When Dennis Tito went to Washington last fall to lobby Congress to engage NASA in his Inspiration Mars concept for the 2018 crewed flyby of the Red Planet, the reception was cool at best.
Hoping to salvage something from the idea, which had started off as a private mission concept using commercial hardware but quickly morphed into a NASA centric project using SLS and Orion, Tito and company pointed out than in addition to the 2018 free return trajectory, another slightly less advantageous opportunity awaits in 2021 as well.
Today, the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held a hearing on the 2021 concept, which oddly enough took testimony from four individuals, none of whom currently work for NASA, or were directly involved in putting together the original Inspiration Mars proposal. (One witness, former NASA Associate Administrator Doug Cooke, is a consultant to IM.) The hearing charter is here.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the hearing was long on calls for the U.S. to adopt a direction for space exploration, but almost completely devoid of facts, or even “guestimates” for what the subject at hand, a 2021 Mars flyby using SLS and Orion, might cost. However, everyone involved was also studiously careful to never mention the potential for a mission architecture other than the one both Congress and the experts wanted to talk about.
The problem never really addressed, is that with a first crewed launch for the mega booster not scheduled until 2021, and expected by some, including the former NASA Deputy Administrator, to slip, the odds of NASA making the substantial and necessary modifications to both SLS and Orion elements in time for a hard and fast launch date determined by celestial mechanics are exceedingly unlikely. Absent an Apollo-like commitment of resources, which is even more unlikely, it simply isn’t going to happen, and everyone involved had to know that going in.
So what was this really all about?
Perhaps it stemmed from a genuine frustration with the seeming ambivalence coming from NASA and the Administration regarding America’s long term ambitions in space. As several participants pointed out, a 2021 Mars flyby would definitely attract a great deal of attention, and possibly motivate the agency and the policy making apparatus which guides it to concentrate on a defined set of goals and capabilities.
On the other hand however, if the hearing had been a serious one, then someone would have asked the question of whether or not with three more years to prepare, could the mission be accomplished with type of commercial hardware which made up the original proposal for 2018. For all the talk about the various “trades” necessary to examine a Mars flyby, each discussion starts with a false assumption that the hardware has to be SLS and Orion.
Maybe, for some forlorn reason, that will turn out to be the case, but it is hardly a proven one. The next time Congress wants to talk about a Mars flyby, it needs to be about commissioning an independent, cost benefit analysis which does not pre-suppose the necessity of SLS/Orion, when other options are likelier to be available sooner and at far less expense.