House Hearing Underscores Lack of Consensus on Next Steps in Human Spaceflight

House Hearing Underscores Lack of Consensus on Next Steps in Human Spaceflight

A House hearing today (February 27) on the concept of sending two people on a flyby mission to Mars – via Venus – in 2021 continued the persistent debate over the future of the human spaceflight program. While there is a general consensus that landing humans on Mars is the long term goal, the steps between now and then remain a matter of controversy.

The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee’s hearing was entitled “Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?”   Its focus was a variation of Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars (IM) proposal, announced exactly one year ago today, to send two people on a 501-day flyby mission to Mars in 2018.

Tito is a multimillionaire who paid Russia about $20 million to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2001 as the first ISS “space tourist.”   His proposal in February 2013 was for a mission that would be privately funded.  By November 2013, he said it should be primarily (70 percent) funded by NASA.   Also, while initially he left open what launch vehicle would be used, by November he conceded that NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) was the only viable choice in that time frame.

The latest iteration of this concept, discussed at the hearing today, has two more differences from the original version.  First, it now apparently would be entirely funded by the government, and, second, it would launch in 2021 instead of 2018.   Launch windows to go directly to Mars occur every 26 months and there is no such window in 2021.  Instead, the revised concept calls for the crew to first flyby Venus to get a gravity assist from that planet and then go on to Mars.

Doug Cooke, a former NASA official whose last position at the agency was head of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, showed a video demonstrating the trajectory of the year-and-a-half long mission.  It begins with launch in November 2021, Venus flyby in April 2022, Mars flyby in October 2022, and return to Earth in June 2023.  He and other witnesses referred to this “unique” alignment of Earth, Venus and Mars as the reason for pushing for a 2021 launch.

Some committee members were skeptical about mounting such a mission just seven years from now.   Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) noted that the first crewed launch of SLS is not scheduled until 2021 and “I doubt that Mars will ultimately be considered to be an appropriate first ‘shakedown’ flight.”

None of the witnesses was willing to say how much the mission would cost.  When asked directly, Cooke said that the committee needed to ask NASA that question.   This is not a NASA mission, however, and, as Johnson also pointed out, no one from NASA was invited to testify.

NASA, of course, is focused on meeting President Obama’s goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight – the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  The President has said that sending people to orbit Mars in the 2030s, and someday to land there, are long term goals, but not the next step.   The ARM mission has won little support from Republicans or Democrats in Congress and this hearing was another indication that the Administration has a lot of work to do to win them over.

Generally, the hearing was very friendly.   Apart from Johnson’s skepticism, the only strong dissenting voice came from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA).   Noting that he had been a supporter of Tito’s initial proposal for a privately funded mission, he called this new version a “foolhardy” use of limited taxpayer dollars.

Cooke, now a consultant, was joined at the witness table by Scott Pace of George Washington University, Sandy Magnus, a former astronaut who now is Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and Gen. Les Lyles (Ret.), a consultant who chairs the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and has served on or chaired a number of studies on the future of human spaceflight.

All the witnesses appeared to support the 2021 Mars flyby concept, though some were more reserved than others.   They also all emphasized the need for a long term strategy and appropriate resources, but Magnus, in particular, stressed those points.   “The Mars flyby can only be discussed in the context of a larger strategy,” she said, and “any plan … is doomed to failure without the resources to support it.”

Pace, another former NASA official who was deeply involved in developing the Bush-era Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020, and Cooke, who worked on Constellation as well as its Obama-era replacement, each acknowledged that they advocate a human return to the Moon, but see the Mars flyby as a bridge to that goal.  Pace went so far as to argue that it “is a faster and more efficient way of returning to the Moon.”   Cooke said supporting the Mars flyby mission is “not contradictory” because of the unique planetary alignment available in 2021.

Pace said that NASA is not planning a human return to the Moon now because it cannot afford to build a lunar lander, yet this flyby mission also requires additional hardware not currently in NASA’s budget plans.  Pace and Cooke mentioned several required elements including a more capable SLS upper stage, a habitation module with advanced life support systems, and a more effective heat shield for the Orion spacecraft.   It is not clear how anyone envisions NASA affording those elements for the Mars flyby mission when it cannot afford the lunar lander.  The hearing provided no insight into costs or budgets, however.

In the end, all the witnesses agreed that the Mars flyby mission is achievable if the country has the will and commitment to pursue it.  The question is whether it does.  Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) emphasized that his main goal was to “do no harm” and not fall back into the practice of start-and-stop programs.

Though Tito was not cited at the hearing as the originator of this revised version of his IM plan, he did issue a statement after the hearing saying he was “very encouraged” by the discussion and explaining that it had become clear that 2021 was more “practical and beneficial” than 2018.

The opening statements of the Republican and Democratic committee leaders, the prepared statements of the four witnesses, and a webcast of the hearing are on the committee’s Republican and Democratic websites.

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