by Chris Carberry
While traveling home from Washington to Boston I am contemplating the International Space Development Conference (ISDC). My conclusion is that we had a good time at ISDC. The Mars track was a wonderfully busy event, and filled with interesting speakers and a room filled to capacity — and over — most of the day.
For the second year in a row, ExploreMars had been asked to run the Mars programming at ISDC and we were again able to put together a great lineup of speakers. They included Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, NASA Mars Exploration Program Director Doug McCuistion, NASA Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) “Curiosity” Astrobiology Lead Mary Voytek, NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) scientist Richard Zurek, and those who spoke at our Mars mission architecture panel, Aerojet’s Joe Cassady, Boeing’s Matt Duggan, and Stephanie Bednarek from SpaceX as, not surprisingly, one day after their historic docking with the International Space Station (ISS), a lot of people were anxious to hear what SpaceX had to say on Mars missions.
McCuistion, during his opening plenary speech, assured the audience that the Mars program is not ending — The Science Directorate is formulating a new pathway for Mars science missions. Specifically, the Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) has collected over 400 proposals for potential missions. This was double what they were expecting and we hope that within this large number of proposals, they will be able to pick a number of worthwhile missions and will get the budget to launch them. We believe a successful MSL landing will go a long way to stimulate interest in funding Mars exploration. Interestingly, when asked if they were interested in sending science missions to Phobos or Deimos, McCuistion said that NASA had little scientific interest for the Martian moons. It is the Martian surface NASA is interested in.
In the afternoon session, it was standing room only for our audience. Mary Voytek from NASA led off with a presentation about the MSL mission that is landing in August. She spoke extensively about the radiation sensors (RAD) and provided a wonderful overview of the MSL mission. If successful, this will truly be the most amazing mission ever sent to Mars.
The audience particularly seemed excited by the Mars Exploration Architecture session. This session made it clear that many companies want to do a Human Mars mission far more efficiently than anything that has been proposed in the past — and cheaper, too. I think people were excited to see so many viable options particularly since there has been so much doom and gloom lately concerning the future of Mars exploration. This session showed that we have many affordable options. All we need is a decision to go and the willpower see it through until we are on Mars and beyond.
The first speaker was Joe Cassady (Aerojet), who explained the Aerojet mission architecture plan, developed in 2011, that would allow humans to go to Mars by 2033 using 60 percent less mass than other NASA plans, while never spending more than $4 billion a year. This plan would include multiple intermediate destinations such as long term lunar orbit and potential missions to an asteroid and/or Phobos.
Matt Duggan explained Boeing’s concept of building up infrastructure; they do not want a one-time-only human mission to Mars. They want to use ISS as much as they can in the near term and plan missions to the Earth-Moon L2 points. For an actual mars mission, Boeing wants to a use a cargo mission to deploy a habitat lander first, with the crew only traveling to Mars once the hab has safely landed. Boeing would also utilize a SEP tug that would remain in synchronous orbit.
SpaceX’s Stephanie Bedarek started off by showing a video of the Tuesday launch of Falcon 9 and provided a briefing concerning the Dragon demonstration mission to the ISS to date. She then discussed the Red Dragon concept that SpaceX has proposed of using a dragon capsule to land a science payload on Mars in the next few years. Essentially, SpaceX is looking for ideas for what could added to the payload of Red Dragon to have the biggest impact. This could be a great time for such a mission. The question I would like to find out from SpaceX (but didn’t ask) was: do they think they could send Red Dragon during the 2016 window?
All images of the berthing of the Dragon spacecraft courtesy of ESA Astronaut André Kuipers (mission 30 ISS)
Buzz Aldrin, long an advocate for human Mars exploration, was very engaging during his lecture. Highly knowledgeable on orbital trajectories and the mathematics involved since his Apollo-era work, Aldrin discussed his ideas for Mars cyclers, which are spacecraft trajectories which encounter both Earth and Mars on a regular basis. In addition to this and other concepts he reiterated his passionate belief that the U.S. should focus on landing humans on Mars as soon as possible.
Alas, I had to leave shortly after our final speaker, Rich Zurek, started his presentation. My colleagues told me Zurek’s talk provided much insight into the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) workings. The MRO is the spacecraft which contains the High Resolution Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera which has returned many images that are impressive visually and useful scientifically.
All in all the Mars track was a highly informative day at ISDC. We hope to organize similar Mars programs at future ISDC’s. I can also say that ExploreMars plans to spend a lot of time over the next year ramping up our efforts to advance the cause of a human mission to Mars.