Credit: ASAP

A space watchdog group dedicated to aerospace safety has “yellow flagged” NASA’s Journey to Mars activity, noting that work underway lacks substantive risk reduction, technology maturation, and advanced systems development to achieve stated objectives.

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), an advisory committee that reports to NASA and Congress, has issued its 2016 annual report examining NASA’s safety performance over the past year.

NASA’s humans-to-Mars plans are in yellow condition – meaning that the panel is not confident that important issues or concerns are being addressed adequately by the space agency.

Wanted: Mars czar

The safety group has recommended to NASA the establishment of a Mars Mission Program Office and/or designation of a “Mars Czar” that could facilitate the completion of the needed trade studies and ensure that limited funds are being spent on the appropriate technical challenges.

“NASA has made some progress in defining the Journey to Mars, but in the opinion of the Panel, current plans lack substantive risk reduction, technology maturation, and advanced systems development to achieve the stated goals,” the ASAP report explains.

Credit: Bob Sauls – XP4D/Explore Mars, Inc. (used with permission)

Establishing a Mars Program Office could facilitate these efforts. “We encourage NASA to take advantage of potential commercial and/or international activities to create a more robust exploration architecture,” the report states.

For NASA’s Journey to Mars, the goal is to be able to send astronauts to the vicinity of the Red Planet or its moons sometime during the 2030s. Whether this would involve a fly-by, an extended period in Mars orbit, a landing on Phobos or Deimos (the two moons of Mars), or actual “boots on the ground” on the Red Planet has not yet been determined.

Current plans: fragile

Also flagged in the ASAP report is concern regarding NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) – a booster with a lift capability of 130 tons. Even with that SLS lift capacity, there would be a need for multiple launches per mission potentially augmented with the use of other vehicles such as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle.

SLS configurations.
Credit: ASAP/NASA

With notional NASA out-year budgets assuming one SLS launch per year, plus the long trip times involved (800 to 1,100 days away from Earth), the report explains that current plans to carry out the Journey to Mars appear to be somewhat “fragile.”

“Since SLS would carry the most critical items into deep space, a delay or technical failure on a single launch could significantly impact the entire mission. This should make reliability a high priority for SLS,” the report adds.

Back to the Moon

One option to address this issue, according to the ASAP, would be to take advantage of potential commercial and/or international activities to create a more robust exploration architecture. These commercial and international partnerships could also potentially provide opportunities for NASA to test technologies and systems on the lunar surface.

“Even if NASA chooses not to take a leadership role in human missions to the Moon, there may be other opportunities to gain valuable experience—with large landers and ascent vehicles, with the operation of systems for in-situ resource extraction, with large-scale habitation systems, and with the long-term impact of dust on space suits and other mechanical systems.”

Moon-first approach as precursor to humans to Mars.
Credit: NASA

Lunar surface testing

The report explains that, just as the International Space Station is a valuable platform for testing advanced exploration systems in microgravity, the Moon’s surface offers “an analogous opportunity” for risk reduction and testing of surface systems that will operate in a challenging partial-gravity environment.

“Testing these systems first on the Moon,” the ASAP concludes, “could help to increase the robustness of the overall space infrastructure, enhance the cislunar space economy, and increase the safety of the Mars missions themselves.”

Just as the International Space Station is a valuable platform for testing advanced exploration systems in microgravity, the Moon’s surface offers “an analogous opportunity” for risk reduction and testing of surface systems.
Credit: ASAP/NASA

 

Report highlights

The 2016 report highlights activities of 2016 and includes assessments of the agency’s:

Enterprise information technology protection

Commercial Crew Program

Deep space exploration

International Space Station operations, and

Aeronautics missions and air operations

 

To read over the entire Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) 2016 report, go to:

https://oiir.hq.nasa.gov/asap/documents/2016_ASAP_Annual_Report.pdf

Leave a Reply