While the concept of a human Mars flyby mission launching in 2021 got the attention of some in Congress in late February, the proposed mission, based on designs developed by Inspiration Mars, has maintained a low profile since then. The authorization bill that the House Science Committee approved last week does require NASA to perform a technical study of the concept and also assess whether the mission “is in the strategic interests of the United States in space exploration.” However, there hasn’t been a major push to advocate for the proposed mission. Even Inspiration Mars founder Dennis Tito is staying on the sidelines: a spokesperson said last month that “based on the dynamic state of play with the NASA budget right now” Tito is refraining from interviews or other public comment on the mission concept.
The same isn’t true, though, for former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who completed a two-year term as president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) last week. Griffin, in an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle yesterday with new AIAA president Jim Albaugh, argued that “Mars Flyby 2021″ provides a focus to the nation’s space program that they find lacking. “A commitment to the first human mission to Mars would provide just the impetus we need as a nation to address the political and technical issues that are the present day roadblocks on our path to Mars and, later, beyond,” they write. “The goal is near enough to require action rather than talk, yet far enough to be attained without undue pressure on the budget.”
Griffin and Albaugh don’t seem to doubt the feasibility of the mission concept in general: “unlike the situation in the time of Apollo, what faces us for Flyby 2021 are not questions of fundamental feasibility but rather are matters of routine engineering development, well within our capability to pursue.”
At the February hearing, the ranking member of the full science committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), expressed skepticism that the 2021 flyby mission is feasible, answering the question posed by the hearing’s title—”Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?”—with a simple “no.” Griffin and Albaugh acknowledge her comments, but argue that other questions she raised at the hearing about NASA’s future space exploration plans are “precisely the questions for which Mars Flyby 2021 can focus our nation and our space agency on” to help provide answers. “For these reasons and more, the congresswoman’s questions should be seen not as reasons to stay, but as reasons to go.”