A lengthy National Research Council (NRC) report into the US Human Space Flight program cited the need for a “Pathway” approach to NASA’s exploration ambitions, stepping stones that would result in the ultimate goal of landing humans on the surface of Mars. The 285 page report, released on Wednesday, provided a refined view of NASA’s current roadmap, claiming international cooperation – including an alliance with the Chinese – and the potential use of the Moon as a proving ground, is required to achieve the “Horizon Goal”.
The study, involving a huge team of experts, has been a long time in the making, having been directed by Congress via the 2010 Authorization Act. However, the study did not get underway until its first meeting in February 2013.
Its findings support key architecture, such as the Space Launch System (SLS), but appears to be at odds with the finer points of NASA’s current capability driven exploration roadmap.
During the media overview on Wednesday (review live coverage of the event), the differences between the panel’s findings and NASA’s roadmap were made clear, with the panel making the blunt claim that NASA’s current approach will not result in human’s landing on Mars as projected.
The Agency has only noted their intention to explore the Red Planet “in the mid 2030s”, while specific Design Reference Missions (DRMs) continue to be tagged as “forward work”.
Overall, the “Stepping Stones” approach noted by the NRC, which stressed it was not tasked with recommending policy, is close to NASA’s current plan – which currently involves staged exploration of Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) as a proving ground for the technology required for human transit to Mars.
However, the NRC panel believe there are “compelling technical reasons for including the lunar surface as a stepping stone.”
This is deeply at odds with the current NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, who claims a political decision to return lunar surface sorties to the roadmap would effectively end all hope of human missions to Mars by the 2030s.
General Bolden’s comments came after internal documentation placed the potential for NASA missions to the Moon within the ESD Concept Of Operations (Con Ops) presentations (L2) – listing it alongside the main NEA (Earth Earth Asteroid) missions under the Architectural Timeframe Design Reference Missions (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 one such example within the ESD Con Ops presentation.
However, General Bolden – likely under instruction from his White House paymasters – pulled no punches in completely dismissing a return to the Constellation Program (CxP) approach of targeting the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars.
“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 during an address in 2013, adding it would cost many billions of dollars just to build the Lunar Lander.
“(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.”
With the NRC study showing favor towards a return to the Lunar Surface, a potential battle between lawmakers who continue to express a wish for NASA to return to the Moon, and the current NASA leadership, may be in the offing in the coming months.
Another potential battleground may be over the NRC’s evaluation of international cooperation. While NASA has already noted – and indeed implemented – exploration associations with the likes of the European Space Agency (ESA), the NRC study claims it would be in NASA’s “best interests” to be open to China becoming an exploration partner.
Such a notion is likely to be challenged by some lawmakers who see China more as a threat than a partner. Notably, the Chinese are well known for making bold exploration claims, yet the reality is they continue to lag behind the United States and Russia.
However, it’s the cost of achieving a mission to Mars that continues to be a key driver, not least when NASA’s budget is spread over many expensive programs.
In showing the funding squeeze, the NRC charts show an element of irony, with the International Space Station’s important research into long duration space missions – specifically the impacts on the human body – unintentionally providing a constraint on the Agency’s ability to build the hardware required for such missions.
The panel stated the ISS is useful for long duration space flight, but its operational costs impact on funding exploration.
As such, additional funding would be required to realistically allow for the construction of key hardware required for Mars missions.
As overviewed by the report, such advances include Mars EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) technologies, radiation shielding, next-generation in-space propulsion and power systems, planetary ascent propulsion, advanced Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS), habitats and in-situ resource utilization – a lot of which had been previously overviewed in the post-CxP “Flexible Path” plan.
With the ISS’ lifetime extended to 2028, funding for “new projects” would only be available near the end of the next decade via a flat budget, while an inflation adjusted budget would only result in modest new spending while the ISS was still in orbit.
“Our committee concluded that any human exploration program will only succeed if it is appropriately funded and receives a sustained commitment on the part of those who govern our nation,” noted Purdue University president, former Governor of Indiana, and committee co-chair Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr.
“That commitment cannot change direction election after election. Our elected leaders are the critical enablers of the nation’s investment in human spaceflight, and only they can assure that the leadership, personnel, governance, and resources are in place in our human exploration program.”
Notable, the NRC Panel admitted they were not tasked with delving into the details surrounding commercial endeavors to the Red Planet, mainly because the commercial sector is “more secretive” when compared to NASA – meaning they would have only been able to speculate their potential, had they been asked to study their roles.
However, it is well known SpaceX wants to lead Earth’s drive towards humans on Mars, within a timescale that is potentially a decade ahead of NASA’s potential missions to the planet.
For the interim, the NRC report is being digested by NASA’s leadership, who issued a brief and somewhat politically benign statement, based on preliminary readings of the study.
“NASA welcomes the release of this report. After a preliminary review, we are pleased to find the NRC’s assessment and identification of compelling themes for human exploration are consistent with the bipartisan plan agreed to by Congress and the Administration in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and that we have been implementing ever since,” noted the statement, which was issued by NASA PAO.
“There is a consensus that our horizon goal should be a human mission to Mars and the stepping stone and pathways thrust of the NRC report complements NASA’s ongoing approach.
“NASA has made significant progress on many key elements that will be needed to reach Mars, and we continue on this path in collaboration with industry and other nations. We intend to thoroughly review the report and all of its recommendations.”
It is likely the report will be at the center of upcoming political hearings, set to begin next month. Although, as stated by the NRC committee – made of unpaid volunteers – any changes will need to occur sooner, rather than later, if NASA is to get back on track to achieving the “Horizon Goal” of human on Mars.
(Images: via NASA, NRC and L2).
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