The Plantary Society’s Orbiting Mars Workshop: Secrecy, But No Falcons

Fact, followed by Editorial Opinion.

Beginning in 2012, after NASA somewhat reluctantly adopted the Space Launch System architecture dictated by Congress the previous year, America’s space agency has been pushing the the narrative that it is on “A Journey to Mars.” For anyone looking beyond the hype however, it is has been rather clear that even if Mars is the intended destination, the agency has no specific plans for sending astronauts to the Red Planet. Furthermore, the NASA has been unable to generate more than lukewarm support for what it says is an important step on that journey, its much criticized Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM.

Based on the results of a day and half invitation only workshop held in Washington D.C. this week, that may be changing.

The closed door event, titled “Humans Orbiting Mars” was sponsored by the Planetary Society, and presented the results of a Jet Propulsion Laboratory study which concluded that an Apollo 8 style Mars orbital mission is feasible in 2033, and is a necessary step before a planetary landing, which could come later in the same decade. Other than a press release issued by the Planetary Society which is excerpted below, there is little in the way of specifics. The JPL study is not public, and a full report on the workshop proceedings will not be released until later in the year. The event was conducted under “Chatham House Rules,” a meeting format in which open discussion is fostered by a blanket agreement that nothing said can be attributed. It is by nature, a press free affair.

Even so, if the subject matter is something which will be presented to the general public, which will inevitably be asked (told) to pay for it, something on the order of press conference is still needed to tell the rest of the world what conclusions were reached.  That job fell to George Washington University space historian John Logsdon, the Planetary Society’s Bill Nye, and former NASA Mars chief, Scott Hubbard. Limited by Chatham format, the trio were able to do little more than reiterate the key points summed up in a Planetary Society press release.

We are told attendees reached a consensus on the following:

A credible plan for a long term Humans to Mars program that constrains costs by minimizing new developments was presented.

For a sustainable, executable, and successful Humans to Mars program, an orbital mission in 2033 is required.

An orbital mission will enable scientific exploration of Mars and its moons while developing essential experience in human travel from Earth to the Mars system.

An independent cost estimate showed that such a program would fit within a budget that grows with inflation after NASA ends its lead role in the International Space Station.

Landing humans on Mars can affordably and logically follow later in the 2030s.

There will be both scientific and public support for this orbit-first approach.

Pursuing this orbit-first approach will establish a framework for involving the private sector and international partners, and will create a unified Mars science and exploration community.

The full release is here.

Absent more details, other than the release and what was shared in the press conference, it is difficult to know what to make of the study, but several general points are worth considering.

First, it assumes that the International Space Station will be defunded and deorbited shortly after 2024, and that the resources currently going to ISS will then be diverted to the Mars program.  After more than a quarter century in orbit, it is probably reasonable to assume that NASA and its International Partners will have learned all it can using that facility. On the other hand, if a new era of privately built and operated space stations, such as that being planned by Bigelow Aerospace is to get underway, NASA may still have a vital role to play as an anchor tenant. While not drawing anywhere near the $3 billion share of the NASA budget ISS consumes today, some funding for LEO operations might still be required.

Even if most of the ISS funding wedge were to become available for a 2033 first Mars orbit, there is still the issue of opportunity costs where the rest of NASA’s budget is concerned. It is probably a safe assumption that absent a national crisis, the American public will continue to be content funding its space agency at approximately the current level, $18.1 billion for FY 2015, for years, even decades to come, adjusting for inflation. It is not at all clear that there is much appetite for the sort of budget increases which would have been necessary under previous large scale projects such as Project Constellation. This is how we got to a “attempt no landings here ” mindset in the first place. As such, it will be important to closely question whether a 2033 orbit only mission, would in fact lead a surface landing in the following years.

If not, then other NASA constituencies, beginning with the planetary science community for which the Planetary Society normally advocates vociferously might want to consider what it is being asked to give up in exchange for human eyes looking at the Red Planet from orbit. There is already an enormous gap looming in flagship class interplanetary science missions once the Cassini mission is brought to an end in 2017. In fact, “gap” isn’t even the applicable term, because at the moment, there is actually nothing comparable on the other side.

Still, if the details and assumptions beyond the “Humans Orbiting Mars” workshop are well founded, and a landing could indeed follow shortly thereafter, then perhaps it represents a much needed first step on an actual “Journey to Mars.” But is it a step on the right path?

The “Humans Orbiting Mars” workshop apparently began with the presumption that SLS and Orion were non-negotiable components of the plan. Such has also been the case with the Humans 2 Mars Summit now held annually in Washington D.C. With backing by the four major aerospace companies, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Aerojet-Rocketdyne and Orbital ATK, all with a heavy stake in SLS/Orion, that is hardly surprising. For an orbital Mars mission, the only missing major hardware element is a habitation module which the latter company would very much like to supply based on Orbital’s experience with the Cygnus cargo vessel.  Consequently, it would not be surprising to find all four become ardent supporters of the 2033 concept.

That support however, should not drown out a rationale debate over an alternative architecture which is clearly possible, and is no longer limited to just SpaceX, although that is most certainly where it begins. Once the Falcon Heavy makes its debut, either this year or early 2016, NASA will have at its disposal a heavy lift booster only marginally less capable than the initial version of SLS. And two days before April 15th,  the fifth anniversary of President Obama’s Kennedy Space Center speech in which he announced the cancellation of Project Constellation, we may very well have existence proof that not only will the Falcon Heavy be supremely affordable as originally introduced, it will also be mostly re-usable.

If the Falcon 9 V1.1 first stage boosting the CRS-6 mission on April 13 finds its way back to the landing ship intact this time, or the next, or even the one after that, all taking place this year; then any discussion of human Mars missions 18 years from now which does not begin with at least a consideration of Falcon Heavy as an alternative is an insult to the taxpayer, and a disservice to the rest of the space community.

And that discussion cannot be limited to just SpaceX and the Falcon Heavy. Perhaps to the chagrin of its parent companies, primary SLS/Orion contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin, in a process being driven by SpaceX, United Launch Alliance is preparing to introduce a new booster family which of necessity, must compete with the Falcon series on price. ULA president Tory Bruno has indicated that the heavy lift version of the LNG powered booster would be 30% more capable than the current Delta Heavy.

In other words, and this point is critical, the United States is highly likely to have not just one, but two completely separate, very affordable super heavy lift boosters at its disposal long before any Mars orbital mission is launched. It is worth revisiting a point made in Here Be Dragons: The Rise of SpaceX and the Journey to Mars. In a few short years, SpaceX alone will likely have the capability to launch three Falcon Heavy boosters into LEO from three separate pads; 39A, SLC-40, and Texas, within a few days, if not hours of each other. The cumulative capacity, at roughly 160 tons, is greater than that offered by any projected version of SLS at any point, and for a small fraction of the flight cost, with no development costs to the taxpayer.  With the announcement of the new ULA booster, likely to be named Vulcan, the case for a rethink becomes even stronger. Limited to one East Coast pad, but with an emphasis on rapid turnaround, ULA could make an almost equally significant contribution to a truly affordable, component based launch architecture which opens up not just Mars, but the entirely solar system much sooner, and at greatly reduced cost.

Perhaps participants in the next closed door, Chatam house Mars confab will have the fortitude to challenge presumptions of a singular, highly constrained path to the Red Planet and provoke an honest debate. Maybe someone did this time. With all the secrecy, we’re not likely to find out.

Posted in: Mars, NASA

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4 Comments on "The Plantary Society’s Orbiting Mars Workshop: Secrecy, But No Falcons"

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  1. Zed_WEASEL says:

    There does not appear to be plans by ULA to field a heavy version of the NGLV (aka the Vulcan or the Nimoy memorial vehicle) in the near future. AFAIK the Vulcan with 6 SRM strapped-on boosters will have nearly the same performance as the upgraded Delta IV heavy with the RS-68A engines. So ULA doesn’t have any foreseeable payload requiring a Vulcan Heavy.

    • Stewart Money says:

      I wondered about that myself when Bruno mentioned a heavy lift variant, but the comment is out there.

      • Zed_WEASEL says:

        Maybe Bruno meant the Vulcan with the 6 strapped-on SRM boosters. A heavy lift variant but not a tri-core Heavy variant. Since a tri-core variant will require 2 or 3 additional core variants plus replacing the current launch table. According to chatter on the NASAspaceflight site, ULA will likely convert the Atlas pads for the Vulcan.

  2. Gerald W Driggers says:

    Well done piece, Stewart. It is disgusting to many of us old hands to watch NASA once again attempt to expand the echo chamber in the name of politics while simultaneously trying to sweep the mega-issue of gravity physiological effects under the rug.

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