Spaceflight Insider

Opinion: Why a Mars flyby mission?

Image Credit: NASA / JPL

Lately there have been several proposals to launch manned missions to circle past the planet Mars and return to Earth. Inspiration Mars, is a nonprofit venture that is working to launch a manned Mars flyby in 2018, when Earth and Mars are at opposition. The House Appropriations Committee just authorized NASA to study the feasibility of launching a crewed mission to orbit Mars by 2021. Neither of these plans shows much promise or practical value, and there are far better destinations in space in the short term.

The International Space Station has vastly increased our experience in long-duration space flight, but has not prepared us for a flight to Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

The International Space Station has vastly increased our experience in long-duration space flight, but has not prepared us for a flight to Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

There is little doubt that Mars is and always has been one of the primary goals of the U.S. crewed space program. In fact, when the first unmanned Apollo mission was launched, Vice President Spiro Agnew said, “Now we must go to Mars!” More than four decades later and we still have yet to launch a manned mission to the Red Planet

Right now Mars One is trying to mount a one-way Mars colonization mission by 2024. So, with more than forty years since we set foot on the surface of the Moon, perhaps we are starting to realize that there’s a mission that we have forgotten. In terms of destinations Mars is the prime location that crews of astronauts should be sent to.

Of all the planets in the Solar System, it’s the most like Earth. It has water. It is thought to be fairly easy to terraform.

There’s just one problem. We haven’t been to the Moon since 1972. The space shuttle is retired and the United States currently has no manned access to space. From Skylab to the Apollo-Soyuz mission to the space shuttle to the International Space Station, all the space experience during the lifetimes of most of the people alive today has been restricted to low-Earth-orbit at altitudes of less than four hundred miles. All the experts who took us to the Moon in the 1960s and ‘70s have either died or retired. The hardware and the expertise for sending crews beyond the orbit of Earth – has disappeared. We’re starting over from scratch.

Apollo 8 was one of the boldest space missions in history--but the Moon is a lot closer than Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

Apollo 8 was one of the boldest space missions in history–but the Moon is a lot closer than Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

However, why Mars and why now? A Mars flyby has been compared to Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the Moon. On the surface, there might be some similarities. Certainly Apollo 8 was an audacious and daring venture. It was the first manned flight of the Saturn V and it was going all the way to the Moon. There was no lunar module, so there was no backup should the command and service module’s main engine fail during the flight. For the first time in history, human beings left Earth orbit and voyaged to another world. The space program was hopelessly primitive back then, yet they went to the Moon anyway; surely we’re as capable today of going to Mars, with our reusable rockets and unwelded spaceship hulls and pocket supercomputers, as those sliderule-users of the 1960s were of going to the Moon.

Not quite. The Moon is only three days away. It’s much easier to send humans in a largely unproven spacecraft on an experimental mission for about a week than it is to send people on a voyage of a year or more far into deep space beyond all hope of rescue, or even of rapid communication. At its closest, Mars is some 55 million miles away from Earth.

A voyage to Mars will offer new challenges, ones which humans have never before faced. It’s easy to say that we have plenty experience with long-term spaceflight thanks to the International Space Station, but a voyage to Mars is very different. For one thing, we have yet to begin year-long tours aboard the ISS (although they are scheduled to begin next year), and though some of the Mir cosmonauts spent a year or more in space, those were one-off missions, so we don’t have the necessary experience of human endurance for the length of time of a Mars mission.

If things go wrong aboard the ISS, communication with Mission Control is instantaneous. Flight surgeons know what’s going on with the guys in orbit. Technical advice is on hand, backed by the best experts in the world. Quite frequently, things have gone wrong aboard the ISS, necessitating lengthy extravehicular activity which has been advised by Mission Control in real-time and can be watched live by anyone on Earth. And even in the face of catastrophe, the ISS astronauts can simply board a Soyuz and come home. Those things will not be possible aboard a spaceship hurtling at twenty thousand miles an hour through the vast void between Earth and Mars.

And as the astronauts battle their way through half a year of unforeseen equipment difficulties, the possibility of solar flares, isolation, boredom, possible micrometeoroids, and whatever other unexpected hazards the universe might throw their way, what’s the payoff—both for them and the eager audiences on Earth? A brief flyby of Mars and then the long trip home. “Inspiration” Mars suddenly doesn’t sound inspiring exactly.

Solar flares are one of many dangers astronauts may experience on the way to Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

Solar flares are one of many dangers astronauts may experience on the way to Mars. Photo Credit: NASA

No doubt the view of Mars up close will be thrilling to the astronauts who make the voyage, but equally certain is that they will want to land. So did the astronauts on Apollo 10 who were deliberately given not enough fuel to land on the Moon—but two of those astronauts later had the chance to land. Once again, the Moon is a lot closer and takes a lot less time to get there. If we’re going to go all the way to Mars, why not take that final step and land? The answer, of course, is the inclusion of a lander would add to the cost, the weight, the life support necessities, and the length of the mission. Clearly we’re not ready to land on Mars.

But if we’re not ready to land on Mars, why go there at all? Mars flybys, trips to lasso asteroids, missions to the LaGrange points, all these things are pointless endeavors constructed to justify President Obama’s decision not to return to the Moon, and so we’re floundering to find any destination other than the Moon.

This makes no sense; the Moon is nearby, it provides a handy destination to practice landing and living on an alien world, enabling us to become proficient in deep space navigation, and it has minerals and resources that can not only help us on Earth but would drive research and development of new and revolutionary technologies, and make possible the construction of a lunar base. This base would include a space launch facility and spacecraft, making trips to Mars far easier, more affordable, and inevitable.

A Mars flyby mission is expensive and unnecessary and it would wastefully divert limited resources away from a far more meaningful destination. One which would allow humanity to explore throughout the solar system far more easily. Instead of finding any destination other than the one which would make all others more easy to reach – why not start at the one which actually makes sense?


The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of The SpaceFlight Group

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Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.

Reader Comments

Collin, I admire your courage and integrity for saying aloud what many of us believe: “Mars flybys, trips to lasso asteroids, missions to the LaGrange points, all these are pointless endeavors constructed to justify President Obama’s decision not to return to the Moon,”.

He cancelled it because it had George Bush all over it, and he didn’t want that!!

He canceled it because it was hopelessly over budget and behind schedule, and a group of experts recommended a different (“flexible”) path to Mars. I’m ambivalent about destinations. But I know that the economy was about to implode when Obama came into office and Constellation was a poster child for government overspending.

Without establishing a sustainable presence, missions to the Moon would simply be a repeat of Apollo (at least that was the opinion of those who put forward the Flexible Path approach). Building and sustaining a Moon base or habitat would be hugely expensive and would likely delay future Mars missions because of their cost.

An asteroid mission was viewed as a sufficiently challenging (and not a budget-busting) step toward Mars, not a political statement about Bush’s Moon effort. Let the private sector lead Moon exploration/exploitation (with NASA’s help), and let NASA push outward to Mars and beyond.

Hi Edward,
Interesting thing about the 2nd Augustine Commission was the recommendations they were allowed to make – were limited. I can’t recall if it was under the current budget or not – but I think it’s important that this piece of info not be left out.

While being ambivalent is okay for private citizens – it’s not when it comes to multi-billion dollar efforts. Excluding one destination which would ease reaching all others – is unwise.

Agree on Constellation. Missions to the Moon would be a repeat of Apollo if that’s all they’re designed for. If they’re designed to build a permanent presence & develop in situ resources? It wouldn’t be. It’d be the opening of the door to the rest of the solar system. The “Flexible Path” should be called what it is – the “Ill-Defined Path” – which is why missions to Lagrangian points, an asteroid & elsewhere come and go.

Yes, a lunar base would delay a mission to Mars – if done properly? It’d also likely make any mission to Mars safer / more effective. Skipping the Moon & going straight to Mars – is a bad idea.

“Lassoing” an asteroid & dragging it to lunar orbit is like digging a pond in front of the Atlantic. ARM is another non-lunar effort by those who brought us the policy of “We’ve been there.”

As to the suggestion the “private sector” should lead lunar exploration. Edward, you’ve my deepest respect – but that’s incorrect. They haven’t even sent one person into low-Earth-orbit yet. Perhaps they should accomplish that first.

While I appreciate your opinions, it seems you skip over a logical step-by-step approach – but provide no rational explanation as to why. We haven’t journeyed beyond LEO in more than four decades. We need to get our space legs back first.

Sincerely and with kind regards, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

Robert Clark

Thanks for the article. For a discussion of all the scientific and technological advantages of returning to the Moon see Dr. Paul Spudis web site:

Bob Clark

Ferris Valyn

How do you pay for a lander with the current budget?

Ferris Valyn


And roughly how long do you think it will take to go from starting the program, to a lander built and ready to use? And what do you think the required budget will be?

Hi Ferris,
It’d be best if we established your position (a lobbyist). As well as what you’re a lobbyist for.

In terms of a lunar lander? We already had one – it was called Altair. The current administration had it cancelled. So, the real question is: How long do you think it’ll take to re start the program, to a lander built and ready to use?

As to a Mars lander? We went from (essentially) a proposal to footprints on the Moon in 8 years. I’d like to believe we’re still able to achieve something like that at comparable rates.

I think a collaborative international effort with elements of commercial space could do it faster and less expensively.

Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group


Sorry, but no. We did not “have a Lander.” Altair was a paper vehicle. Of course, I would counter that had we applied the 2011 budget proposal as was proposed, we’d be much closer to being on the moon. But, that something better sorted out by the likes of Harry Turtledove and other alternative history novels. So lets leave that to the side (and I am only talking about lunar landers), and I’ll make my point.

If I am reading Mr. Skocik’s piece, he seems to be suggesting going back to the moon, as opposed to Mars Flyby or asteroid mission. I don’t have a stake in the destination – to me having deployed hardware is more important than destination selection.

But ok – he is articulating a return to the moon, in the 2020s or so. Then the issue presents itself is rather obvious – you can’t land on the moon, without a lander. And the biggest problem with developing a lander is having the budget wedge for it, and thats not a small problem. The best example of that is found on page 95 of the Augustine report. If you rush towards doing lunar stuff right away, you have to deal with developing a lander.

And you are depending on the ISS budget wedge for the development – presuming that actually does become available to you in 2020 (something that is open for question, but for the sake of argument we can assume that), that means real development work doesn’t begin until then.

So work begins in 2020 to bring the lander to fruition. Historically, the Apollo lander started its design freeze around 63, with a first flight in 67, and first manned flight in 69, and of course landing in 69. So, thats a spread of 6 years or so from conception to usage.

So, based on historical trends, and available budget, we are talking about not landing on the moon until 2025-2026. And that presumes things go relatively smoothly.

That to me doesn’t do the job. And please don’t claim that we can put the Altair plans on the shelf and pull them down in 6-7 years and be on our merry way. And what are we doing while we wait for a lunar lander to arrive?

Hi Ferris,

Your opening comment about alternative history, was rude, you can be accused of the same thing. Given NewSpacers often speak of Falcon Heavy as if it’s already flown, I assumed it would be OK to follow suit. Apologies.

The U.S. was developing a lander & it was cancelled. I’m not “depending” on anything. Despite the fact some lobbyists project their intentions/capabilities on the media I don’t have the ability to “do” anything in terms of the budget.

Read my earlier comment on the 2nd Augustine Commission – given they were limited in what they could propose? The suggestions made by them probably don’t carrying as much weight.

I’ll take 2025-26 over: “We’ve been there…”

You left out NASA is working with a far smaller budget than during Apollo. Also, since the first crewed flight of Orion is slated for 2021? I think it’s likely 4 years would elapse before NASA could carry out such a mission anyway.

Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

As someone has already stated, the only reason the Space Exploration Initiative (CONSTELLATION was the program to build the hardware for it) was canceled was because it was underfunded by $3 Billion/year. Not because the concept was wrong. The concept was right and should be re-established. I’m sure we can find ways to do it cheaper now. Back to the Moon, Then to Mars, and Beyond. That’s the logical route to Human expansion into space. We shouldn’t do “flags and footprints” ever again.

Ferris Valyn

Which concept are we talking about, just so we are clear? The destination order? The hardware being planned? The specific mission sets?

The concept was and is sound. The place I come from in these kinds of discussions is what moves us forward, but does not paint us into a corner. I usually define that as infrastructure that not only gets us somewhere specific but allows other things to happen and for it to all get cheaper the more we use it. Mars should be the ultimate goal (for now). The Moon is where we will prove some of the hardware and other things. I want to get to Mars as bad as anyone. But I don’t want a one-off “flags and footprints” mission. It has to be a stepping stone process in which we build on the previouse step. And hopefully build infrastructure in it’s wake that has commercial benefits. Whatever plan we put in place will evolve as we go along and learn, so don’t try and paint me into a corner and nit pic the SEI. No plan is perfect. Again, the concept is sound. If we decide that a Mars flyby (or similiar) is a good step in the plan (and I’m sure it will be at some point) that is fine by me. I look forward to it. But it has to be part of a comprehensive plan, otherwise we will waste a lot of time, effort and money. That is why no one is behind the Obama ARM mission. It is a one off. We’ll surely learn from it, but we’ll waste a lot of time and money because it is not part of a larger plan that gets us anywhere. IF it ever flies, what do you think comes in its wake? I’ll tell you. Nothing. IF it ever flies, I’ll enjoy following it. It will be cool. We’ll learn a lot. But it leads us into a dead end. I want a path to moving Humanity into space. Not some government program meant to keep people busy for no reason other than to keep people busy. Again, it is wasteful and mostly pointless, though high in entertainment/interest value (Bread and Circus’ anyone?).

Ferris Valyn

I am not trying to nit-pick or paint you into a corner. But you said the concept was sound. That statement to me isn’t clear. Let me give you an example.

I definitely embrace the general concept of returning to the moon, for a variety of reasons. However, I have a real problem with the Constellation concept of returning to the moon. OTOH, if the concept was much more commercially based, such as using commercial heavy lift, or commercialized fuel depots, or something like that, I am much more in favor of it.

I agree with everything you just said. The more commercial the better. Government has its place and role–where things are too risky or expensive for the commercial sector. And pushing the envelope where commercials can’t or won’t. Again, general concept is the path to Mars is through the Moon where we will test as much as we can, do some exploration along the way, and leave as much infrastructure in the wake so something commercial will come of it. Wash, rinse, repeat. The problem with SLS and Orion is that they are bridges to nowhere right now. Cart before the horse. They made sense for the SEI (at least going back to the Moon part). But since there is no plan we don’t know what we really need. Personally I think the Orion is too much spacecraft for getting into space, but too little spacecraft to go to Mars. We need the commercials to take us to orbit, where we should board a spacecraft meant to take us from Earth to where ever (a governemt project?). The SLS as presently moving forward is too expensive, but it’s capacity is pretty good (or will be) and should be useful in that regard. I’m betting the commercials will do a better job of it (Falcon Heavy or whatever comes next?). Long discussion short–let’s start doing something with what we have on hand and improve upon it as we go along. This whole thing of starting and stopping is not getting us anywhere. Let’s put a plan in place. I’m okay with flying Obama’s ARM mission in the meantime as a sandwich to tide us over until dinner’s on the table.

Lastly, just an interesting observation. I was in Florida last week on vacation and spent 2 days at KSC seeing everything I could. There was viturally nothing there about SLS. There was an Orion capsule mockup on display and not much else. I saw zero, nothing, bupkis, on the Asteroid Retreval Mission. My interpretation is that NASA is not serious about all that stuff either.

My point about alternative history was that, ultimately, the debate of whether Constellation would’ve been successful, or Obama’s proposed budget been successful is ultimately an academic exercise (although I’ll grant I probably could’ve had a bit more tact) and so its best to let that debate end. Its like arguing how the South could’ve won civil war. Anyway….

You raised the point about whether Augustine could only propose options under the current budget or not. The answer, thankfully, is in the report. Two of the options were within the budget, and the other options had a $3 Billion increase.

Also, I’d point out that the White House is not hostile to lunar spaceflight – see Lunar CATALYST. They were not happy with Constellation, but there is a difference between a destination and a program. (I will note that there are people who don’t really embrace the moon, but they aren’t who you believe they are).

Finally, (important point) – flexible path does not mean lunar return isn’t in the cards.

As long as I’ve referenced counter-factual history, I do have a question – if Obama hadn’t said “been there, done that” in reference to the moon, but had made the moon the destination as part of a flexible path, with everything else staying the same in his proposed budget (tech development, commercialization), would you still have been as hostile?

You’re a NewSpace lobbyist. Why not be daring & mention something that isn’t going to benefit your agenda? Moreover, it isn’t dedicated to human lunar exploration. So, while you’ve held up a lunar effort, it’s one with a stated purpose of ROBOTIC exploration. You’re comparing apples to oranges & doing so using a brand of apple you sell.

That’s a good question. I think, I might not have been. Now you’re posing a “what if” scenario. I’m not hostile to the commercial & other aspects that have grown out of the president’s space policies – I’m hostile to the destruction inflicted on our aerospace infrastructure because of them.

Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

Ferris Valyn


If you want to believe that all lobbyists are mercenaries, focused only on the biggest payout possible and damn the consequences, then there isn’t much I can say. But, as I’ve said before, the reason I do what I do is because I believe in the vision of space settlement and space development that is offered by commercial space. (I could make a lot more money if I didn’t believe that policy had to be good long term as well – its why I still view myself as a professional activist). Anyway, I have no idea what you would propose that would be “daring”

As for remembering Lunar CATALYST…
I’ll grant that it isn’t “focused” on producing a manned lunar lander (IE it does not guarantee a manned lander at the end of the program). But I would ask that you look at the details of Lunar CATALYST again, and in particular, also look at the winners. To presume that there isn’t at least the possibility (and I would argue likelyhood) of risk reduction work that is useful for a manned lander (and maybe more) coming out of that program I would argue is ignoring data. So, its not apples to oranges.

Ferris Valyn

Or at least, Oranges to Clementines


Why do NewSpacers ignore efforts that aren’t exclusive to NewSpace? To hear some of them tell it, an unmanned spacecraft traveling to the ISS is the greatest achievement in human history but Apollo was an over-funded publicity stunt. The fact you call Altair a “paper vehicle” but don’t describe CATALYST that way – validates this.

Sincerely and with kind regards, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group


you are mixing your terms, and you need to be careful (and now you are comparing apples and oranges, I would argue). Saying Lunar CATALYST is a paper rocket isn’t actually true. CATALYST isn’t a rocket, its a program to encourage the development of multiple landers (which is different than a program that will deliver a single lander). Now, I will grant that the vehicles selected for CATALYST are still in the developmental stage, as was Altair when it was cancelled (IE none of them have actually flown), and so you can absolutely say those are at the same level.

My point in referencing CATALYST is to point out the fallacy that the administration is hostile to returning humans to the moon. I grant it doesn’t get humans on the moon, but will you grant that it moves us closer to having humans on the moon, or do you honestly believe that the work done under CATALYST won’t advance the cause of humans landing on the moon?

You called Altair a “paper vehicle” but then suggested the current administration isn’t anti-lunar because of CATALYST. You’re getting confused by your own wandering logic and are essentially gerrymandering reality to fit what you believe.

Obama’s policy on human lunar exploration is: “We’ve been there.” I’m sorry that reality contradicts what you want the world to think. Stating Obama isn’t against human exploration of the Moon is a fallacy anyone who takes an honest look at history will spot. Suggesting NASA’s (CATALYST isn’t an Obama effort) CATALYST program proves otherwise – is silly.

Apple: A planned lander that would have carried crew to the Moon’s surface. Orange: An industrial-strength Lunabotics competition designed to build robots. The fact you’d try to conduct such a lopsided bait-and-switch is disappointing.

You downplay all non-“commercial” efforts & over-inflate the importance of commercial ones. Will CATALYST help get humans back to the Moon? Not as much as developing an actual lander would have.

CATALYST is listed as a development program to produce robotic landers. So will it help humans land on the Moon? It likely will have more impact on robots like Opportunity & Curiosity rather than people like Neil Armstrong. So, no, I don’t.

If we are going to go anywhere we should be going to 3753 Cruithne first, and Venus next. Cruithne is the most strategically located asteroid in the solar system. Once a year like clockwork it comes close to earth (30x lunar distance). It has a one year orbit that brings it close to Venus and Mars at other times. Astronomers call it “Earth’s other moon.” Build a habitat and refueling station there and Venus and Mars are easy. Go to Venus, set up an electrostatic ramscoop at the L2 point to collect hydrogen and oxygen from the gas plume and you could refuel and go anywhere.

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