction for the US space program. Although Congress calls for such a direction itself, it is largely responsible alongside the White House, for not providing exactly that.

      As for the headline, actually the word ’emphasise’ that I have used is not technically incorrect. It is used in UK English (which I also personally use), whereas ’emphasize’ is used in US English. There are many such examples of small differences in the vocabulary between both versions of the language.

  3. Leonidas,
    You have given us an in depth look into the workings of our government run space program…And it ain’t pretty…I have completely underestimated the incompetence and corruption of the people involved in making these decisions….To suggest that that a fly by mission of Mars is on par of the Moon mission of the 60s when we went from zero to the moon in less than 10 years is downright embarrassing…Furthermore to think that they will need funding on par with the Apollo Program is just completely corrupt… We have private companies that are working on these issues…SpaceX is has put legs on the first stage launcher to start testing of actual hardware to bring it back the launch pad under power…. It is clear to me the first people will be going to Mars on a SpaceX, Bigelowareospace and Ad Adstra vehicle program … By the time NASA goes Musk will have 10,000 people on Mars….

  4. It is not clear whether efforts like a near term Mars fly-by with a crew will help or harm the larger effort to achieve a landing on Mars and create a base. No matter which booster is used to launch the flyby mission, it would divert funds and attention away from developing the infrastructure needed to make a Mars landing much easier and repeatable. The step by step approach, using reusable in-space vehicles and logistics bases, is the safer and cheaper path.

    As long as planners insist on assuming that the SLS is the only viable launcher for Mars missions, it will impede effective planning for such missions. The same is true of propellant depots and refueling ability. There is no real fight between HLV’s and depots, since the masses and bulk needed in orbit to mount a Mars mission are much larger than what was needed for the space station. A few SLS launches over a decade might be affordable. but Mars missions demand multiple launches a year for several years. We need to start thinking in terms of thousands of tons, not hundreds. Such high mass missions cannot be supported by the SLS due to its cost and low launch rate.

    HLV’s can provide the mass lift capability, and refueling can allow a larger vehicle to be launched dry. It makes no sense to use a one Billion dollar plus rocket to launch a half million dollars worth of fuel, unless that rocket is reusable. We need to be able to launch the fuel, so we do need both reusable medium size and HLV size boosters.

    • For the record, the only reliable quote of the per launch cost of SLS, which comes from former MSFC SLS Deputy Jody Singer, is $500 million.

      Yes, John, I know of your 2011 and 2013 Space Review articles stipulating that the actual SLS launch cost will be $3-5 billion. I also know such analysis is fraught with assumptions not equally carried-through to comparable programs while avoiding engineering issues that limit the functionality of SLS competitors. I think most of us would say that the engineers working on the SLS program at MSFC probably have a better bead on that rocket’s launch cost just as you have a clearer insight to Texas gov’t software costs than an outsider.

      Second, most of the people I know who were involved in our last manned mission BLEO, whether in mission planning, flight dynamics or as astronauts, would not agree that it’s “safer and cheaper” to use smaller capacity launch vehicles for a manned mission to the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere. Quite the opposite, in fact. From what I see of AIAA papers, the balance substantially tends to point to using the biggest rocket possible as the way to drive down cost and risk. For one, using smaller launchers does not mitigate mission risk should one launch fail since 3-1 successes means you still cannot conduct your mission until a replacement is launched.

      I whole heartily concur that a step-by-step process is the way to go. Start with the Moon; get good at managing that; then move forward to Phobos and Demos; followed by a Mars landing. The problem has been that the current Administration has no vision or roadmap for this country’s human spaceflight program. Say what you will about Bush, but at least there was a path to Mars. With the current President, we have an asteroid fly-by…no, wait, visiting a captured asteroid. It’s obvious that, just as was done in 2010 in giving the nation a realistic space program, it will fall to Congress to give our space program a meaningful destination.

      We have a program of record that will get us to the Moon and beyond. What would really be helpful is if space advocates would quit eating their own young. Like Constellation, the current program has support in Congress from both authorizers and appropriators. In fact, Congress has made crystal clear what it wants. Instead of fighting that, let’s build on that support for even more funding. Let’s get the current program funding increased so that we can send a crew to the Moon in 2018 or sooner rather than stopping this one to start another, continuing the endless cycle that has seen our nation’s manned space efforts stagnated for decades.

  5. Does anyone have a number on what NASA thinks required funding levels are for a Mars Landing Mission? Wasn’t Apollo 3% of GDP? So if current GDP is $16T so 3% would be $480B ….annually …Is that where NASA thinks they need or about $4.8T over 10 years?

    • NASA’s estimate for Apollo, the one given to Administrator Webb for his testimony before Congress, was off by 60% roughly. He added-in what he termed an “Executive 60%” to the number generated by NASA, which turned out to be about right. So any number we get from anyone detailing the cost of going to Mars should be rounded up by 60% and then maybe we’ll be close. I know in my experience that it’s very difficult to estimate the cost of something you’ve never done.

      • Jim,
        Thanks for the reply in looking over the above article and then watching a video for just the flyby mission I didn’t see any numbers for that either that NASA thought would be the required funding levels…Tito always claimed that the number was $1B to $2B…I think….But I never heard what NASA thought it would take for that flight architecture…Any ideas?

        • Unfortunately, from what I’ve heard, Tito’s estimates have been revised upward to the point that he can’t afford it.

          Concerning launchers, it turns out that no Falcon, whether Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, or others, will work for a Mars mission. So Tito started looking at SLS and found a ready solution. And Dragon was a non-starter, which led to Orion. Now we’re talking billions. Tito is no longer talking about paying for IM.

          Tito went to the Congressional space leaders and asked that NASA’s HSF program be rejiggered to support IM. Despite giving a high-profile mission for Orion and SLS, that message didn’t go over too well with the appropriators for several reasons.

          Tito was informed that heaven and earth would be moved were his destination the Moon but that Congress is not going to pay billions for what amounts to a suicide mission to Mars, no matter how willing the victims may be. Frankly, nobody wants to revisit the 2010 Space Debate, which is feared if we start rethinking NASA’s HSF budget. And some in Congress are just tired of having space entrepreneurs come around looking for a hand-out from NASA’s budget while being unwilling to at least pay the hundred of thousands for the due diligence needed to justify their proposal.

          Let’s just say that I’m more confident of waking-up tomorrow and finding that I’ve been voted Most Handsome by Cosmopolitan magazine than IM getting NASA money. Tito needs to start doing what his advisors recommend—in the tech world, it’s time for IM to pivot— or IM will be another what-if left on the space exploration roadside. And yes, that is depression seeping into my reply.

          • As an occasional newspace commenter here, I am opposed to government money for private missions, especially this one. If the private entity involved cannot afford it, or get private funding, don’t try to fly it with taxpayers funds. A service that provides value to the government equal to or greater than the price is a different discussion altogether.

            • As a business owner and engineer, I’m a free market oriented person. You take the investment risk to design and develop that which the gov’t, or anyone, will buy, you should make money. What I am not in favor of is the new procurement paradigm by which money is freely handed out, no strings attached if you fail, by the gov’t, and then the gov’t pays again to use what it paid to develop. To this obviously old fashioned person, that’s corporate welfare, plain and simple.

              If the gov’t pays for something, just as if any of us pay for anything, to be custom built, it should be the sole property of the tax-payers. Otherwise we go down a very slippery slope. What’s next? Giving free money to other industries? Which ones? Where does that end? And how does that sort of payola not end up corrupting our political system even more?

              Moving Commercial Crew to federal contracting rules is a good first step. But other changes to this aberrant relationship need be made.

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