Lockheed Martin outlines plan to send humans to Mars orbit by 2028
A plan to send humans to Martian orbit was outlined by members of Lockheed Martin during the Humans to Mars Summit and, at the same time, the U.S. House of Representatives Space Subcommittee in Washington, DC. The plan calls for a laboratory around the Red Planet to be occupied by six astronauts by 2028.
The “Mars Base Camp” concept, which has not yet been publicly endorsed by NASA, would accelerate the space agency’s timeline for humans arriving at Mars from sometime in the mid-2030s to an earlier time in the late 2020s. It uses and expands upon plans already being studied by Lockheed Martin to develop habitats for deep space exploration. The company, however, did not specify any technical details or costs related to the proposed science laboratory, other than it would need to fit within NASA’s existing budget.
“What can you get done in 10 years?” said Tony Antonelli, Lockheed Martin’s chief technologist for civil space exploration and a former NASA astronaut. “It has to be affordable, so now just make it fit. What can you accomplish?”
Antonelli formally announced the concept at the Humans to Mars Summit during a panel discussion titled Vision to Reality: Human Exploration of Mars.
The Mars Base Camp concept would put scientist-astronauts in range of the moons of Mars as well as allow for low-latency telerobotics on the surface of the Red Planet. The crew could analyze Martian rock and regolith samples—some might even be launched robotically from the surface to rendezvous with the lab—and make real-time science decisions.
“A key part of turning the vision into a reality and accomplishing stuff in relatively short term—something bold and exciting—is leveraging your existing capabilities,” Antonelli said.
The concept is built on technologies that are available today or currently in development. Orion, for which Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor, is designed to be a deep-space crew capsule. As such their concept relies on it for life support, communication, and navigation. The Space Launch System rocket would lift the company’s habitat modules and equipment and push them toward Mars.
Habitat modules, like the ones being proposed by Lockheed Martin and other companies in NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, will give astronauts a place to live and work both in transit and around the Red Planet. Finally, Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which is already in wide use on smaller commercial spacecraft in Earth orbit, would be used to propel crew and hardware to Mars.
Some equipment would be pre-positioned on or around Mars, whereas others would be sent with a crew. The Mars Base Camp is designed to have two of everything: two Orion spacecraft, two habitats, two Solar Electric Propulsion system, etc.
Once in orbit around Mars, the vast amount of power that was used to send the spacecraft to the Red Planet can be re-purposed for an equally vast amount of science and communication, both to Earth and surface bound craft.
Since there will be two Orion spacecraft, the second one could double as an excursion vehicle to Mars’ two moons: Phobos and Deimos.
“Everything that you need in an excursion vehicle exists inside Orion,” Antonelli said. “So now [we’re] taking the capabilities you’ve already invested in and tested and using those for multiple missions.”
As far as timelines go, the company is proposing this as an acceleration of NASA’s current plans already on the agency’s flight manifest. For example, the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), currently scheduled for 2018, will still take place as planned.
Where things begin to accelerate is the 2021 flight of EM-2. Instead of being a repeat of EM-1 with a crew, it would begin the construction of a cislunar habitat to test the technologies required for the Mars Base Camp concept.
EM-3 would begin testing out advanced SEP. By 2026, hardware, such as teleoperated rovers, would be sent to Mars to wait for people to arrive in orbit. In 2027, the crew that will be the first to orbit the Red Planet would begin pre-departure tests in advance of a trans-Mars injection burn.
Antonelli said a public focus, every year, is the key to keep the public engaged in any kind of mission spanning this duration. In addition to keeping the public engaged, any long-term plan must maintain support from the U.S. Congress.
Earlier in the day, members of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space met to hear and discuss proposals to build and send deep space habitats beyond low-Earth orbit. The discussion also talked, albeit briefly, about Lockheed’s proposal for a deep space habitat.
The subcommittee chair, Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, said that the topic of the hearing was to examine the challenges and discuss what it will take to turn into reality humanity’s exploration of Mars. He also said that the support of congress is one of the foremost requirements for success in an endeavor to the Red Planet.
“Undoubtedly, bipartisan, bicameral support is strongly behind this goal,” Babin said. “In fact, bipartisan support in our spaceflight and exploration programs is so strong that the 2016 NASA authorization act passed the house by a unanimous voice vote.”
Babin went on to note that one of the most critical technologies on a journey to Mars is a habitat. He said congress demonstrated its support of space exploration last year when it passed the most significant update to space law in decades.
In the 2016 appropriations bill, congress directed NASA to invest no less than $55 million to develop a prototype habitat module by 2018. The goal was to maximize the SLS-Orion architecture potential in deep space.
Babin said that because much still needs to be done to develop systems and operations to mitigate the effects humans face during long-duration space missions, it is critical to continue utilizing the International Space Station through at least 2024.
“We know what goal that we want to achieve—putting humans on Mars,” Babin said. “What continues to be unclear is the detailed plan. How are we going to accomplish this bold and challenging goal? What are the requisite precursor missions, the technologies, sustaining systems and habitation requirements and current capabilities?”
Babin went on to state that there will be many unknowns until a plan is outlined, but what is known is NASA will need habitation for the journey to Mars. However, there are numerous questions as to how NASA will acquire, develop, and fund these modules.
Those present to give testimony to answer these questions were Jason Crusan, NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems director; John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Space Exploration, Boeing Defense, Space, and Security at the Boeing Company; Wanda Sigur, vice president and general manager of Civil Space at the Lockheed Martin Corporation; Frank Culbertson, president of the Space Systems Group at Orbital ATK; and Andy Weir, author of the book, The Martian.
Crusan said NASA is currently in NextSTEP phase two, which is currently soliciting concepts for deep space habitats. The space agency plans to select multiple companies by August for ground testing by 2018.
Lockheed Martin’s representative at the hearing, Sigur, laid out the capabilities Orion is being developed for, including the ability to be a “1,000-day plus” spacecraft. The company has learned a lot since the first test flight of Orion in December 2014—Exploration Flight Test-1.
Sigur said the Mars Base Camp concept, which utilizes Orion and their NextSTEP habitat proposals, would give NASA a plan for getting to Mars. She said it is simple: Transport astronauts from Earth to a Mars-orbiting science laboratory where they can perform real-time science exploration.
Lockheed Martin joins a growing number of companies that are pursuing Mars plans. On April 27, NewSpace company SpaceX revealed their intention to send their Crew Dragon spacecraft, without people, to the surface of Mars as early as 2018. That spacecraft is currently in development to send people to the International Space Station as early as next year.
“Mars is closer than you think. We are very much interested in accelerating the journey,” Sigur said.
Video courtesy of Lockheed Martin
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.