NASA administrator Michael Griffin announced at the 9th International Mars Society Convention in Washington DC on 3 August that his agency would undertake studies of manned Mars missions next year. It won't be the first time NASA has carried out such a study. In 2007 it will be 10 years since the 237 paged "Human Exploration of Mars: The Reference Mission of the NASA Mars Exploration Study Team" was published. And this time we may already know what the new study will say.
You see Griffin was a member of the Mars Society's steering committee. That organisation, which advocates the exploration of Mars, has members worldwide with Mars society's in Europe, Asia and the Americas. It was founded by its president Robert Zubrin, an engineer who has worked for the US space programme. He had written a book called The Case for Mars, which was published in 1996.
That book set out a plan, called Mars Direct, for a manned mission that used Apollo programme like launchers and technology to send habitats and supplies ahead of a crewed flight. The robotic precursor missions would include machines that could generate fuel and other consumables from natural resources on the Martian surface. Griffin was NASA's chief engineer in the late 1980s and was appointed associate administrator for exploration in 1991. In the same year Zubrin gave a paper (co-authored with his colleagues D. Baker and O. Gwynn) entitled 'Mars Direct: A simple, robust and cost effective architecture for the space exploration initiative' at the 29th aerospace sciences meeting in Nevada. A year later he briefed Griffin on it, according to the Mars Society's web site.
In March 2004, in testimony to the Congressional House Committee on Science about the then new Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), proposed by US president George W. Bush, Griffin made comments that showed he agreed with major elements of Mars Direct. These comments included support for the view that the technology to carry out a mission exists, that astronauts would use in-situ resource utilisation and that nuclear power is necessary. These are key features of Mars Direct because they remove the need to build a behemoth spacecraft in orbit to provide the crew with everything they will ever need, provides plenty of power with nuclear fission and uses Apollo era type launchers.
So now we are but a few months from a new Mars exploration study and the NASA administrator in charge is Mars Society supporter Mike Griffin, whose views on the subject are pretty clear. But does this mean that the study's conclusions will miraculously concur with the administrator's opinions? Well, we have one example of Griffin deciding how exploration will happen and prejudging studies already.
Before Griffin became administrator the then NASA chief Sean O'Keefe was overseeing the plans for the VSE's return to the Moon. Those plans spoke of a 'systems of systems' design with an evolutionary spiral approach to developing the hardware to reach the Moon. Industry proposals included lunar orbiting space stations that used a Moon shuttle, which would travel between the station and the lunar surface. However when Griffin became NASA chief he dumped all of that work and started his own study.
Griffin is a fan of the Apollo programme and describes that era's NASA administrator, James Webb, as the greatest leader in the agency's history. He has also publicly criticised the decision to stop Apollo and start the Shuttle programme. Griffin likes sending humans beyond Earth low Earth orbit. Unsurprisingly then the Griffin initiated Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), which was really a Moon mission analysis, concluded that a re-run of Apollo was the best approach. Now NASA has the Ares V, instead of the Saturn V, and the Crew Exploration Vehicle, which looks almost exactly the same as the Apollo command and service module spacecraft. Like Apollo there will also be a lunar lander with descent and ascent modules. So who wants to place bets on what the new Mars exploration study will say?
Let's face it, it's going to be a version of the Mars Direct plan and will seem very similar to the 1997 study; which by the way referenced Zubrin's 1991 paper. We already know that the ESAS study manager envisages the Ares V launched earth departure stage as a potential Mars transit vehicle. As a journalist I am looking forward to teasing the NASA guys at Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas who will undertake the work. I have a copy of the 1997 study and its 1998 addendum and may even email both to them with the note, "here, save yourself some time, just reprint this, you know it's what your boss wants."