Lawmakers discuss potential Mars flyby mission in 2021

by Chris Bergin

Experts and lawmakers reviewed an alternative plan for Orion’s first crewed mission into deep space on Thursday, claiming a Mars flyby mission in 2021 could be viable. The Science, Space and Technology hearing was held without an official NASA presence and admitted a large amount of evaluations will be required to address numerous challenges associated with cost, schedule and crew safety.

Mars Flyby Alternative: (Click here to review live coverage of the hearing)

At present, 2021 is the target launch date for the second launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) – NASA’s new Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) – tasked with lofting the Orion spacecraft on its first crewed mission.

Z89Known as Exploration Mission -2 (EM-2), the crew would venture out into a region near the Moon, where a captured asteroid – tagged, bagged and dragged via a robotic mission launched two years prior to EM-2 – would await their arrival.

Once docked to the robotic spacecraft that took the asteroid prisoner, the crew would exit the Orion, conducting an EVA to get hands on with an exposed part of the space rock, collecting samples, prior to returning home.

EM-2 continues to be classed as a mission that satisfies President Obama’s direction for NASA to visit an asteroid prior to 2025, as much as more ambitious asteroid missions are being created via the Design Reference Mission (DRM) process.

While the mission is technically advanced, and more ambitious than the original EM-2 – a few lap around the Moon – the captured asteroid mission has failed to get lawmakers jumping up and down in their seats with excitement.

An earlier roadmap, via the since defunct Constellation Program (CxP), called for a “Moon, Mars and Beyond” approach. It would seem some space experts wish that was still the plan, with a “moon first” plan continuing to be the preference of a large section of the political and public collective.

This was proven once again, when the high calibre panel of witnesses at Thursday’s hearing spoke almost in one voice to promote the Moon as an early destination of choice.

However, that option won’t be happening under current budget constraints and political direction – with NASA administrator Charlie Bolden citing the costs of a multi-billion lunar lander alone would effectively kill the current plan to land a crew on Mars in the mid 2030s.

Z4Mars, as the ultimate goal, continues to have the support of the majority of the political class and space community. However, most recognize huge advances in technology will be required to allow for the safe passage of humans to the Red Planet, and back home again.

As such it may have come as a surprise to some that a mission to Mars is now been promoted for the first flight of a crewed Orion.

Although the mission won’t have to endure the major challenges of landing on the surface, the long-duration mission into deep space would be a huge leap forward for what would be only the second launch of the SLS and the debut of a crewed Orion.

Z23The reason the mission is being proposed for the 2021 timeframe is related to a preferred planetary alignment for Mars missions.

“This flyby would take advantage of a unique alignment between Earth and Mars in 2021 that would include a flyby of the planet Venus. This alignment minimizes the time and energy necessary for a flyby,” noted the Committee’s chair, Lamar Smith. “Under the 2021 proposal, a trip to Mars would take roughly a year and a half instead of two years to three years.”

As outlined at the hearing the mission would open with a launch campaign that would allow for an Earth Departure on November 22, 2021.

Z78Heading out into deep space, the crew would fly past Venus on April 4, 2022, allowing for a trip towards Mars, resulting in a flyby pass of the Red Planet on October 12, 2022. Mars would be big in the window for around 40 hours, as they whiz past the planet, ahead of a free trajectory return to Earth.

The explorers would then splashdown in the Pacific Ocean to end their mission on June 27, 2023.

The majority of the support for the Mars flyby mission was portrayed as part of an overall strategy. Once again the Moon was cited as a key starting point for an “expanding bubble” of deep space exploration, led by government space agencies, followed by the commercial sector, with the goal of boot prints on ever more challenging destinations.

Z9The main reasons for the jump to an initial trip to Mars – per the political overview – related to inspiration, technology advances – such as the promotion of Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) – and leadership in space, focusing on an ambitious goal that would provide the driving force and political commitment, not least because of the 2021 deadline to make use of the optimal conditions for the shorter-than-usual transit time.

“The use of the SLS and a reentry capsule based on Orion technology (upgraded to  tolerate higher entry velocities) for a Mars 2021 flyby reflects a situation in which  the schedule is driven by orbital mechanics, not politics,” noted Dr. Scott Pace, Director at the Space Policy Institute, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.

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Z5General Lester Lyles, Chair of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board Division Committee on Engineering and Physical Sciences at the National Research Council also appeared to be supportive of the notion of a Mars flyby.

However, per his vast experience in numerous studies, he did add an air of caution to the proceedings.

“The agency has started some projects that are aimed at making (Mars missions) possible, such as development of the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft. However, there are many other steps that NASA will have to take in order to be ready for such an ambitious goal,” the General noted.

“Tackling some of the technology tasks associated with keeping humans alive for long-duration spaceflight without external resupply (or a large internal supply of spare parts), are important goals if we are ever to send humans to Mars.”

Surprisingly, the hearing only made passing references to some of the huge challenges that would need to be addressed to allow for a long-duration crewed flight out to Mars.

Z105Almost every week, ISS status reports speak of troubleshooting efforts on various life support systems on board the orbital outpost.

An advanced closed loop Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) would have to be built and tested, along with assurances it would work as planned over the duration of the deep space mission.

NASA managers are currently planning for an Orion ECLSS that will debut on the EM-2 mission, a system that will be required for less than one month of operation.

Radiation ShelterRadiation risks are also a major consideration, with spacecraft shielding proposals still in an early phase of development. DRM outlines show habitat modules that require innovative ways of providing a protective barrier against high radiation exposure.

Such is the risk, another Mars flyby proposal, via the Inspiration Mars effort, went as far as to say the radiation risks are so high, they are only concerned about keeping the crewmembers in a state where they can still function during the flight, until they get back to Earth, where any cancer issues can be treated once they are home.

The Dennis Tito project gained a number of mentions at the hearing, some which poured cold water on the possibility they will be able to achieve their 2018 launch target, added to the risks associated with such a challenging mission.

Notional Mars Inspiration ShipInspiration Mars also have an alternative 2021 launch option, which has been classed as more realistic, albeit still extremely challenging for the commercial operation.

The potential crossover of both NASA’s and Mars Inspiration’s missions led to lawmaker Dana Rohrabacher questioning why NASA funding should be provided to a mission when a commercial company is aiming to conduct something similar – noting there are many other projects the money could be spent on within NASA’s brief.

While Mr. Rohrabacher made his comments in his usual rumbustious fashion, classing the Mars flyby proposal as “foolhardy”, he was one of the few lawmakers to point out the big issue of the risks associated with such an ambitious mission.

Z7The majority of the lawmakers present at the hearing showed their support for a Mars flyby as a way of promoting the need for America to continue to inspire and lead in space, despite the ironic lack of political support for providing NASA with a budget that allows it to keep a firm foothold on such leadership.

National security was also mentioned, along with the usual references to the fear the Chinese may take over space leadership in the near-term future.

While the panel included former NASA associate administrator of Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, Doug Cooke – who also supported the idea of such a flyby mission – lawmakers were disappointed by the lack of a formal NASA presence.

However, the hearing suggested NASA managers should provide an evaluation of such a flyby mission, with Dr. Cooke claiming it would only take a few months for them to produce such findings.

Part of the reason it wouldn’t take long to produce an official NASA evaluation is in part due to the numerous Mars mission studies that have already been created thus far.

Z11NASA’s own Concept Of Operations (ConOps) documentation provides a large amount of DRMs data – as much as it lacks a detailed Mars approach. It does, however, provide a lot of information per the system capabilities of the SLS and Orion.

Companies such as Boeing have also produced their own notional documentation on Asteroid and Mars missions.

NASA’s own Flexible Path approach was also cited at the hearing, with the document – a fallout of the Augustine Commission – also providing evaluations into Mars missions, citing the initial approach of landing on one of the moons of Mars, ahead of landing on Mars itself.

Z8Immediate challenges that NASA managers would be tasked with – should the political direction call for the Agency to provide an overview of such a flyby mission – will likely cite schedule issues, with the acceleration – and additional funding requirements – on items such as the SLS Upper Stage, ECLSS, radiation shielding and the construction of a viable habitat module.

With only seven years to the proposed mission date, political direction would be required sooner, rather than later, for a Mars flyby in 2021 to stand a chance of becoming a reality.

(Images: Via L2 content from L2’s SLS specific L2 section, which includes, presentations, videos, graphics and internal – interactive with actual SLS engineers – updates on the SLS and HLV, available on no other site. Other images via NASA and Hearing Webcast)

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