NASA Authorization Act pushes for Moon and Mars priority

by Chris Bergin

The House Science space subcommittee’s 2013 Authorization Act intends to refocus NASA’s exploration path towards prioritizing the goal of landing humans on both the Moon and Mars, according to draft document. Ahead of a hearing on Wednesday, the political direction also pours cold water on the realigned Exploration Mission -2 (EM-2) to explore a captured asteroid.

NASA Exploration Path:

In 2004, President Bush announced the Vision For Space Exploration (VSE). The plan revolved around a “Moon, Mars and Beyond” roadmap, before it eventually fell by the wayside as the Constellation Program (CxP) failed.

Rising out of the CxP’s ashes, the current plan continues to have an end goal of reaching Mars, albeit much later than the VSE’s proposed schedule. In fact, very little by way of specifics have been revealed into the schedule, other than the aim is to land humans on the Red Planet by the “mid 2030s”.

With the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion as the centerpiece of NASA’s Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) ambitions, a 2017 test flight will validate the launch vehicle and spacecraft during Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1) – an uncrewed mission to send Orion on a test flight around the Moon, ahead of Exploration Mission -2 (EM-2). which involves sending a crewed Orion on a mission to meet up with a captured asteroid in the vicinity of the Moon.

An undefined manifest follows, although the aim would be to venture further out into deep space for a “full up” Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) mission(s), before taking the big step towards Mars itself.

From NASA’s standpoint, a return to the surface of the Moon was cancelled when the Constellation Program (CxP) ended. However, notional plans continued to be evaluated over recent years, with Lunar Surface Sortie missions cited in the Exploration Roadmap via Design Reference Mission (DRM) documentation.

NASA Lunar LanderDocumentation placed the potential for such NASA missions to the moon within the ESD Concept Of Operations (Con Ops) presentations (L2) – listing it alongside the main NEA (Eear Earth Asteroid) missions under the Architectural Timeframe DRMs.

“Lunar Surface Sortie (LSS):  Lands four crew members on the surface of the Moon in the equatorial or Polar Regions and returns them to Earth,” noted the presentation.

“Expected drivers include: MPCV operations in LLO environment, MPCV uncrewed ops phase, MPCV delta V requirements, RPOD (Rendezvous, Proximity Operations and Docking), MPCV number of habitable days.”

Atlair from the Constellation Program with Ares V FairingAs with any Moon return plan, the Lunar Lander – either a resurrection of the Altair lander or another option – would be a key element of the viability for returning to the Moon – although NASA’s lander would be far larger and would require the Space Launch System (SLS) to launch it into space. It would also be massively expensive.

“Lunar Lander: Transports crew to/from the Lunar surface and supports crew for short duration surface stays. Sortie two-module configuration has Descent Module (DM) and Ascent Module (AM). AM includes Suit Ports and a side hatch opening to the lander deck. Crew equipment, supplies, and consumables stowed in the AM,” added ESD’s Con Ops presentation.

“A three-module vehicle configuration for extended stays consists of the DM, the AM, and a Suit Lock/ Suit Port (SL) module.”

Altair Lander via L2 DocumentationAs listed in the Con Ops, Lunar Surface missions – based on just SLS related hardware – would involve two Block 1A SLS vehicles, launching 121 days apart. The first SLS would launch the Lunar Lander, with a Block 1 CPS, followed by the second SLS launching a crew of four on Orion for a 19 day mission, with seven days on the Moon.

However, any hope of the Lunar Surface option making a confirmed return to the exploration roadmap’s baseline was dismissed by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, who strongly ruled out missions to land on the Moon, claiming any future political re-direction to return humans to the lunar surface would send the Agency “back to square one”.

That re-direction now appears to be on the cards, per the House Science space subcommittee’s 2013 Authorization Act, with a proposed draft for discussion outlining direction to focus on landing on the Moon as a precursor for landing on Mars. It also appears to remove – or at least show no funding for – the EM-2 Asteroid Retrieval Mission elements from the roadmap.

Although politically worded, a clear signal is sent throughout the draft, that the NASA Administrator “shall establish a program to develop a sustained human presence on the Moon and the surface of Mars.”

General BoldenThis is unlikely to be well received by General Bolden, who added to his concerns relating to a political re-direction to return to the Moon, claiming such a move would all-but end any chance of being able to go to Mars by the 2030s.

“We need to try and get all of us on to the same sheet of music in terms of the roadmap,” noted the NASA head in May of this year. “(If we) have someone in the next administration who could take us back to a human lunar mission, it’s all over, we will go back to square one.

“I believe (that would mean we) would have missed the second greatest opportunity for humanity to go on to deep space and do what humans have wanted to do for hundreds of years.”

According to the House version of the 2013 Authorization Act draft, a request would be made for the creation of a Mars Human Exploration Roadmap.

“The Administrator shall direct the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate to develop a Mars Human Exploration Roadmap to define the specific capabilities and technologies necessary to extend human presence to the surface of Mars and the mission sets required to demonstrate these capabilities and technologies.”

The draft language also states the Administrator should present the Roadmap within one year of the Act’s enactment.

VASIMR Mars VehicleThe roadmap should “include the specific set of capabilities and technologies required to extend human presence to the surface of Mars and the mission sets necessary to demonstrate the proficiency of these capabilities and technologies.

“(This should include) an emphasis on using the International Space Station, lunar landings, cis-lunar space, trans-lunar space, Lagrangian points and the natural satellites of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, as testbeds, as necessary, and shall include the most appropriate process for developing such capabilities and technologies.”

The draft also requests details on international cooperation and the potential for utilizing non-governmental entities. It also requests the Administrator should update the Roadmap at least every four years and include it in the budget for that fiscal year transmitted to Congress.

Mars Missions per DRM, via L2Per the DRM process at NASA, Mars missions are only listed under “Forward Work” – with the DRM tags of MAR_PHD_1A and MAR_SFC_1A.

Notably, the Flexible Path approach remains the most recent and comprehensive outline into achieving a crewed mission to Mars, built out of the recommendations from the Augustine Committee into Human Space Flight.

“A human Mars Orbit/Phobos Mission represents an intermediate step between human exploration missions in near-Earth space and human missions to explore the surface of Mars,” opened the expansive section on the manned missions to Mars/Phobos in the 65 page NASA internal “Flexible Path” presentation (available to download in L2 – Link).

PhobosA Phobos mission – used as a precursor to a crewed mission to Mars – may be the main initial focus by proxy, primarily from two standpoints; a learning curve for a future mission to Mars, and the Mars science that can be gained from Phobos.

Phobos also presents a number of Mars-like challenges to a manned mission, allowing NASA engineers and astronauts to learn how to approach a subsequent Mars mission.

“One of the significant advantages a Phobos mission would be to demonstrate many of the technical and operational approaches needed for Mars missions without yet having all the required systems, or committing the crew to a full-duration surface stay,” added the presentation.

“A Phobos mission could drive and demonstrate solutions of these items.”

Per documentation, a fleet of SLS’ would be required for a single crewed mission to Mars mission, including other numerous vehicles, most of which are very much at the conceptual stage of design.

NASA Glenn teams are understood to be reworking a baseline video into a Mars mission (Nine minute CGI video available on L2 – Link), in order to provide a general baseline using SLS – a video which already shows the challenges of an actual crewed mission to Mars.

SLS Block II configurationCurrently, there isn’t an agreed baseline approach for setting up a mission to Mars, with the Flexible Path noting the requirement of 10-15 HLV launches – via the use of chemical (LH2/LOX) rockets, while the video shows a launch campaign using seven HLVs, sporting nuclear propulsion stages.

“Due to the wide variability of the short stay class trajectories the number of propulsive stages varies with opportunity, as will the number of HLV launches. Assuming hydrogen-oxygen in-space propulsion, the number of HLV launches varies between 10 and 15,” noted the Flexible Path approach.

The Mars campaign video shows seven HLVs launching the major elements of three vehicles using NTR (Nuclear Thermal Rocket) propulsion, namely the MLV Cargo Vehicle – created from two HLV launches, the MLV Habitat Vehicle – created from two HLV launches, and the MTV Crew Transfer Vehicle – created from three HLV launches. All three vehicles are assembled in Low Earth Orbit ahead of setting sail for Mars.

Another Mars exploration plan was created by Boeing, citing a combination of the SLS rocket’s lift capability, the bourgeoning Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) technology field, and Bigelow’s soon-to-be-tested inflatable habitat modules.

Additional details in the proposed political direction from the House are expected at Wednesday’s Hearing. You can follow updates on the hearing, by clicking this link.

(Images: Via L2 content, NASA and Boeing)

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