The Uninspirational End of Inspiration Mars

According to MacCallum, they couldn’t “make the mission close” with purely commercial hardware, but it’s not clear what potential architectures they examined. Conspicuous by its absence in their new proposal are any products by SpaceX, though they are proposing to use an Orbital Sciences Cygnus vehicle as their crew habitat. Rather than use a Dragon, which has already been demonstrated as an entry vehicle several times, they propose to use the NASA Orion (being built by Lockheed), which won’t have as much as a preliminary test flight until next year. It’s also very heavy.

So what happened? I have no inside information, so this is purely speculative.

A natural approach for the original concept would be to go to SpaceX and purchase a couple flights of a Falcon heavy (which is likely to be flying by 2017) and a Dragon capsule for entry. They could go to United Launch Alliance to purchase a stretched Centaur upper stage (or a couple regular versions of them). They could use the Cygnus, or go directly to Thales Alenia, which builds the module on which it’s based, and add in the life-support system.

That they are not doing so leads one to consider the possibility that these items were not commercially available for this particular mission, for political reasons. Both SpaceX and ULA are politically constrained by the need to avoid upsetting the SLS applecart by demonstrating its lack of need. SpaceX still has to complete the commercial crew project to the ISS, which is dependent on its continuing to get (under)funding from the appropriations committee of which (powerful SLS supporter) Senator Dick Shelby is ranking member. ULA is jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, both of which are major contractors for SLS and Orion. If it were to be demonstrated that humans could be sent to Mars and back without either SLS or Orion, it would make it nearly impossible to continue to sustain support for those costly programs. So it’s understandable that companies currently dependent on the largess of Senator Shelby and other congressional supporters of them would be reluctant to participate in such a demonstration.

For over half a century, the myth that we cannot go beyond earth orbit without a giant rocket has been a barrier to us going beyond earth orbit. But as this latest episode demonstrates, unaffordable programs like the SLS are not a highway to the solar system. They are a roadblock.