The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SLS/Orion launch
NASA will stick with original plans to fly the first SLS mission without a crew, even as that mission slips to 2019. (credit: NASA)

No rush for Mars

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Three weeks ago, President Donald Trump sat in the Oval Office, flanked by his daughter Ivanka—formally a special assistant to the president—and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins. Their attention was focused on a television screen for a videoconference with International Space Station astronauts Jack Fischer and Peggy Whitson on the day that Whitson set a new NASA record for cumulative time in space. Some in the space community wondered if the president might use the occasion to discuss his space policy plans.

“They’ve asked us to look at the plan that we’ve got today and see if we can keep going on that plan,” Lightfoot said. “They have not asked us to go to Mars by 2024.”

He did something else. During the 20-minute interview, Trump asked Whitson what NASA’s plans were for human missions to Mars. “Well, I think as your bill directed, it will be approximately in the 2030s,” she responded, a reference to the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 that the president signed into law in March, which made human missions to Mars in that decade a priority, and included a call for a study to examine the feasibility of such a mission in 2033.

Trump, it seemed, was having none of that. “Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term,” he said. “So we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”

The space community’s reaction to that comment was split. Some dismissed it as a joke: sending humans to Mars by 2024, let alone 2020, seemed unreasonable to anyone. Others, though, took it more seriously, even if they were also concerned about the feasibility of such missions. Nonetheless, it seemed to suggest that the administration was looking to accelerate NASA’s human spaceflight program in some way.

Or not, as it turns out. In a teleconference with reporters Friday, NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot put to rest any thoughts that the White House was seriously considering any Mars missions on the timeframe the president indicated last month. “The administration has been very supportive of our plan,” he said when asked about Trump’s comments. “They’ve asked us to look at the plan that we’ve got today and see if we can keep going on that plan. They have not asked us to go to Mars by 2024.”

That teleconference, arranged on just several hours’ notice, was used to announce that NASA would not, after all, put a crew on the first flight of the Space Launch System, known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1). NASA announced in February that, at the request of the new administration, it would look at what it would take to put astronauts on a flight that originally planned to be uncrewed.

Lightfoot and Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that the study found no technical showstoppers that would prevent flying a crew on EM-1. “At the end of the day, we found it technically feasible to fly crew on EM-1, as long as we had a commitment of additional resources and schedule,” Lightfoot said during the call.

Gerstenmaier added that he was surprised that there were fewer issues than expected about the work needed to make SLS and the Orion spacecraft able to support a crewed mission on the first flight. “I thought there would be a whole lot of really negative work that would actually maybe make this not very attractive to us,” he said, which turned out not to be the case.

However, they acknowledged that adding a crew would involve increased risk for those astronauts. The work to human-rate EM-1 would also cost NASA $600–900 million, and delay the launch until the first half of 2020. Those factors—cost, risk, and schedule—combined to make it ultimately undesirable to put astronauts on the flight.

“The culmination of changes in all three of those areas said that overall, probably the best plan we have is actually the plan we’re on right now,” Gerstenmaier said. “When we looked at the overall integrated activity, even though it was feasible, it just didn’t seem warranted in this environment.”

That decision, Lightfoot said, was made jointly by NASA and the White House. “We definitely sat with them after we heard the feasibility study and came to this conclusion together,” he said. “We didn’t throw it over the fence and they didn’t throw it back. We pretty much made it together.”

NASA also used the briefing to announce that the EM-1 launch, previously scheduled for November 2018, would slip to some time in 2019. That announcement was anticlimactic, though: NASA had already revealed, in a response to a Government Accountability Office report published April 27 about NASA’s exploration program, that it planned to delay the EM-1 launch to 2019 regardless of whether or not it carried a crew.

“We see 2033 or 2035 as the sweet spot for boots on the ground,” said Mike Fuller of Orbital ATK.

The GAO report, as well as another issued last month by NASA’s Office of Inspector General, found a variety of issues with SLS, Orion, and their ground systems that made it unlikely NASA could stick to that 2018 launch date for EM-1. They ranged from issues in the production of the Orion’s service module, provided by the European Space Agency, to manufacturing delays at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans caused by a tornado that damaged the site in February.

Most recently, a dome section of a liquid oxygen tank being built for SLS qualification tests was damaged at Michoud in early May. The incident halted work at the Vertical Assembly Center there, used to weld large SLS components, for several days while investigators studied the mishap.

“It’s probably not repairable,” Gerstenmaier said of the damaged tank segment in Friday’s teleconference. He called it a “significant event” but added that it alone would likely have little effect on the overall schedule for EM-1.

NASA has yet to announce a new target launch date for EM-1 more specific than 2019. Gerstenmaier said NASA was continuing to study the various schedule issues, while also waiting for more information about the recent mishap at Michoud. “We’re probably a month or two away from coming up with a final schedule,” he said.

Mars Base Camp concept
Lockheed Martin’s “Mars Base Camp” approach would send humans to orbit Mars as soon as 2028, but not by 2020 or 2024. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

2033 or (maybe not) bust

Friday’s teleconference about EM-1 took place immediately after the Humans to Mars Summit, an annual conference by the Mars advocacy group Explore Mars in Washington. NASA and industry officials spoke about their plans to send humans to Mars, but even before Lightfoot offered his clarifying words about the White House’s plans in the call, no one seemed to be in that much of a rush to get to Mars.

Lightfoot and others from NASA at the conference emphasized not Trump’s Oval Office comments but the language in the 2017 authorization act, which provided a sense of continuity for NASA’s existing Mars exploration plans despite the change in administrations.

“This was a huge deal for us,” said Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator for policy and plans in NASA’s human exploration and operations mission directorate, in a talk at the conference May 9. He noted the authorization act mentions “Mars” 74 times, which he interpreted as growing support for the goal of sending people there. “It’s keeping with the progress that we’ve made and the confidence that we’ve built in the Congress that this is the right thing for us to do.”

Panels held during the conference examined architectures for human exploration of Mars. With one notable exception, most of the industry approaches there had converged on versions of NASA’s own plan, which calls for the development of a cislunar Deep Space Gateway by the mid-2020s, followed by a Deep Space Transport that can be tested in cislunar space before missions to Mars (see “A gateway to Mars, or the Moon?”, The Space Review, March 27, 2017).

“It certainly would be very challenging for The Boeing Company to produce any milestones by 2020,” said Duggan.

Those plans call for human missions to Mars likely in 2033, a date that has become popular in part because it is, energetically, a more favorable window than others that open every 26 months. While it might be possible to go sooner—Lockheed Martin’s “Mars Base Camp” concept said a spacecraft could fly to Mars orbit, but not land on the surface, as soon as 2028—most seemed to feel that 2033, or later in the 2030s, was the most reasonable date for the first human mission to Mars.

“We see 2033 or 2035 as the sweet spot for boots on the ground,” said Mike Fuller of Orbital ATK, an assessment shared by panelists from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Aerojet Rocketdyne.

During the panel, Buzz Aldrin—who spoke at length earlier in the conference about his own complex Mars mission architectures—asked the panel if there was anything these companies could do in the form of a “significant mission” of some kind by the end of 2020 or 2024, the end of the first and potential second term for President Trump.

That seemed a bit too fast for those industry panelists. “It certainly would be very challenging for The Boeing Company to produce any milestones by 2020,” said Matt Duggan, manager for exploration at the company. That was in large part because SLS and Orion, key elements in its “Path to Mars” architecture, are still in development. He saw 2033 as a feasible first date for “footprints on Mars” in that plan, particularly given projected budgets that offered little or no growth.

“The milestone before 2020 really is test those systems that we need to go to Mars,” said Timothy Cichan, space exploration technology architect at Lockheed Martin. He saw 2024 as a milestone for establishing the Deep Space Gateway, with a human mission to Mars orbit as soon as 2028.

The exception to this, both in the choice of architectures and timelines, is SpaceX. Paul Wooster, the lead for technical development of Mars architecture and vehicles at SpaceX, gave an overview of the company’s vision for Mars missions that company founder Elon Musk unveiled last year at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico (see “Elon Musk’s road to Mars”, The Space Review, October 3, 2016). Few, if any, details have changed yet since that presentation.

“We’re very focused on identifying the fastest possible path to getting people to Mars,” he said. “As a part of that, there’s a number of preparatory activities that we have, development of our vehicles, precursor activities we can do along the way.”

“Overall, having people on Mars in the mid-2020s is something that is achievable,” Wooster said. “But it will take a lot of work to make that happen.”

That includes Red Dragon, an uncrewed version of the company’s Dragon spacecraft launched on a Falcon Heavy to land on Mars. SpaceX originally planned to launch the first Red Dragon in 2018, but has since said that mission will slip to 2020. The company may now be planning two such missions in the same launch window: in a talk at the conference about the flotilla of robotic missions to Mars planned for launch during the 2020 opportunity, Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said he was aware that SpaceX planned one Red Dragon launch at the opening of the 2020 launch window and a second several weeks later, at the end of the window.

Despite those delays, Wooster indicated SpaceX still had a goal of sending humans to Mars by the middle of the next decade. “Overall, having people on Mars in the mid-2020s is something that is achievable,” he said. “But it will take a lot of work to make that happen.”

So if humans-to-Mars is off the table—if it ever was on the table—for 2020 or 2024, what might the president and his advisors have in mind for NASA? Kenneth Hodgkins, director of the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology, said in a conference panel May 11 that, in his own personal opinion, he thought Trump was interested in space, given the references to it in major addresses and events like the space station videoconference last month.

“To me it’s fairly clear: the president wants something big,” Hodgkins speculated. “He’s not going to be excited about announcing a follow-on Earth observation satellite. He’s going to be excited about announcing a big exploration program.” But the where, when, and how of any such plan remain a mystery.