2 3 4 5 6 7 8 1 11 10 9Mars Society Switzerland
Inspiration Mars
Feasibility of inhabited flights to Mars
At first glance, the “Inspiration Mars” mission ("IM") proposed by the engineer and American businessman Dennis Tito may seem unnecessary. A mere flyby Mars is not what planetary scientists or those who are considering the establishment of outposts of Mankind on Mars, dream about. However, it’s worth looking at the project more closely. Firstly, no private entity is presently ready, independently of States, to organize a manned mission with landing on the surface of the planet, because none has the ability to raise the billions of dollars that would be required (the feasibility of “Mars One” remains to be seen). Some governments could do it but none is ready either, since the current administration of the United States, the most capable among spacefaring nations, is not in favor of manned space exploration, and since ESA rejects those flights to an undetermined “later”. In this context, the IM proposal seems acceptable. In the frame of a public / private partnership, the mission would only increase by $ 100 million, for seven years, the annual NASA budget of over $ 17 billion (besides 300 million, total, for the private partners). The effort would be all the less difficult than this budget has remained stable in current dollars since 2009. Secondly, the mission could be an opportunity for NASA to test, at no additional cost, the advanced equipment necessary for Deep Space manned missions: an Earth Return Vehicle with a heat shield capable to withstand a heat flow of up to 2000 W / cm ² ( 1400 nowadays ) when entering the Earth atmosphere; a large enough space module; an Environment Control & Life Support System efficient reliable and compact; not to mention a new heavy launcher capable of putting 100 tons in low Earth orbit (much less than the 130 tons of Saturn V, 40 years ago!). Thirdly, for the first time this mission would expose human beings to space radiations along the journey Earth / March / Earth. Even though the effects would be mostly delayed, they could be studied and taken into account for future missions. Fourthly, the approach and the Mars flyby would provide a magnificent spectacle, never seen by human eyes, and show that Mars is not only within reach of instruments created by man, but of man himself. This mission would be the shortest and most economical possible if it leaves Earth around New Year 2018, on account of a particular positioning of the planets on their orbit around the Sun which occurs only once every 15 years. At that time Mars, the orbit of which is highly elliptical, will be at its closest to the Sun at the time of the flyby. This would allow a lower launch speed to leave the Earth and therefore the possibility of injecting a larger payload on the interplanetary trajectory. On account of its position, Mars would also allow, a much faster “free return” (thanks to its gravity pull only, and therefore with no additional propulsion) reducing the journey time to 501 days (versus 580 in 2020). These benefits would obviously facilitate the survival of the crew. Furthermore, we can see that the equipment needed for the flyby mission already exist or are under development: The Earth Return Vehicle would be an Orion capsule, which is to be tested in 2014. To be used for the mission, it should however be fitted with a more efficient heat shield. Living space could be more than doubled with the Cygnus pressurized cargo module that was tested in September 2013 as an ISS service module. Getting the needed heavy launcher is not an overwhelming problem since NASA is presently developing a “Space Launch System” to replace the former ARES program. Its second stage, “Dual Use Upper Stage” could put up 105 tons onto Low Earth Orbit and allow the proper injection on the transfer orbit to Mars. It is scheduled for after 2020 but could be built earlier if Congress so decides. The most difficult technical challenge is to adapt a stronger heat shield to Orion for its re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. In effect, the negative side of a short trip back is a return to Earth at a very high speed. At the chosen departure date, the re-entry speed should reach a minimum 14.2 km/s which induces a maximum acceptable deceleration and a maximum acceptable capsule temperature (inside and outside). Engineers who advise the IM team (fully qualified professionals) are nevertheless convinced they can find a solution using existing technologies. On this basis, a 2018 Mars flyby manned mission would be possible. It would add nothing to the understanding of Mars, but beyond allowing a very strong sequence of communication actions, it would consolidate our knowledge in astronautics and life support for a future “complete” mission. The next challenge would be the very difficult “EDL” required to lay heavy payloads on the surface of Mars (15 tons versus only one today). This could be treated separately with more serenity. The real obstacle to the project is the indifference, not to say hostility, of President Obama for manned exploration. We must unfortunately anticipate that he will neither ask NASA to do some arm twisting to its prudential procedures, nor accelerate its process, nor ask Congress to unlock the few hundreds of millions dollars lacking to the project. To progress further, we will most probably have to wait for another President or the initiative of some Elon Musk, rich enough to force NASA into his own ways or do without it. Unfortunately we would have forfeited the 2018 opportunity. Pierre Brisson President of the Mars Society Switzerland Dec. 14th 2013 Published in the newspaper "Le Temps" on Dec. 18th 2013 (title: "Survoler Mars en 2018? Essayons!")
IIllustration from the "Inspiration Mars" study report; Nov 2013