Mars visions, then and now

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Credit: jpl.nasa.gov

In my continual efforts to tame the paper jungle in my office, I’ve come across my notes from a “robotic and human exploration of Mars strategic roadmap committee meeting,” held February 8-10, 2005, at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Given that yet another “humans to Mars summit” took place last week in Washington, D.C., I thought I’d convey a few highlights of discussion at the 2005 meeting.

Recall that it was on January 14, 2004, when then-President George W. Bush announced his “vision” for space exploration, a plan to “extend a human presence across the solar system.” The goal was to put people on the Moon by 2020 “as the launching point for missions beyond.” At the time, Sean O’Keefe was NASA administrator. Oddly (it seems odd to me, anyway), O’Keefe is speaking today at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on U.S. strategy for civil and military space (O’Keefe is now a “distinguished senior advisor” at CSIS.)

Back to 2005 – here are some of the findings of the roadmap committee – which involved Michael Meyer of the NASA headquarters Mars exploration program office (he’s still there) and Firouz Naderi of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s solar system exploration directorate (he’s still there, see below):

  • Human Mars exploration design reference mission development “must be re-initiated immediately. Two to three years will be required for preliminary design development. (The estimate at that time was that this mission would require the launch of 3-8 International Space Station (ISS) masses to low Earth orbit. According to NASA, the ISS weighs about 925,000 pounds, equivalent to the mass of about 320 automobiles.)
  • Use the ISS as a test bed for Mars exploration.
  • Mars sample return (MSR) is a capstone human exploration precursor mission. It could set the stage for a round-trip human exploration mission…”minus environmental control and life support systems and biology and the scale problem.”
    • “One or more MSR missions must precede human exploration.” (The thinking then was that if we can’t execute an MSR mission, then we certainly can’t execute a human mission.)

In 2005, nuclear-fission-powered propulsion was being considered for the new heavy-lift launch vehicle that would have to be built to get people beyond LEO. (The nuclear option fell by the wayside, thank goodness.) The assumption then was that the Mars Science Laboratory would launch in 2009 (it went up in 2011), to be followed by an MSR mission during the next decade and a large astrobiology field laboratory after that.

There was discussion at the 2005 meeting about the hazard of radiation exposure for a human mission to Mars. This discussion continues. The Wall St. Journal reported earlier this month on new research results showing “that cosmic rays during an interplanetary voyage could cause subtle brain damage, leaving astronauts confused, forgetful and slow to react to the unexpected.”

Back to the present: as Space News reported in a story about last week’s gathering of humans-to-Mars advocates, “While NASA argues there is a growing consensus that the agency’s long-term human spaceflight goal should be landing people on Mars, a recent conference suggested there is less agreement about exactly how NASA should accomplish that goal.” Space.com covered last week’s gathering, too, reporting that JPL’s Firouz Naderi (see above) called for “an incremental, multiple-mission approach that envisions getting astronauts to Phobos by 2033, then down to the Martian surface by 2039.” This approach could make humans-to-Mars “technologically and economically feasible,” he said.

The current administration has decided that sending astronauts to an asteroid will precede sending humans to Mars (or back to the Moon, or anyplace else.) Mars sample return, identified by the space science community for decades as a top priority in planetary exploration, remains too expensive to undertake. (Advocates will undoubtedly argue with me about this point, but the reality today is that no organization or group of organizations has taken on this challenge.)

So, at the same time that I am bothered by the very idea of sending people to Mars, with the intent of settling the planet, I am not too bothered, as I think a human mission to Mars is much further off into the future than advocates believe it is. In the United States, the world’s top spender on space exploration, the 2016 presidential election will bring a transition that is as likely as not to include new national goals in space. And who knows what they’ll be?

Stay tuned.

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