Dissatisfied with NASA’s current asteroid mission plans, and seeking a more detailed framework to support eventual human missions to Mars, some members of the House Science Committee used a hearing Thursday to press the administration to support a once-private proposal for a Mars flyby mission.
“While consensus on Capitol Hill might be hard to find, there is general agreement that the President’s asteroid retrieval mission inspires neither the scientific community nor the public who would foot the bill,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the committee, in his opening statement. He supported the idea of a Mars flyby mission. “NASA, the White House, and Congress should consider this Mars flyby mission proposal.”
The proposal is a variant of the Inspiration Mars mission concept unveiled exactly one year earlier by a team lead by multimillionaire Dennis Tito, the first space tourist to visit the ISS. At that time, a privately-funded mission would launch in early 2018, flying by Mars later that year before returning to Earth 501 days after launch. The 2021 version, as described by Doug Cooke, former NASA associate administrator for exploration systems who has served on Inspiration Mars’s advisory board, would launch in November 2021. The mission features a flyby of Venus in April 2022 and a flyby of Mars in October of that year before returning to Earth in June 2023.
The hearing, though, offered few other technical details about the mission concept, beyond its use of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and the Orion spacecraft. As mentioned in a November hearing, the SLS would require a new upper stage that NASA currently doesn’t plan to develop until well into the 2020s; the mission would also require a habitation module of some kind as well. Cooke, asked at the hearing about how much this mission would cost, deferred to NASA. “I think that question should be asked of NASA, to go look at this mission seriously,” he said. “To my knowledge, there’s not been a cost analysis of this.”
Cooke and another witness, Scott Pace of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, argued that the 2021 Mars flyby mission could be part of a broader framework of exploration missions. Pace said that there was a growing international consensus that the next step for human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit was cislunar space. Yet a Mars flyby mission, he argued, “serves as an interesting bridge, a potential bridge, between where we are with the ISS and where we would like to be with Mars and where our international partners and commercial opportunities are with human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit.” The firm deadline of a 2021 mission, dictated by orbital mechanics, would drive decisions “on how to rationally trade cost, schedule, risk, and performance.”
Some other witnesses, though, raised concerns about the mission concept. “In my opinion, the Inspiration Mars proposal provides, I think, an exciting opportunity for our space exploration and certainly for NASA,” said retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles. But, he added, “it does have high risk associated with it.” AIAA executive director Sandy Magnus, a former astronaut, said she didn’t doubt there would be astronauts willing to fly such a mission, but they would ask many questions about it, including life support, radiation, and other issues. “What am I going to do during the mission itself?” she asked. “If you are sending two people to Mars on a flyby they’re going to need to occupy their time.”
While Smith and other members expressed interest in the mission, that support wasn’t universal. Committee vice-chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said he initially supported the Inspiration Mars concept when it was privately funded, but his mind had changed when it turned into something that required public funding. “I think this is a foolhardy use of very limited government resources,” he said.
The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), also questioned whether the mission was suitable for the first crewed SLS/Orion mission, saying it was “unfortunate” that no current NASA officials were invited to testify. She noted that the title of the hearing was a question: “Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?” “I would guess that the likely answer will turn out to be ‘no,’” she said in her opening remarks. However, she added that NASA needs to provide more details on the steps it plans to take to reach the long-term goal of a human landing on Mars.
After the hearing, Reps. Smith and Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, sent a joint letter to NASA administrator Charles Bolden. In the letter, they state that “it is time for NASA to begin to develop a clear, well-planned technical implementation plan for the future of human spaceflight over the next few months.” Part of that assessment, they argues, should include both the 2018 and 2021 Mars flyby opportunities. The overall study, they added, “should be independent of the Administration’s budget projections and instead based on what NASA believes such systems could be developed.”
Inspiration Mars’s Dennis Tito weighed in on the hearing in a statement Thursday afternoon, saying he was “very encouraged” by the discussion. “I continue to believe, as do many Americans, that Mars is the logical destination to put human space exploration back on track and demonstrate the ‘can do’ spirit that seems to have faded over time,” he said. “The window of opportunity in 2021 is challenging but achievable and waiting to be claimed.”