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A View from Stephen Cass

Stepping Stones to Mars?

Asteroids and the moons of Mars could lay the foundations for humans to explore the surface of the red planet.

  • August 12, 2009

New Scientist is reporting that the Augustine Commission, chartered to make recommendations on the future of the US human spaceflight program, may suggest that NASA embark on a series of deep-space rendezvous and flyby missions before attempting to land astronauts on Mars.

The asteroid Ida is about 55 kilometers long. It is one of thousands of asteroids in the asteroid belt, a region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA

Flying to an asteroid would be a natural stepping point between an expedition to the Moon (a roughly 10-day mission) and one to the surface of Mars (a roughly 1,000-day mission). Flybys of Mars and Venus would help to further build up deep-space experience, possibly culminating in a penultimate mission to the surface of Phobos, Mars’ largest moon. These would be exciting missions that could finally move NASA’s human spaceflight program beyond low Earth orbit for the first time in nearly 40 years.

These ideas are not new–in 2000, for example, NASA published a strategic plan that focused on a similar scheme, dubbing such stepping missions “design reference points.” And the idea of conducting manned flybys of Mars prior to a landing dates back to Wernher von Braun. And this is part of the problem–the truth is that the Augustine Commission is unlikely to propose any option for going to Mars, or anywhere else, that hasn’t already been proposed, possibly several times (a monograph published by the NASA history office, titled Humans to Mars: Fifty Years of Mission Planning, 1950-2000, makes for depressing reading: in the minds of optimistic mission planners, sending astronauts to the red planet is always just a few years away–like the end of the rainbow, forever just out of reach).

This lack of originality is not in itself a drawback–what’s important is an engineering solution that works, and if that happens to be an idea dreamt up in 1965, fair enough. The question is, if these ideas couldn’t garner congressional support, or survive NASA’s internal bureaucracy, when they were first proposed, will they really make a difference now, even if wrapped in the bright packaging of a new Commission report? In 10 years time, will we still be debating when we should retire the shuttle, and how we should escape low Earth orbit for the first time in nearly 50 years?

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