House Panel Explores Capabilities NASA to Develop on Journey to Mars

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Publication date: 
30 June 2016

The House Science Committee convened thought leaders in space exploration last month for a hearing on the capabilities needed for NASA’s proposed human journey to Mars. Wide-ranging discussions touched on in-space propulsion, deep space habitation, and artificial gravity.

We know what goal we want to achieve – putting humans on Mars. What continues to be unclear is the detailed plan. How are we going to accomplish this bold and challenging goal? What are the requisite precursor missions, the technologies, sustaining systems, and habitation requirements and current capabilities?

With his opening statement, Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee’s Space Subcommittee, reaffirmed the horizon goal of sending humans to Mars and framed the questions he hoped witnesses would answer at a hearing last month. With bipartisan agreement that NASA should pursue a mission to Mars in upcoming decades, members focused their questions on the expected challenges, necessary capabilities, and intermediate missions.

The hearing, titled “Next Steps to Mars: Deep Space Habitat,” put five thought leaders in space exploration in the spotlight:

  • Jason Crusan, Director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA;
  • John Elbon, Vice President and General Manager of Space Exploration at Boeing;
  • Wanda Sigur, Vice President and General Manager for Civil Space at Lockheed Martin Corporation;
  • Frank Culbertson, President of the Space Systems Group at Orbital ATK; and
  • Andy Weir, author of The Martian.

Committee members attempted to clarify NASA’s plans and explore some of the major issues and considerations which NASA will have to balance in orchestrating what is shaping up to be a multi-decade endeavor. In his testimony, Elbon described why the so-called journey to Mars presents technical and logistical challenges that far exceed any NASA has confronted in the past:

Our longest missions to date have been around a year. The mission to Mars will be at least three years long. The largest payload we’ve landed on Mars to date is just under a ton. To put humans on the surface of Mars, we’ll need to be able to land 20-30 tons. We’ve traveled to low Earth orbit and to the moon where communications delays are up to three seconds. On the journey to Mars, communications delays will be over 40 minutes. When Mars and the Earth are on opposite sides of the Sun, there will be a blackout for a period of two weeks. We must learn to operate in space without constant monitoring and control capability from the ground.

He reassured the panel that while these challenges are formidable, “solving difficult challenges is what our nation’s human spaceflight program has been focused on since its inception.

NASA: Key capabilities for putting humans on Mars include habitation and propulsion

NASA's Journey to MarsAs NASA continues phased development of the Space Launch System (SLS), its next-generation heavy launch rocket, and the Orion crew vehicle that will take humans to the “proving ground” within the Moon’s orbit and then beyond, agency leaders are also thinking ahead about capabilities NASA must develop to enable humans to reach Mars and return safely. Crusan’s testimony focused on two key capabilities: deep space, long duration habitation and in-space propulsion. “Validation of these and related capabilities in cislunar space will mark our readiness to begin Earth-independent exploration beyond the Earth-Moon system,” he said.

Chairman Babin noted that NASA’s work on deep space habitation capabilities is already underway, pointing out Congress provided NASA with $55 million in fiscal year 2016 for development of a “habitation augmentation module to maximize the potential of the SLS/Orion architecture in deep space … and a prototype module no later than 2018.

Andy WeirSubcommittee Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD) also highlighted the importance of habitation, listing some of the components that will need to be developed: “clean air, water recovery, climate monitoring and control, a means for food production…fire safety within a closed environment, crew exercise, onboard medical services, and the ability to provide safe haven from solar particle storms and cosmic galactic rays that pose risks to crew health and mission operations.

Weir, who rocketed to fame after his book The Martian inspired a Hollywood blockbuster by the same name, asserted that NASA must also develop artificial gravity technologies before humans can travel to Mars:

The human body is simply not suited to living for long periods in zero-g. Until this issue is solved, we have no hope of landing on the surface of Mars, nor can we create permanent residences in space. … Instead of concentrating on ameliorating the effect of zero-g, we should concentrate on inventing artificial gravity.

Weir then described one mechanism for generating artificial gravity:

For our next space station, we should have the crew compartment connected to a counterweight by a long cable and set the entire system rotating. This creates the centrifuge, which will generate constant outward force for the crew.

NASA and Congress disagree on proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission

On the subject of how to effectively prototype and test needed capabilities in space, committee leadership and NASA witness Crusan diverged on whether the administration’s proposed mission to capture and redirect a moving asteroid is a necessary step on the journey to Mars.

Chairman of the full House Science Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), bluntly criticized the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) and said the mission’s estimated total cost of $1.72 billion would be better spent on other space exploration pursuits.

The administration continues to push plans for an unjustified asteroid retrieval mission. The Asteroid Retrieval Mission is a distraction without any connection to a larger roadmap to explore our solar system and is without support from the scientific community or NASA’s own advisory committees.

Smith’s sentiments appear to be shared by leading science appropriators in the House. In the fiscal year 2017 spending bill that funds NASA, the House Appropriations Committee included report language that, if approved, would direct the space agency to cease any planning efforts to conduct “either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid.

SpaceNews reports that despite this hostility toward ARM and uncertainty about its future, NASA is moving ahead with a key review of the ARM in July.  Soon thereafter it plans to solicit payloads and investigators for its robotic element.

When asked about the asteroid mission, Crusan defended NASA’s choice to prioritize ARM, calling it an essential part of getting to Mars:

The asteroid redirect mission gives us the in-space propulsion aspect that we’re looking for. To me, that’s the fundamental piece of the asteroid redirect mission, along with operating large-scale solar electric propulsion in deep space, because that will be the experience we’ll need to send cargo into Mars and eventually crew into Mars as well.

Witnesses call for long-term stability in approach to Mars journey

Despite congressional dissent on the necessity of ARM, there was widespread agreement in the hearing room on at least one thing. As Elbon put it in words echoed by at least two other witnesses:

We need to get on a path and stay on that path, and it has to survive several administrations [over] a couple of decades. …. We need to be careful not to be distracted by other ideas, not to invest in one path and then switch to another path. … As soon as we can, we need to nail down the architecture and the approach…, keep it funded, and that will allow us to get to Mars at a lower cost and a lower schedule….

In April, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), a member of the Space Subcommittee, introduced the “American Space Renaissance Act” – which would require long-term planning for NASA, implement multi-year budgeting, and create a 21-member NASA Leadership and Advising Commission to advise Congress and the NASA Administrator. A separate bill, the “Space Leadership Preservation Act”, introduced by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), would establish a 10-year term for the NASA Administrator and create a NASA Board of Directors akin to the NSF’s National Science Board.

NASA, the Obama Administration, and Congress have remained committed to the journey to Mars since 2010, and the effort is supported in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, the U.S. National Space Policy, and a 2014 National Academies report.

Already looking forward to mission accomplished in the 2030s, Elbon ended the hearing on a hopeful and sentimental note:

Somewhere in the world is a student - about 10 to 20 years old, probably studying math or science - and that student will be the first person to set foot on Mars. In my view that’s amazing to think about.


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