Hey, gather close. I’ve some news for you. Late in March, NASA unveiled plans for human Mars missions.
What? You heard nothing about them? Some space sites reported on the announcement, but the traditional news media ignored NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier’s presentation to the space agency’s advisory council. That’s sad, since Gerstenmaier finally offered up missions for NASA’s huge SLS rocket and its four-person spacecraft, Orion.
Critics of SLS and Orion have been complaining for nearly a decade that the rocket and spacecraft have no actual missions to justify their $24.8 billion cost. Well, NASA now has missions for SLS and Orion – out to the late 2020s.
The space agency – with the help of the nation’s new space companies like SpaceX – intends to build a small moon-orbiting space station and a larger reusable transport ship to carry astronauts to Mars and back.
The low-key unveiling was probably deliberate, some space supporter say. Politically speaking, these are turbulent times, and NASA needs to tread carefully. Once upon a time, bipartisan support was a given when it came to NASA. Is that still the case three months into the President Trump Administration? When President Obama sought to end NASA’s new monster rocket and make Orion a rescue boat for the space station, Republican and Democrats in Congress said NO, and kept NASA on a course for eventual manned deep space exploration. Can that kind of cooperation continue in today’s heated political climate?
NASA’s plans for the next decade for SLS and Orion are affordable – as long as the space agency doesn’t do business as usual. Agency officials need to use the government/private enterprise system that produced the privately owned cargo ships flying to the space station and the manned taxi craft now in development. In fact, use it in a stripped down version with fewer regulations and less government bureaucracy. NASA’s centers don’t need to be designing the space station and transport craft down to the last bolt. That’s the Apollo way. NASA’s budget won’t be awash in funding. President Trump’s going to ask NASA to do more with less. That means allowing companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build the craft their way.
Gerstenmaier says NASA still has the can-do attitude. “There’s nothing this agency cannot do,” he said in a news release. “If you can give us a clear direction, and give us reasonable resources, this agency and its contractor base will accomplish what you want.”
Phase 1: Deep Space Gateway
That’s right… NASA’s small, moon-orbiting space station will be the gateway to deep space including Mars. The agency will spend the 2020s learning how to live and work in lunar orbit – three days from Earth – as preparatory work for trips to Mars in the 2030s. The spacecraft that will fly to Mars will be tested at the Deep Space Gateway (DSG). The interplanetary craft needs to function for years, not weeks or months. There will be shakedown cruises long before the reusable craft fires its engines and heads for Mars.
Just like the International Space Station now in low Earth orbit, the DSG will have international and commercial partners. Already, Japan may supply a lab module, and Canada, a robotic arm. Private companies will upgrade their cargo ships to supply the DSG.
The DSG won’t be like the International Space Station. Plans don’t call for it to be continually manned. Astronauts will be aboard only while Orion is docked to it. It can support a crew of four for 42 days.
Assembly of the DSG will begin in 2022 or 2023 with launch of a power and propulsion bus and be finished by 2026 with delivery of an airlock – altogether, four flights of the SLS and the Orion. That’s right, the Orion will transport the DSG sections to what’s called cis-lunar space.
The power and propulsion bus will be based on the now-canceled Asteroid Robotic Redirect mission, the Obama administration’s plan to bring a piece of asteroid back to the moon for investigation by Orion astronauts. The bus is a 40-kilowatt solar election propulsion system (SEP) that’s an order of magnitude more powerful than any SEP system operating today. The SEP bus will allow the DSG to maneuver between an always-in-sunlight halo orbit to other orbits that could be used for other applications – including lunar landings. A lunar module is not part of NASA’s plans right now, but a private company could build one and use the DSG for staging a tourist mission to the surface. Or NASA could buy landers. According to Gerstenmaier, the bus will also be equipped with 12-kilowatt maneuvering thrusters as well as chemical propulsion capability.
Next, a SLS rocket will launch a manned Orion and a habitation module to the DSG in 2024. The hab module will be docked to the power and propulsion bus. The DSG will be ready for Orion’s four astronauts to perform possible scientific experiments. The mission will last between 16 and 26 days.
Another four-person crew launches in 2025 with a logistics module and a Canadian-built robotic arm. At this point, the DSG will be able to support a four-person crew for up to 42 days. The final manned flight – set for 2026 – will see astronauts deliver an airlock to the DSG. Also, two commercial cargo flights have been scheduled for 2025 and 2026.
Phase 2: The Deep Space Transport
When construction of the DSG is finished, NASA intends to launch its manned interplanetary craft to the lunar space station for shakedown testing. Called the Deep Space Transport, or DST, the exploration vehicle will be much larger than the lunar gateway station. Remember Skylab, the first U.S. space station launched in the early 1970s? NASA converted a third stage of the Saturn V moon rocket into a spacious space station, then used one of its last Saturn V’s to launch it into orbit.
The Saturn V third stage was 6.6 meters wide, which made Skylab the same diameter. SLS has a fairing diameter of 8.4 meters, and Gerstenmaier says the DST will be designed to take advantage of the large volumes and mass that can be launched by the SLS rocket. If the DST is supplied by Bigelow Aerospace, the spacecraft will be an inflatable design that would be truly gargantuan. The 41-metric ton manned vehicle would be launched in 2027 by a cargo version of the SLS rocket.
NASA wants the DST to support an astronaut crew of four for missions lasting up to 1,000 days – or nearly three years. It’s to be reusable. The space agency wants it to be able to complete three round trips to Mars. The DST won’t be a Tinkertoy like the ISS now orbiting our planet. Its interior will include a flight deck, hab section, science lab, exercise area, greenhouse, medical quarters and logistics section – everything needed to make voyages to Mars.
Later in 2027, an Orion will deliver a four-man crew to the DST, which will be docked to the gateway station. This crew will test out the DST on a 191-221 day mission with the craft still docked to the lunar station. The ship’s supply section will need to house all replacement equipment (the ship will also have 3-D printers), since Earth will be too far away for NASA to launch resupply cargo ships like it does for the ISS.
Another four-man crew will test the DST in 2029 in a one-year test drive with the spacecraft undocked from the gateway station. If all goes well, NASA will be ready to embark for Mars in the early 2030s. That first mission will be an orbital mission with possibly a landing on one of Mars’ two moons, Phobos or Deimos. A later mission will be a landing mission.
Mars beckons. Will we set sail?
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I’m an author with three fantasy novels to my credit – The Emperor’s Mistress, Thief’s Coin and Assassins’ Lair. The books make up a trilogy titled Larenia’s Shadow. A fourth novel, this one a historical romance set during the Civil War, is scheduled for publication in October. It’s called Blessed Shadows Dark and Deep. All my novels can be purchased via the website of my publisher, Wings ePress, as well as the websites of Amazon and Barnes and Noble.