WASHINGTON — A crewed Mars flyby mission proposed last year by space tourism pioneer Dennis Tito could conceivably launch in 2021 provided that NASA immediately begins spending money on a large new rocket stage and crew-habitation module that currently are not on the agency’s development plate, a former NASA official told lawmakers Feb. 26.

“I believe that 2021 is possible if the focus is placed on getting that mission on our books,” Doug Cooke, former associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and now a private consultant, said during a hearing of the U.S. House Science Committee. “It would take a commitment to develop the full upper stage in the timeframe that we’re talking about. We would [also] need a small [habitation module], perhaps using an existing structure.”

The mission that was the subject of the hearing was originally proposed in early 2013 by a Tito-led group calling itself Inspiration Mars. It was conceived as a privately funded venture but was subsequently reformulated to take advantage of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion Crew capsule NASA is developing.

Cooke, formally a member of Inspiration Mars’ advisory board, has not worked for the company since January, the former NASA official wrote in a Feb. 27 email.

“The fact that I did go to the Inspiration Mars reviews and meetings over the last year has given me good insight into the mission and the work that has gone into it,” Cooke wrote. The 2021 flyby “is a very interesting opportunity and needs to be analyzed in more depth,” he said.

SLS and Orion are “a good fit” for Inspiration Mars’ plan, Scott Pace, director of the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute here, said at the hearing. Pace, like Cooke, had a senior position at NASA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. At that time, the agency was working on the Constellation Moon exploration program that was canceled in 2010 by President Barack Obama. 

In the wake of that cancellation, which was controversial, Congress directed NASA to build the SLS and Orion, both of which are technical offshoots of Constellation.

Under NASA’s current plan, SLS and Orion will first fly together in 2017 in an uncrewed test mission to lunar space. This would be followed in 2021 by a similar test mission in which Orion would have a crew aboard.

The Obama administration has proposed using the SLS-Orion combo as part of a mission, notionally scheduled for the early 2020s, to capture a near-Earth asteroid and redirect it into an orbit close to the Moon. The capture and redirect part of the mission would be performed by a robotic craft; astronauts would then use Orion to approach and inspect the asteroid at close range.

The asteroid capture mission will not require an SLS upper stage capable of boosting astronauts on a Mars-bound trajectory. Nor would it require a habitation module with a new generation of life-support systems that NASA says is needed for a Mars voyage.

Instead, SLS, at least in its initial versions, would utilize a modified version of the upper-stage engine on United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 rocket. Orion, meanwhile, will be sufficient to accommodate the two-person crew NASA envisions for the asteroid capture mission.

Despite Cooke’s testimony, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the ranking Democrat of the House Science Committee, said she doubted that SLS and Orion would be making a trip to Mars any time soon.

“Given that 2021 is currently the estimated date for the very first crewed mission of Orion, not just its first deep-space mission … I doubt that a flyby of Mars will ultimately be considered to be an appropriate first shakedown of a new crewed spacecraft, given the risk involved,” Johnson said.

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...