Planetary Society: Orbiting Mars Is Critical Precursor to Human Landing

Planetary Society: Orbiting Mars Is Critical Precursor to Human Landing

The Planetary Society (TPS) held a workshop this week on “Humans Orbiting Mars” and concluded that sending humans to orbit Mars before attempting a landing is “required.”  At a press conference today, three TPS officials explained the workshop’s consensus findings.

Using the Apollo 8 mission as an analogy, the grass-roots space advocacy organization argued that it will be difficult enough to send a crew to orbit the planet and return to Earth that the even more challenging step of landing on and ascending from the surface should wait.  Consequently, “for a sustainable, executable and successful Humans to Mars program, an orbital mission in 2033 is required.”

Space historian John Logsdon, who co-chaired the workshop, recounted that the December 1968 Apollo 8 mission was improvised because the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) needed to land on the Moon was not ready.  Three Apollo astronauts (Borman, Anders and Lovell) spent Christmas in lunar orbit, sending back the indelible “Earthrise” photo and reading passages from the Bible.  Though it was not originally part of NASA’s plan, in retrospect it made perfect sense to test the Apollo system in lunar orbit before committing to a landing, he explained, and the same approach should be followed at Mars.  (Apollo 10 was a second lunar orbital test.  Landing on the lunar surface was attempted — and achieved — on Apollo 11.)

TPS organized the one-and-a-half day workshop in Washington, DC where 70 participants listened to a plan developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that calls for sending the first humans to orbit Mars in 2033 and a landing mission in 2039.   Several intermediate steps closer to home in cis-lunar space precede the 2033 mission.  The plan is said to be executable within a NASA human spaceflight budget that grows only with inflation, assuming that the International Space Station is terminated (and the associated funding redirected to this program) in 2028, or, better yet, 2024.  The total trip time would be 30 months:  9 months to Mars, one year in orbit, and 9 months back.  It would utilize the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, but a habitation module also would have to be developed for the crew to live in during most of the journey.

A careful reading of the TPS press release reveals that it does not specifically endorse the JPL plan, but rather concludes it is “an example” of a “long term, cost constrained, executable humans to Mars program” in the words of workshop co-chair Scott Hubbard.

Hubbard, Logsdon, and TPS Chief Executive Officer Bill Nye discussed the findings at a press conference this morning at George Washington University’s (GWU’s) Elliott School of International Affairs.  Logsdon is GWU Professor Emeritus, founder of the university’s Space Policy Institute, and author of two seminal books on the Kennedy and Nixon Administrations’ roles in the space program.   Hubbard is a Professor at Stanford University, was NASA’s first “Mars czar,” was a director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, is a member of innumerable advisory committees and editor-in-chief of the journal New Space.  Nye is well known as “The Science Guy” from his television program of that name in the 1990s.  Logsdon and Hubbard both serve on the TPS Board.

The workshop was by invitation only (a speakers list has been released, but not the participants), it was built around a JPL report that is not public, and a workshop report will not be issued until later this year.  Those factors sharply constrained what the three men could explain about the basis for their conclusions that the JPL plan is credible.

At first blush, the idea that a crew could be orbiting Mars in 2033 – just 18 years from now – when it took 25 years to build the International Space Station, is surprising.

JPL used the prestigious Aerospace Corporation to provide an independent cost estimate of its plan, but like the plan itself, that analysis is not public.  When asked what cost factors were used in the Aerospace analysis, Logsdon said that the workshop participants saw only “sand charts,” not the assumptions behind them.   A sand chart is a visual representation of costs over time with different colors layering upon each other signifying various contributors to the cost.  They present a general overview, but not specifics.

Nonetheless, the workshop participants reached consensus that the sand charts credibly capture the costs involved in the JPL plan and demonstrate that sending humans to orbit Mars by 2033 is achievable with a NASA human spaceflight budget that increases only at the rate of inflation.  Many – perhaps hundreds of – approaches (“architectures”) for sending humans to Mars have been promulgated over the decades.  Most require significant increases to the NASA budget.

Hubbard explained that the effort to find a “minimalist” path to sending humans to Mars began at a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting last year.  Hubbard is a member of NAC, which had received a briefing on NASA’s “Evolvable Mars Campaign” that laid out a path to Mars.  In his view, that plan lacked a “strategic framework.”  Also last year, Hubbard continued, the National Research Council (NRC) issued its “Pathways to Exploration” report.  Using cost analysis by the Aerospace Corporation in that case as well, the NRC report concluded that to be at Mars by 2033, NASA’s human spaceflight budget would have to increase two-three times, or if one had to assume that the budget would not increase, humans could not get to Mars until about 2050, Hubbard said.  He called those answers unacceptable and the catalyst for this effort to come up with a minimalist, credible, affordable plan.

The relationship between Hubbard’s NAC experience and JPL deciding to develop its plan was not clear from the statements made at the press conference, but they did say the TPS workshop was built around the JPL plan.

Hubbard is a legend in the Mars community, but is associated more with robotic Mars exploration than human exploration.  He conceded today that in the past when asked about human exploration of Mars he would point to the many technical and biomedical challenges involved, but now he believes those have been “reduced or we know how to minimize them.”  To him, the issue now is “political will.”

On that point, all three agreed.  Logsdon saliently pointed out that the Obama Administration is unlikely to adopt such a plan during its last two years in office, so it will be up to the new President, “whoever she or he may be, to decide if we are serious about a long term program of human space exploration and, if we are, and I certainly hope we are, that this is an approach that makes sense.”

While that might sound like an endorsement of the JPL plan, a TPS spokesman later stressed in an email that TPS is just putting forth the JPL plan as an “existence proof” that it is possible to get humans orbiting Mars by 2033 without dramatic increases to NASA’s human spaceflight budget, not endorsing the JPL or any other plan.

The unambiguous message from the press conference and press release is that TPS is convinced that before an attempt is made to land people on the surface of Mars, an orbital mission akin to Apollo 8 is a critical first step.  Another crucial element is development of solar electric propulsion (SEP), which is now being funded as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), though the ARM program itself was not a focus of discussion today.   Logsdon also stressed that it is important for the United States to decide on a plan because potential international partners are waiting for U.S. leadership and the commercial sector will be able to identify relevant opportunities.

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