Inspiration Mars FISO Presenation : No Pressure for SLS

Image Credit : Inspiration Mars

Image Credit :
Inspiration Mars

Inspiration Mars made a presentation to the Future In Space Working Group on Wednesday,  and wasted little time in dispelling reports that NASA is applying heavy pressure to select the Space Launch System as the launch vehicle.  The presentation, complete with audio, can be found here,  and it is certainly worth a listen.

What emerges is a refreshing picture of what many in the space community wishes would take place with the U.S. and other national space agencies as well.   Having determined that a certain desirable goal is feasible, in this case a circumnavigation of Mars with a low energy, free return trajectory,  Inspiration Mars is methodically, but expeditiously wading through the alternatives,  the “trades” to make it happen.  At the same time it is not losing sight of the purpose of the proposed mission, contained right there in the name,  to inspire the United States, and NASA in particular, to pull itself out of a forty-year miasma of indecision and get on about the business of undertaking the greatest adventure of our time, the human exploration of Mars.   As part of that process, Dennis Tito, the founder of Inspiration Mars, along with the rest of the team, would also very much like to see a re-booting of America’s flagging STEM, (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)  capability, a goal which is shared by NASA,  but pursued  ineffectually.  The overall goal,  exploring Mars, is the same one which is driving SpaceX, and is the very reason Elon Musk founded the company in the first place.

Unfortunately, the primary goal of the political establishment which controls funding for  NASA is not exploration, but instead the continuation of jobs its respective districts.   One need look no further than the official introduction of SLS, when NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who looked as if he had been grabbed by the ear and pulled to the podium like a recalcitrant child, and boxed in by a beaming Kay Bailey Hutchison  and Bill Nelson, officially introduced the Space Launch System by pointing out first and foremost,  that it would create jobs.  If word order has any significance, here it was.  Not open a new era of exploration, not restore an American launch capacity gone since the Saturn V, but create jobs.

So, for better or worse, with the SLS development under way, and being the rocket of record for NASA, even if there is not much in the way of a defined mission for it,  Inspiration Mars concluded that it would be  a good idea to at least consider the possible use of the vehicle being developed by the agency they hope to inspire.   Perfectly reasonable.  The more relevant point where NASA is concerned, and one which clearly comes through in the presentation, is the obvious sense that many within the agency are eager to work with the Inspiration Mars team to the greatest extent possible.

And why not?  With the proposed 2018 circumnavigation established as a one time event, (the orbital window repeats though), and its big booster making progress,  it seems quite likely that a successful mission could have exactly the intended  effect,  and build the momentum to quit dithering and use  SLS to return to the Red Planet post haste, this time with landers.

The choice of hardware for the Inspiration Mars project, should it get to that point, is going to prove fascinating, and very telling. While it is tempting to fixate on the launch vehicle selected;  Falcon Heavy, Atlas V, or Delta Heavy, and what that says about the major players and the current state of the launch industry, the real key for a long-term perspective is the choice of a crew vehicle, and what that says about current NASA mission planning.

The Inspiration  Mars team is particularly worried about the unprecedented re-entry speed of the capsule it wants to send around Mars, and is attempting to manage that issue by shifting as much of the net mass of the mission into the attached habitation module, pictured in current graphics as an inflatable structure like that being developed by Bigelow Aerospace.   Whether solid or inflatable, the “hab”  would be jettisoned just before re-entry, allowing the two person crew to return  to Earth in the lightest craft achievable.  It is a solution which almost certainly precludes anything approaching  the mass of  the NASA / Lockheed Martin Orion spacecraft upon which the taxapyer will have spent in excess of $10 billion dollars by the time two people board the privately funded Mars bound ship and sail into history.

Furthermore, the basic architecture being outlined for Inspiration Mars,  a minimum two-part solution in which the bulk of crew time is spent in the space provided by a habitation module, and not the capsule, applies to other long duration missions which are under consideration by NASA, such as to trips to an asteroid or lingering at the L2 destination.  And it definitely applies to any follow on Mars missions as well.

The bottom line is that while the SLS is being given a courteous nod, it is not going to be launch vehicle  for Inspirations Mars in 2018. It might however, be placed in a follow-up role sooner than anticipated (now in the 2030’s…. maybe) if the Mars circumnavigation has the intended effect on the space agency and the nation.   The Orion spacecraft however, is a very different subject, and the crew caspule decision made by the Inspiration Mars Foundation, presumably either the SpaceX Dragon, or a modified Boeing CST-100, may go along way in illustrating just how inefficiently resources are being spent on a solution which is simply not optimal for the missions we really want to undertake.

Perhaps then, the first thing Inspiration Mars could inspire is the realization that an alternate path,  one with jobs a plenty, is to keep forging ahead with SLS,  but instead divert the one billion per year being spent on Orion spacecraft, cracked hull and all,  into fully funding the Commercial Crew program with a two winner outcome,  and presenting the SLS with new options.  Equally important, doing so would open up an otherwise non-existent funding wedge for the new hardware which actually is indispensable for the future the Foundation hopes to create,  specifically the landing and ascent vehicles for the human exploration of  Mars.

Posted in: Inspiration Mars, Mars, NASA

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4 Comments on "Inspiration Mars FISO Presenation : No Pressure for SLS"

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  1. alex wilson says:

    I’m sorry, but I have to ask: how long has tgeh author of this article been alive? Here’s something I’ve learned over roughly thirty years of writing and/or thinking about space: NASA spends money in many places in the US because if they don’t, Congress won’t give them the money to *DO* anything in space. If you want to blame someone for how NASA spends it’s money, aim your anger at Congress, not NASA.

    • Well, Since 1967 if you must know.

      You might also want to re-read this sentence, (he wrote, not angrily)

      “Unfortunately, the primary goal of the political establishment which controls funding for NASA is not exploration, but instead the continuation of jobs its respective districts”

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