Editorial | A Mission Worth a Closer Look

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Congressional deliberation on what for all intents and purposes is the second-to-last budget request of the Obama administration is well underway, and there’s every indication that the latest exercise will be as futile as all previous ones in terms of resolving the human spaceflight policy gulf between the White House and Capitol Hill.

The administration continues with what appears to be a half-hearted effort to sell a plan to capture an asteroid and haul it into lunar space for inspection by astronauts who would be delivered by the congressionally mandated Orion deep-space capsule and Space Launch System. The administration’s latest argument, as dubious as previous ones, is that the mission will advance the state of the art in space technologies sought by the commercial sector.  

Congress, meanwhile, insists on spending $3 billion per year on Orion and SLS, even if that comes at the expense of the program to restore independent U.S. access to the international space station — something that has taken on greater urgency amid the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations. SLS and Orion proponents couch their arguments in lofty rhetoric about U.S. leadership in space exploration, but it’s no coincidence that the support base for SLS and Orion is dominated by lawmakers whose states and districts directly benefit from these programs.

Many of these same lawmakers have made no secret of their disdain for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, even though it would rely on SLS and Orion — vehicles that otherwise have no consensus destination. The project seems to survive by virtue of the fact that the administration hasn’t yet sought to commit any real money to it, requesting just over $130 million next year to develop technologies associated with what would be a multibillion-dollar endeavor. 

But Congress has yet to offer a compelling alternative. 

Until recently, that is. Some lawmakers, including Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, have taken to the idea of a crewed Mars flyby mission that originally was proposed as a purely private venture by pioneering space tourist Dennis Tito, chairman of the Inspiration Mars Foundation. 

As now envisioned, the mission would utilize SLS and Orion to launch a pair of astronauts on a trajectory that would take them around Mars — to within 165 kilometers of the surface — and back in less than two years. 

The catch — and it’s a big one — is that the mission would have to launch by 2021 to take advantage of a favorable Earth-Mars alignment that would permit completion of the round trip in a relatively short period of time. If that opportunity is missed, the next chance won’t come until the early 2030s, experts say.

The challenge of meeting the 2021 date is steep. Currently the SLS-Orion combo is not slated to debut until 2017 or 2018, with its first crewed mission to follow in 2021. The SLS variant in these missions — both lunar flybys — will not have the upper stage necessary to put Orion on a Mars-bound trajectory. NASA also would need a long-term crew habitation module that would be attached to Orion for the journey to and from the red planet.

Even if it can meet that schedule, there’s a risk that NASA — barring a significant budget increase — would be forced to deprioritize many of its other activities. 

But there are compelling reasons to give the Mars 2021 flyby a serious look. 

First, it would leverage hardware already in development and requires no obvious leaps in technology.

Second, NASA is often at its best when faced with a daunting challenge. The obvious example: U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1961 challenged NASA to put astronauts on the Moon before the decade was out — the rest is history. 

Third, there is widespread agreement Mars is the ultimate goal of the U.S. human spaceflight program. An astronaut-carrying Mars flyby would be a giant leap in that direction that could not help but inspire anyone who is remotely interested in space exploration. 

This is the sort of inspiration that has been sorely missing from the U.S. human spaceflight program since the Apollo days. The asteroid capture mission, by contrast, has failed to resonate outside space policy circles; it’s something the administration can point to when confronted about its lack of a strategic direction for human spaceflight.

To date, the Obama administration has shown little interest in the Mars 2021 flyby. It’s not too late to change that. 

The House version of the NASA authorization act for 2015 directs the agency conduct an independent study of the Mars 2021 flyby. Rather than waiting to see whether that provision becomes law, the White House should direct NASA to immediately embark on a detailed 90-day study of the mission’s feasibility and cost, and have the results independently reviewed by experts before being released to the public. That study also should identify realistic backup missions that utilize the hardware elements of the Mars flyby if the 2021 launch date cannot be met. 

Any White House concerns that the study could send it down a slippery slope toward a major funding commitment should be offset by the potential of the exercise to do just the opposite: A finding that a 2021 launch date is unrealistic would completely take the air out of arguments for continuing to fund SLS and Orion at the $3 billion level.

Both the White House and Congress are to blame for the current space policy stalemate — the former for creating a policy vacuum, the latter for filling it in a self-serving way. The Obama administration can continue to embrace the stalemate, and essentially run out the clock on its responsibility to give direction to the nation’s human spaceflight program beyond the space station. But it still has an opportunity, albeit a fast-fading one, to try a different path that just might blossom into something worth remembering for generations.