A 2021 Mars Expedition Sounds Exciting but Does It Make Sense?

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

About a year ago, Dennis Tito formed an foundation, Inspiration Mars, whose goal was to send a married couple on a fly-by space mission to Mars and back. This would have to be launched in 2018 to take advantage of the relative alignments of the Earth and Mars. There are obvious challenges to overcome to make this successful, notably funding and the lack of demonstrated life support systems that can last 500 days with no resupply. A few months ago, Tito testified before Congress, noting that he would need the help of NASA to pull off this mission, specifically calling out the need for a heavy launch vehicle like the Space Launch System (SLS), which is now in development.

Now a some members of Congress (specifically Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee) is proposing a very similar mission but sponsored by NASA. Note that the idea did not originate with NASA.  This would be launched in 2021 and takes advantage of a Venus fly-by for a gravity assist, and results in a mission only a month or so longer than the 2018 plan by Inspiration Mars. It would be the second launch of the SLS and the inaugural flight of the Orion deep-space vehicle. This plan, as well as the Inspiration Mars plan, requires a habitat module which does not exist today, although could be based on American or Russian modules used on the International Space Station. The 2021 launch date provides a bit more realistic schedule to develop some of the missing pieces for such an audacious mission compared to the Inspiration Mars plan.

But does this 2021 plan make any sense?  Does it lead to the permanent settlement of space, or is it part of a long term strategy of human exploration of deep space, or will it leave us with any new capabilities that could be used to develop lunar resources or advance the date of putting people on the surface of Mars? My initial thought is no, it does none of these very well, but there may still be a reason to embrace it (which I’ll get to in a bit).

For establishing a solid foothold on the Moon, we will need landers and equipment to process the local regolith to extract resources. Any deep space mission, be it to the Moon, an asteroid, or Mars, needs to be part of a long term strategic plan to establish mankind’s permanent presence on other solar system bodies. This mission doesn’t address those needs. For putting a crew on the surface of Mars, we need landers (again) and long-lived life support equipment. Both the new proposal and the Inspiration Mars concept will need a reliable closed life support system, so either of these would be a step in that direction. Ideally, one would like to develop that technology and test it in low Earth orbit or in cislunar space, where a rescue or recovery would be possible should something go wrong. I have not seen a detailed development plan for these missions, so perhaps they are including that. But if that is the case, what value added is the cost of this fly-by mission provide you since you already have developed one of the technologies needed for a Mars landing mission? This is where we get to the “other” reason this mission may make sense.

Is a Venus and Mars human fly-by mission valuable from a gee-whiz perspective that might just incite an increased demand for missions that would actually lead to permanent settlements? We have been looking for something for the public to get excited about. Could this be it? The Inspiration Mars folks admitted this from the start, so is Congress picking up on that approach?  Or are they just looking for an entertaining space spectacular (it might be a great television reality series) to justify the existence of their giant SLS rocket?

While a fly-by mission with a crew generates no science results that a robotic probe couldn’t provide at a much lower cost, and doesn’t really put footprints on Mars, and leaves no real infrastructure for future long-term development, the impact of actually going to Mars may generate intangible benefits that are difficult to imagine at this time.

Such a mission would indeed be a real interplanetary expedition. There is something to be said for that. It may not have any great scientific justification, but it could have a big impact on society at a more fundamental level. Is this the “statement” mission that underscores (regains, for some) America’s leadership in space that a lot of people have been calling for?

This doesn’t have to be a terribly expensive mission. The SLS is happening anyway. This may be a relatively cheap way to justify the expensive SLS development. The hab module shouldn’t be all that expensive, relatively speaking. It would be similar to ISS modules. And we’ve been working on CLLSS for a long time. The technology to pull off this mission isn’t that far off, but certainly there is a lot of development required. At this early stage, however, making a believable cost-benefits trade study is difficult.

Are there better ways to spend what little money NASA has at their disposal? Wouldn’t investing in a large lunar lander be a more logical next step? That would require a long term strategy for human planetary exploration, which we still don’t have. But remember, the benefits of this proposal are not primarily driven by logic. If it encourages some political commitment to a long term space program, is that really so bad?

20 Percent Budget Cut for NASA Planetary Science

Money for the Senate Launch System (SLS) has siphoned off funding for the things that NASA does best – Planetary Science Missions. Examples of these over the past three decades include:

  • Viking I and II Mars Landers looked for life in 1976
  • Galileo was launched in 1989 and plunged into Jupiter’s crushing atmosphere on September of 2003 to protect the possible ocean on the moon Europa.
  • The Ulysses Solar Polar Explorer was launched in 1990 and ceased operation in 2009
  • Mars Global Surveyor photographed Mars from 1997 through 2006.
  • MESSENGER was launched in 2004 and arrived in orbit around Mercury in March 0f 2011 after three flybys.
  • The Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn arrived in 2004 to Study Saturn and the moon Titan. Exploration continues.
  • Phoenix Mars Lander explored the Martian Polar Region in 2008

The money has been saved for the SLS and building rockets, the things for which NASA is worst:

  • X-33 Venture Star – 1996 to 2001 – 1.2 Billion – Canceled
  • DC-X Delta Clipper – 1991 to 1995 – Transferred to NASA – 1996 -Canceled
  • Constellation and Ares I – 2005 to 2010 – 10 Billion – Canceled

Introducing “Epic Future Space” Vid Casts on NSSPhoenix

NSS Phoenix introduces an ongoing series of Vid Casts from You Tube by Michael Clark, one of our members.

This vid cast is a compilation of early videos discussing the transition from the Space Shuttle and Constellation programs to the current administration’s flexible path plan to visit an asteroid.

Grand LaGrange

The Artemis (Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun) mission is designed to study the Sun’s magnetosphere on opposite sides of the moon. The mission utilizes two of the five THEMIS spacecraft, which have completed their original mission. The five spacecraft were launched in 2007, and completed their research earlier in 2010. Their mission was to investigate the auroras in the Earth’s atmosphere and why they dramatically change from slowly shimmering waves of light to wildly shifting streaks of color. The data from the spacecraft will provide scientists with important details on how the planet’s magnetosphere works and the important Sun-Earth connection.

Now, two of these craft are headed toward the Moon and the two Lagrange points, EML-1 and EML-2.

As shown in the two diagrams below, EML-1 (L-1) lies between the Earth and the Moon (about 61,000 km above the Moon’s surface) and EML-2 (L-2) lies beyond the Moon at the same distance.

Artemis Orbit
Artemis Spacecraft P1
Earth Moon Lagrange Orbits

Image Credit: NASA / Goddard

Artemis Orbit Side
Artemis Spacecraft P1
Earth Moon Lagrange Orbits – Side View

Image Credit: NASA / Goddard

The first spacecraft (P-1) has migrated from Earth orbit to L-2 and entered a Lissajous orbit about L-2. These orbits (as seen in the diagrams above) are dynamically unstable, and require adjustments from on-board thrusters. The spacecraft will take from 14 to 15 days to complete a single loop. The plan is for the two spacecraft to spend about three months monitoring the influence of the magnetospheres of the Earth and the Moon on the solar wind. This will provide the first three-dimensional perspective of how energetic particle acceleration occurs near the Moon’s orbit as well as the space environment behind the Moon.

After this period, the spacecraft at L-2 will migrate to L-1 and join its sister. In late March of 2011, both spacecraft will maneuver into elliptical orbits around the Moon and continue to observe magnetospheric dynamics, solar wind and the space environment over the course of several years.

The research to be conducted by the Artemis program is important for several reasons. One is the pure research itself.

Second is the fact that both L-1 and L-2 are proposed as propellant and supply depots for the robotic and manned exploration of the Moon and the Solar System. Understanding the solar radiation environment at these locations will be important for manned operations and the health of the astronauts (see the related problems associated with Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) – The 800 Pound Gorilla).

For the importance of propellant depots, see the discussion in this post Post Augustine Commission – ULA Says “Fly Me to The Moon”, and the uses of propellant depots here The Augustine Commission – Final Report – Hits and Misses – Wrapped Up

NASA – Deciding What the Budget Will Buy

Jupiter 130
DIRECT Jupiter 130
Image Credit: DIRECT Launcher

An article in Sunday’s Orlando Sentinel hints that two years after saying that the DIRECT project’s Jupiter 130 rocket “defied the laws of physics”, NASA engineers are putting the finishing touches on their nearly identical design: four space shuttle engines underneath the external fuel tank, two four segment solid rocket motors just like the shuttle stack, and the crew and cargo on top.

The design made sense in 1992, 2004, 2008 and it still makes sense now.

“It turns out Direct was right,” said one NASA engineer working on the project but not authorized to speak publicly.

Many of the engineers working on the shuttle-derived rocket favor building a new rocket with new technology and propulsion systems but said that they recognize that Congress is unlikely to give them the money or the time they need to do that. Under the constraints NASA faces, the Direct-like approach is probably the best way forward, they said.

[Edit 9/16/2010]

And now comes a scathing commentary by Mike Thomas in Wednesday’s Orlando Sentinel: “NASA incompetent — or just lying to us?”

Obama wants to dump Ares and turn much of the space program over to the competitive world of private enterprise.

He sees the future in companies such as SpaceX, a start-up venture in California that is developing rockets at a fraction the previous cost.

Nelson and the anti-government Republicans in Texas and Alabama want no part of this.

They want big-government inefficiency and all the wasted billions that brings their states. They are joined by the aerospace giants, which see their guaranteed profits and $100,000 shuttle tool belts threatened.

So here we sit. Ares won’t fly. Congress won’t give it up. Obama won’t fund it. NASA is devoid of a strong leader to break the logjam.

And this takes us back to Direct’s Jupiter.

The rocket that NASA once said was not physically capable of flight has now become a NASA option.

“It turns out Direct was right,” a NASA engineer working on the project told the Orlando Sentinel this week.

Now they tell us? This means that NASA either is completely incompetent, has been lying for four years or is praying its last Hail Mary.


For previous commentary here, see the following:

Dawn on Vesta

Dawn Spacecraft
Dawn Spacecraft
Image Credit: NASA
The Dawn mission seeks to answer questions about the origins of planets in the Solar System. What are the roles that the size of a body and the amount of water held by the body play in the evolution of bodies in the Solar System? Vesta and Ceres are two bodies that contain clues to these questions. These baby planets were interrupted by the formation of Jupiter, which scooped up a lot of material that might have been accreted by these two bodies. Vesta turned out evolved and dry, while Ceres turned out wet and primitive.

Ceres and Pluto are the two dwarf planets that have been observed in enough detail to qualify them as dwarf planets based on their having enough mass to be rounded by their own gravity, but have not cleared their neighbouring region of planetesimals and are not a satellite.

Vesta, on the other hand, is classified as a Small Solar System Body. These objects do not posses enough mass to be rounded. They are not in hydrostatic equilibrium.

Dawn’s mission is to visit these bodies and see what makes them tick. What are their current properties, where did they form, of what are they composed.

Dawn Mission Timeline:

  • Launch – 27 September 2007
  • Mars gravity assist – February 2009
  • Arrival at Vesta – July 2011
  • Departure from Vesta – July 2012
  • Arrival at Ceres – February 2015
  • End of primary mission – July 2015

It has been suggested by many that Ceres, with its supply of water, might well become the “gas station” of the Solar System economy. Water can be broken down into Hydrogen and Oxygen. Hydrogen and Oxygen can be burned as fuel and oxidizer to propel spacecraft. Hydrogen can be used with carbon sources to produce methane and other hydrocarbons, useful as chemical feedstock for plastics and other products.

Vesta, Ceres and the Moon
Comparison of Vesta, Ceres and the Earth’s Moon
Credit: Wikipedia
Dawn Spacecraft Schematic
Schematic of the Dawn Spacecraft
Image Credit: NASA
One of the strong points of Dawn is that it makes use of components proven on other successful spacecraft.

These include: the ion propulsion system, based on the design validated on Deep Space 1, Flight proven attitude control system used on Orbview, TOPEX/Poseidon ocean topography mission, and Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, Simple hydrazine reaction control subsystem with two sets of six 0.9 N engines used on the Indostar spacecraft, Command and data handling uses off the shelf components and Modular flight software based on design used on Orbview.


  • HGA – High Gain Antenna
  • LGA – Low Gain Antenna
  • CSS – Coarse Sun Sensors
  • GRaND – Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector
  • IPS Thrusters – Ion Propulsion Thrusters
  • RCS Thrusters – Reaction Control System Thrusters
  • VIR – Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer
  • FC – Framing Camera
Once Dawn was launched by the 76th consecutive successful launch of a Delta II (read this interesting blog post on the event), the spacecraft began using its ion propulsion to get the additional velocity needed to reach Vesta.

Dawn’s engines have a specific impulse of 3100 s and a thrust of 90mN. While a chemical rocket on a spacecraft might have a thrust of up to 500 Newtons, Dawn’s much smaller engine achieves an equivalent trajectory change by firing over a much longer period of time.

Dawn will then use the ion engine to lower its altitude to Vesta, where it will begin its exploration (pdf).

The science payload consists of two cameras, a visible and infrared mapping spectrometer to reveal the surface minerals, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer to determine the elements that make up the outer parts of the asteroids. The spacecraft also will be used to measure the gravity field, thereby revealing details of these asteroids’ interiors.

Ion Engine on the Dawn Spacecraft
The Ion Engine on the Dawn Spacecraft
Image Credit: NASA / JPL
Dawn Trajectory
Dawn Trajectory
Image Credit: NASA
Dawn will use the ion engine to leave Vesta and cruise to Ceres. It will spiral to a low altitude orbit at Ceres. Ion propulsion makes efficient use of the onboard fuel by accelerating it to a velocity ten times that of chemical rockets.

A great list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about the mission can be found here.

The current status of the mission can be viewed here. Click on the images to see a larger view—images are updated hourly.

Currently, Dawn is a year away from Vesta.

Let us know what you think. What do you want to know about? Post a comment.

National Space Policy

The Whitehouse has released its National Space Policy (pdf) document. The introduction quotes President Obama from his 15 April speech at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida:

“Fifty years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite. And in fulfilling this task, we will not only extend humanity’s reach in space—we will strengthen America’s leadership here on Earth.”

The presentation is a high level view of the administration’s ideas for space exploration. As such, there is very little new information. Rather, it pulls together ideas from a variety of statements including the fiscal year 2011 budget proposal, presentations before Congress and speeches by the President and NASA officials.

President Obama issued this statement about the policy. The Whitehouse has issued a fact sheet on the policy document. And NASA has released its response to the National Space Policy document.

The four major sections of the policy cover:

  • Principles – Shared use of space, a competitive commercial sector, international rights in space and national security
  • Goals – Energize domestic industry, international cooperation, human and robotic exploration and Earth and Solar observation
  • Intersector Guidelines – Directions for governmental agencies and departments to maintain and strengthen United States capabilities
  • Sector Guidelines – Commercial Space, Civil Space and National Security

Comparisons can be made to the 2006 National Space Policy, which is summarized in this Wikipedia article.

The Civil Space Guidelines include the section on Space Science, Exploration and Discovery:

  • Set far-reaching exploration milestones. By 2025, begin crewed missions beyond the moon, including sending humans to an asteroid. By the mid-2030s, send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth
  • Continue the operation of the International Space Station (ISS), in cooperation with its international partners, likely to 2020 or beyond, and expand efforts to: utilize the ISS for scientific, technological, commercial, diplomatic, and educational purposes; support activities requiring the unique attributes of humans in space; serve as a continuous human presence in Earth orbit; and support future objectives in human space exploration
  • Seek partnerships with the private sector to enable safe, reliable, and cost-effective commercial spaceflight capabilities and services for the transport of crew and cargo to and from the ISS
  • Implement a new space technology development and test program, working with industry, academia, and international partners to build, fly, and test several key technologies that can increase the capabilities, decrease the costs, and expand the opportunities for future space activities
  • Conduct research and development in support of next-generation launch systems, including new U.S. rocket engine technologies
  • Maintain a sustained robotic presence in the solar system to: conduct scientific investigations of other planetary bodies; demonstrate new technologies; and scout locations for future human missions
  • Continue a strong program of space science for observations, research, and analysis of our Sun, solar system, and universe to enhance knowledge of the cosmos, further our understanding of fundamental natural and physical sciences, understand the conditions that may support the development of life, and search for planetary bodies and Earth-like planets in orbit around other stars
  • Pursue capabilities, in cooperation with other departments, agencies, and commercial partners, to detect, track, catalog, and characterize near-Earth objects to reduce the risk of harm to humans from an unexpected impact on our planet and to identify potentially resource-rich planetary objects

The document is unlikely to satisfy any of the critics, including the politicians from Alabama, Texas and Florida that stand to lose jobs and programs in their districts.

Interestingly, the press conference, which occurred at 1:00 PM Phoenix time this afternoon, dealt with many of the issues raised by the critics, and a brief summary with comments can be found at NASASpaceFlight.

Commentaries can be viewed here, here and here.