The Uninspirational End of Inspiration Mars

The first person to pay his own way to space, Dennis Tito, created quite a stir last February with his proposal to send a couple to Mars and back within five years. He proposed to do it as a private philanthropical venture, estimating that it could be done for less than a billion dollars, which was within the realm of financial possibility for such a project.

Well, this month he seems to have changed his tune. In testimony before Congress, he basically tossed the project in NASA’s lap, asking for its help, with taxpayer dollars:

…Inspiration Mars rolled out an alternative plan that relies on a public-private partnership with NASA that makes use of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and a modified Orion spacecraft, as well as commercial crew transportation systems. It would also rely primarily on NASA funding to make the mission possible. This proposal would, in effect, reshape national space policy, with a very short period for Congress and the White House to endorse this approach in order to meet its launch window.

“The way that we’re proposing this is that this is a NASA mission with a philanthropic partner contributing to the mission,” said Inspiration Mars Foundation program manager Taber MacCallum in a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. “This has to be, first and foremost, a NASA mission.”

SLS supporters have been struggling to find something useful and affordable for it to do. The latest attempt by NASA to justify it was to use it to bring an asteroid to cis-lunar space, a goal that has met lukewarm response in Congress. Some are viewing this new proposal as a potential life preserver to the troubled program:

Under this plan the SLS development would be accelerated and validated. Inspiration Mars officials said they have found a “huge desire” within NASA to do this mission. If approved, the Mars fly-by would certainly rejuvenate NASA and inject some urgency into its operations.

The fly in the ointment is that it would require several hundred million dollars, to accelerate the development of both the launcher and a new cryogenic upper stage with sufficient impulse to throw the crew to Mars and back. If it’s not ready by late 2017, the window of opportunity will be lost. There’s another in 2021, but it’s a longer journey (though it does have the advantage of visiting Venus as well). Even if they can get Congress to appropriate funds for such a dramatic shift in policy (Tito believes that it has to happen within a couple months to hit their deadline), the risk of schedule slips will remain high, given the way NASA has managed such programs over the past few decades. Also, NASA issued a statement afterward that seemed to splash cold water on the proposal:

The agency is willing to share technical and programmatic expertise with Inspiration Mars, but is unable to commit to sharing expenses with them. However, we remain open to further collaboration as their proposal and plans for a later mission develop.

Many (including me) think that this is essentially the death knell for the project, at least in 2018.

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.