House Hearing Scheduled on Possibility of Human Flyby Mission to Mars in 2021

House Hearing Scheduled on Possibility of Human Flyby Mission to Mars in 2021

The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee has scheduled a hearing next week on the possibility of a human flyby mission to Mars in 2021 as the first mission for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.  No NASA witnesses are scheduled and it is not clear if this concept is for a government-sponsored mission or a new variant of the Inspiration Mars proposal popularized by Dennis Tito.  In any case, it continues the perpetual debate about the future course of the human spaceflight program.

The committee has scheduled an interesting set of witnesses for the February 27 hearing:

  • Scott Pace, currently director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.   Pace was a high ranking NASA official during Mike Griffin’s tenure as Administrator and one of the architects of the Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and someday send them to Mars.  
  • Gen. Lester Lyles (Ret.), currently an independent consultant.  Lyles also is chairman of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and chaired the NRC’s 2009 study on America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs.  He also was a member of the 2009 Augustine Committee created by President Obama to develop options for the U.S. human spaceflight program.
  • Doug Cooke, currently Owner, Cooke Concepts and Solutions.  Cooke had a long career with NASA, retiring in 2011 as Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.  He worked under both Mike Griffin and Charlie Bolden in trying to craft NASA’s future human space exploration program.
  • Sandy Magnus, currently Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).  She is a former astronaut who flew on three space shuttle missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

The hearing continues the long running debate over the next steps for the U.S. human spaceflight program beyond ISS.

In 2004, President Bush announced that the United States would return humans to the Moon by 2020 and then go on to Mars.  NASA initiated the Constellation program to build two new rockets, Ares I and Ares V, and a crew spacecraft, Orion, to accomplish those goals.   Shortly after taking office, however, President Obama commissioned a committee headed by aerospace industry icon Norm Augustine to review the Constellation program and identify options for the future human spaceflight program.  It did not make recommendations, but made clear that successfully accomplishing Constellation would require a substantial increase in NASA funding.

In February 2010, as part of its FY2011 budget request, the Obama Administration announced that instead of adding funding for Constellation, it would terminate that program and invest in “game-changing” technologies before choosing an alternate destination or timetable.   Congress was stunned, and under pressure, in April 2010 the President did announce a new destination and timetable — humans would visit an asteroid by 2025 and orbit (but not land on) Mars in the 2030s.

After months of rancorous debate, Congress passed and the President signed into law the 2010 NASA authorization act that directs NASA to continue developing a new big rocket and a crew spacecraft for exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).   The replacement rocket, SLS, is different in design from Ares, but similar in purpose — to send humans beyond LEO.   NASA retained the Orion spacecraft as the crew vehicle and SLS and Orion both are under development today.

Last year the Administration announced a change in the asteroid mission.  Now it wants to bring the asteroid to the astronauts — the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).    Republicans on the House SS&T Committee made clear their dissatisfaction with ARM by prohibiting any spending on ARM in their version of the 2013 NASA Authorization Act that passed the committee on partisan lines last year.  No further action has occurred on that bill.   The FY2014 appropriations bill that is funding NASA does not prohibit spending money on ARM but emphasizes that NASA has not convinced Congress it is the right program to pursue.

Dennis Tito, a multimillionaire who paid the Russians a reported $20-25 million to fly to the ISS as the first ISS space “tourist” in 2001, announced early last year that he was developing plans to send two people, preferably a married couple, on a 501-day flyby trip to Mars in January 2018 as a private initiative called Inspiration Mars.  By last December, however, he testified to Congress that he had concluded it should be primarily (70 percent) a NASA mission, conducted in partnership (30 percent) with the private sector and philanthropists.

The committee’s announcement does not indicate whether this hearing is an attempt to learn more about the potential of Tito’s government-private sector idea or something new.  No one identified as representing Inspiration Mars is on the witness list; nor is anyone from NASA.

The first SLS flight, without a crew, is currently scheduled for 2017 and the first flight with a crew is anticipated in 2021.   Trips to Mars are governed by celestial mechanics which permit them every 26 months.  Some of those opportunities are better than others in terms of how much energy is required to get from Earth to Mars and therefore how big of a rocket is needed to transport whatever mass is being launched.  The 2018 opportunity Tito originally wanted to use is excellent from that standpoint.  The next, in 2020, is not as good and they deteriorate thereafter until the early 2030s.  The title of the hearing implies that a mission to Mars is possible in 2021, but that does not seem to fit with celestial mechanics.

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