NASA Asked to Consider Mars Human Flyby Mission in 2021 in Strategic Plan

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Publication date: 
11 March 2014

House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) have sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden asking his agency to “develop a clear, well-planned technical implementation plan for the future of human spaceflight over the next few months.”  As part of this effort, NASA is to examine the feasibility of a Mars human flyby mission in 2021, a subject that was also discussed at a Science Committee hearing.

A common and long-heard observation at almost every appropriations and authorization hearing about NASA is its lack of a vision or long-term plan.   This concern was the focus of a February 27 hearing before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.  There was a consensus among the hearing’s four witnesses that a long-term roadmap or integrated strategic plan for the agency was needed, with a fair amount of discussion about whether a flyby mission to Mars in just seven years should be a component of this plan.

“There’s a sense that America is falling behind, with our best days behind us.  Today, America’s finest spaceships and largest rockets are found in museums rather than on launch pads,” said Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) when he opened this 90-minute hearing.  Smith criticized the Administration’s proposed asteroid retrieval mission for failing to inspire the scientific community and the general public.  “So, what is an inspiring mission?” Smith asked, saying “Maybe a journey to Mars. The Red Planet has long intrigued mankind. A Mars Flyby with two astronauts onboard NASA’s Orion crew vehicle could use the Space Launch System that NASA is developing.  This flyby would take advantage of a unique alignment between Earth and Mars in 2021 that would include a flyby of the planet Venus. This alignment minimizes the time and energy necessary for a flyby. Under the 2021 proposal, a trip to Mars would take roughly a year and a half instead of two years to three years.”

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) had a different perspective on the flyby: “Given that 2021 is currently the estimated date for the very first crewed mission of Orion, period - not just its first deep space mission - I would guess that the likely answer will turn out to be ‘no’. I doubt that a flyby of Mars will ultimately be considered to be an appropriate first ‘shakedown’ flight for the new crewed spacecraft given the risks involved in a year and a half trip to Mars and back.  However, I think this hearing does provide a good opportunity to again stress that we need a clear, thoughtful roadmap for our Nation’s human exploration program.”

All of the witnesses called for the development of an integrated strategic plan, a sentiment shared by both Republican and Democratic committee members.  There was much interest in NASA’s future missions, and discussion about planetary alignments, plasma engines, astronaut radiation exposure, and the role of the private sector and international partners.  There was less agreement about the feasibility of a Mars flyby mission, with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) calling it “a foolhardy use of very limited government resources.”  There was little or no discussion during the hearing or in the witness testimony about the scientific merits of a flyby mission.

Following this hearing, the Science Committee released the Smith-Wolf letter to Administrator Bolden.   The letter expressed support for the International Space Station as “the centerpiece of America’s human spaceflight program in the near-term and landing an astronaut on Mars is the best long-term goal.”  The Administration has announced the station will be used until 2024 as an integral part of its goal for a manned Mars landing in the 2030s.  Wolf and Smith contend “there is too much uncertainty about what should be done as the intermediate milestones of this journey.”

Smith and Wolf see the development of this plan as entailing an “on-going, indepth dialogue” between the agency and congressional committees that would involve “work with the stakeholder community to develop exploration and science objectives.”  They call for NASA’s analyses to be “independent from the Administration’s budget projections.”

There is widespread recognition that funding has always constrained NASA’s programs.  In her prepared testimony, Sandra Magnus, Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics commented “If we are going to be a nation that has a future in space, a nation with a strong strategic plan and the will to execute it, 0.5% of the national budget is simply not adequate.”