The following blog is an update of the 14 August 2006 Flight International blog posting
NASA administrator Michael Griffin announced at the 9th International Mars Society Convention in Washington DC on 3 August 2006 that his agency would undertake studies of manned Mars missions this year.
It won't be the first time NASA has carried out such a study. This year it is 10 years since the 237-paged "Human Exploration of Mars: The Reference Mission of the NASA Mars Exploration Study Team" was published. But this time we already knew largely, what we now know is called the Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0, would be saying.
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.
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.
And today we are now aware of what some of the manned Mars mission details are for the new 5.0 architecture. I was aware that NASA would be conducting a study that was expected to deliver some results by August of this year. I had been requesting interviews with the personnel involved for some time but was never granted an interview.
Back in 2006 I wondered if with a NASA administrator, who had been a Mars Society supporter and whose views on the subject are pretty clear, the study's conclusions would miraculously concur with the administrator's opinions?
At the time we had 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 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 cargo launch vehicle, instead of the Saturn V, and the Orion 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 would want to place bets that the new Mars exploration study would not agree with Griffin's Mars Direct views?
We don't have all the details yet for 5.0 architecture and even Zubrin accepts that he would not do Mars Direct exactly the way he had originally envisaged but let's face it, it's going to be a version of the Direct plan and will seem very similar to the 1997 study. Perhaps the real question we should all now be asking is, with NASA's ongoing budgetary problems and an expected change of administration come 2009, is any of it ever likely to happen anyway?