“Mars is possible, and in a time horizon of interest,” Hoppy Price, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said May 20 during a presentation with the space agency’s Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group. “It could happen in our lifetime, and it wouldn’t take a trillion dollars to do it.”
This effort would require four launches of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket, which is currently in development and is scheduled to make its maiden flight in 2018.
The first Phobos-oriented SLS launch, in 2029, would loft a space tug and two chemical-propulsion payloads — a Phobos Transfer Stage and a Trans-Earth Injection Stage. The tug would use solar-electric propulsion (SEP) to haul the two payloads to Mars orbit in just less than four years. (The team’s concept requires no big breakthroughs in propulsion technology or other areas, Price said.)
A second SLS liftoff would carry another SEP tug and the Phobos base, which could support a crew of four. The tug would take the base to Phobos and deposit it on the moon’s surface, then stay with the habitat to provide power and move it to different locations on Phobos if desired.
The third SLS launch, around 2032, would carry a deep-space habitat (with the same basic design as the Phobos base) and a Mars Orbit Insertion Stage to Earth orbit. Another SLS liftoff would then send NASA’s Orion capsule and a crew of four up to meet this preplaced gear, which would help take the astronauts to Mars orbit in a journey lasting 200 to 250 days.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of a landing on Mars and indeed human colonisation thereof (if it’s worth colonising), but I suspect that NASA’s bureaucrat heavy costing model and desire for ‘big new kit’ is essentially the problem here.
If we put the entrepreneurs in charge instead of the bureaucrats I suspect we could get a mission to Phobos by 2025 and landing on Mars soon thereafter.
We already have a marshalling yard and habitation module in orbit in the form of the ISS. Simply build the interplanetary components of the cargo and habitation units on earth in a modular form and powered by electric motors and boost them into space using the SpaceX Falcon Heavy alongside the ISS with a limited final assembly in orbit alongside the ISS.
At next opposition (when Mars and Earth are closest) fire them to Phobos so that food, water and habitation are ready and waiting for astronauts upon their arrival and we can test and monitor equipment remotely. Do the same with the Phobos-Mars descent/ascent vehicle.
The speed of the journey here is not critical so it doesn’t matter if it takes 18-months to get there as long as they are operational before the astronauts depart the ISS.
Then do the same for the ISS/Phobos shuttle with the crew module and powered by a multi-megawatt Vasimr engine capable of reaching Mars at opposition in 40/50 days.
The ISS/Phobos shuttle would be completely reusable as none of the components would be subject to damage by atmospheric re-entry albeit a chemical powered Phobos descent/ascent module would probably be necessary.
All of the technology to do this is available today (albeit both the Vasimr engine and Phobos-Mars descent/ascent vehicle require more work, this could be undertaken during the preparation phase for the Phobos habitation module.
All of the above could be achieved for a fraction of the current NASA proposals for MARS and in less than half the time. The ISS/Phobos shuttle could be reused to support a genuine space base on Phobos (transiting at every opposition) and the ISS would have a genuine purpose.
P.S. – Currently reading Andy Weir’s The Martian.