Credit: NASA illustration

WASHINGTON — As NASA develops its plans for eventual human missions to Mars, the agency is deferring decisions on a number of major details, in part to retain flexibility to keep the program alive when U.S. President Barack Obama leaves office in two years.

At a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council here April 9, NASA officials discussed progress on a set of ongoing studies, collectively known as the Evolvable Mars Campaign, designed to address key issues for future human missions to Mars.

In a briefing to the full council, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations William Gerstenmaier said NASA had groups studying 13 different issues, including the use of specific technologies such as solar-electric propulsion, the sequence of missions leading to Mars, and the ability to keep humans alive on deep-space missions as long as three years.

NASA will make decisions on some of those issues soon. “We’ve got to make life support systems decisions fairly soon, probably this year or next year,” he said, so that they can be tested on the International Space Station. “I want to get enough run time on those systems so that you know that they’re really operable before you run out of life on the station.”

Other key decisions, Gerstenmaier suggested, could be delayed by several years. NASA could wait until 2020, he said, before making a decision on the destination of the first mission to the vicinity of Mars, including whether the mission would land on Mars or one of its moons, or instead remain in orbit.

“We don’t need to make those decisions right now,” he said. “We think we can study those, understand their benefits.”
Another advantage of delaying that particular decision, he offered, is that it avoids making enemies of proponents whose destination was not selected. “Once you make that decision, you’ve now created ‘x’ number of friends, and you’ve created ‘y’ number of enemies,” he said.

A NASA slide summarizing its Evolvable Mars Campaign approach
A NASA slide summarizing the Evolvable Mars Campaign approach

Gerstenmaier said that delaying those decisions will help NASA better understand what the key technologies and other factors are that will drive the overall exploration plan. “We have teams off analyzing, working these, trying to define what I would say are the anchor points or big picture decisions that we need to make to move forward,” he said.

That approach, he acknowledged, offered not only flexibility for technological and scientific developments, but policy ones as well. “We also need to have some flexibility to policy changes,” he said. “We recognize that we’ll get some directions somewhere along the way. We need to not be so iron-barred to this particular application that when a little redirection comes the entire process falls apart.”

NASA Advisory Council members were concerned that such redirection could come in 2017, when a new administration takes office. “I think the critical time period, personally, is when the transition team goes in after the 2016 elections,” said retired aerospace executive Tom Young, citing as an example the changes the current administration made to NASA’s exploration plans when it took office in 2009.

“The upcoming one could well be hell-bent for Mars, or decide to stop messing around with this because we don’t know what we’re doing,” Young said of the next administration.

Gerstenmaier argued that the Evolvable Mars Campaign was designed to be flexible enough to survive that transition. The studies are based on a handful of assumptions, including that NASA will continue development of the Space Launch System heavy-lift booster and Orion spacecraft, and that they can launch once per year after the first crewed SLS/Orion mission in 2021. The plans also assume use of solar-electric propulsion that NASA is developing as part of its Asteroid Redirect Mission work.

“They may not be as definitive as you’d like,” he said, “but it allows for enough flexibility that when we come to this transition, we can come out of it with the program still moving forward.”

The use of the term Evolvable Mars Campaign has caused some confusion, agency officials note, since NASA has previously used phrases like “Journey to Mars” and “Pioneering Space.” Those three phrases, agency officials say, are meant to refer to different aspects of NASA’s exploration plans.

In a meeting of the advisory council’s human exploration and operations committee April 8, Greg Williams, NASA deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations, explained that Journey to Mars represents the overall goal of sending humans to Mars, while Pioneering Space reflects the agency’s desire for long-term sustainability of that overall program.

The Evolvable Mars Campaign, Williams said, “is the set of technical studies we are doing in order to define how we are going to pioneer space as part of the journey to Mars.”

Those studies will not result in anything as detailed as NASA’s last design reference architecture for a human Mars mission, published in 2009. “In terms of another design reference mission,” Gerstenmaier said April 8, “it’s probably years away.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...