National Geographic News

A newly completed part of NASA's Orion spacecraft is examined by scientists.


Jeff Foust

for National Geographic

Published March 5, 2014

Mars or bust? A daring mission to send NASA astronauts on a nearly 600-day mission to fly by Mars and Venus in the early 2020s has picked up some fans in the U.S. Congress. (See: "Future of Spaceflight.")

Even as NASA confirmed plans in its latest budget proposal Tuesday to develop a human mission to visit a nearby asteroid, members of the House Science Committee endorsed the alternative Mars mission.

"It is the least complex mission profile for reaching the Mars vicinity," said Doug Cooke, a former NASA associate administrator for exploration, during a committee hearing on February 27. "The mission provides an opportunity for an incredible first step that will make travel to Mars real to the people of the world."

Under the proposed mission, NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket would launch an Orion spacecraft carrying two astronauts in November 2021. The spacecraft would fly past Venus in April 2022 and Mars in October of that year before returning to Earth in June 2023.

While NASA is already developing SLS and Orion, the mission would require the development of a more powerful upper stage for SLS and of a habitation module. (See: "Up on the Farm? Five Reasons NASA Needs Space Greenhouses.")

Mars Inspiration

The flyby mission is based on a concept called Inspiration Mars introduced a year ago by Dennis Tito, a multimillionaire who, in 2001, became the first tourist to visit the International Space Station. Tito's original proposal called for a privately financed 2018 mission to fly past Mars alone, returning 501 days later. By late last year, though, Tito said the mission required NASA's support, including SLS and Orion.

The mission proposal comes at a time when there is a lack of consensus about the next step in human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit. While most agree the long-term goal should be landing humans on Mars, there's less agreement about the path to take to get there.

Asteroid or Bust?

Last year, NASA unveiled plans for what it believes should be that next step, the Asteroid Redirect Mission. A robotic spacecraft would travel to a small near-Earth asteroid and shift its trajectory into an orbit around the moon. Astronauts would then visit it with an Orion spacecraft in the early 2020s.

NASA, though, has provided few additional details about the proposed mission, and many in Congress are skeptical that the mission makes sense.

"While consensus on Capitol Hill might be hard to find, there is general agreement that the president's asteroid retrieval mission inspires neither the scientific community nor the public who would foot the bill," said Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Science Committee, at the hearing. "NASA, the White House, and Congress should consider this Mars flyby mission proposal."

Other members of the committee, though, were more skeptical of the proposed Mars flyby mission. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the top Democrat on the committee, noted that 2021 is the currently scheduled date of the first SLS/Orion mission to carry astronauts, after an uncrewed test flight in 2017.

"I doubt that a flyby of Mars will ultimately be considered an appropriate first shakedown flight for a new crewed spacecraft," she said.

Space Stepping-Stones

No NASA officials testified at last week's hearing, and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden didn't directly answer questions about the mission concept during a briefing with reporters Tuesday about the agency's 2015 budget proposal.

However, he emphasized that NASA did have a "stepping-stone approach" for sending humans to Mars, and that the planned asteroid mission—for which NASA is seeking $133 million in that budget request—was a key step toward that long-term goal.

"In order to carry out these pioneering missions, we have to develop technologies for our Asteroid Redirect Mission that will lead to the subsequent first crewed mission to Mars," Bolden said. However, he must convince members of Congress and others who have their minds set on a near-term Mars mission.

"I continue to believe, as do many Americans, that Mars is the logical destination to put human space exploration back on track and demonstrate the 'can do' spirit that seems to have faded over time," Tito said in a statement after last week's hearing.

"The window of opportunity in 2021 is challenging but achievable and waiting to be claimed."

Follow Jeff Foust on Twitter.

Mike M.
Mike M.

We need to go back into space and make a permanent base on another celestial body. This needs to happen to spark the imagination of new pioneers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

I think the best approach would be to make a permanent habitable base on the moon and from there go to mars and eventually throughout the solar system. To do this we need more funding for NASA, public education and higher education.

Jens Knudsen
Jens Knudsen

Frankly speaking, I don't think we have another destination as early as 2021.  The asteroid capture mission, when will it deliver its asteroid to retrograde high Moon orbit?  It will take time.  And if the SLS system is going to be certified in 'stages', and 2021 marks the second flight of the system, and only the first manned flight, we are talking about some kind of a demonstration mission of the manned capabilities of the SLS.  Maybe Mars and Venus and a mission time of 600 days is too ambitious, but also, it would be a spectacular demonstration of the capabilities of the SLS to bring people across interplanetary space.

Gary Proffitt
Gary Proffitt

I firmly believe that mankind needs to design better androids so that a series of lower cost designs will low rick can be tested out as the cost of developing androids would gladly be part met by many global technology companies and also a series of test launch, land and return designs would also be engaged by other nations and it is the collective creative strength of the world that has to be embraced to win us a favourable bridge to the heavens.

Jason Unwin
Jason Unwin

HECK YEAH!!! The USA may do a "fly by" of Mars and Venus in the early 2020s. I might actually live to see it happen! ;-)

Steve Day
Steve Day

Man should be able to look up in the night sky, and see a crescent moon with a small light appearing where no light was before. Only then will mankind all around the Earth know Our future is our past, we shall return to where we came from. 

Lamont Balongue
Lamont Balongue

Moon, Asteroid, Mars, and one day 100 years from now, Titan.

Asteroids offer valuable materials we can mine that can be worth billions but we need a Moon base to process. Moon base will be essential for future deep space missions and having more than one mission going on at a time would be ideal. We'll have more than one Orion so why not utilize the astronauts and space craft we'll have?

As for the flyby of Venus; I believe if no engineering or scientific benefits come of it, it's not needed. We should land on Mars within 10-15 years and also have a proven Moon base within 15-20...

Gary Proffitt
Gary Proffitt

There is much to admire about this daring mission and as a species we must not shudder at the thought of progress into the first planetary visit of this jewelled thread of our galaxy.My personal opinion is that Mars has been inhabited by intelligent beings before and anyone that googles "Quadrata Mars"  will see this new evidence before them so journey on brave voyagers of Orion.

Roy Munson
Roy Munson

I would personally like to see this flight take place. Kinda reminds me of the Apollo 8 flight. I think this should be the fourth manned flight of the Orion program though. I think this might be a little too risky for the first manned shakedown flight for Orion. 

The first manned flight of Orion should be an earth orbital shakedown flight (perhaps test out a new lunar lander like in Apollo 9.) The second manned flight of Orion should be a lunar orbital flight (perhaps test out a new lunar lander like in Apollo 10.) The third manned flight of Orion should be a lunar landing mission. 

Although this might be an expensive path, but it is a tried an proven plan of attack. 

Once the Orion craft is tried and proven, let's set our sights on Mars. I'd imagine this post will be criticized immensely, but I think the Apollo program was very effective.

Jens Knudsen
Jens Knudsen

It might provide us with the ultimate test using the Orion system for planetary transit.   But what does a mission like this costs?  Are we ready for a 2021 launch?  A 600 day crewed interplanetary cruise is definitely a stepping stone to more capability, but is basically an engineering mission, not a science one.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

What about having a robotic mission on Mars retrieve samples and send those samples into Mars orbit so that the mission fly by can recover those samples. Then they would have something important to do while returning, And we would FINALLY have something DIRECTLY from Mars, And not a piece that was blown off of Mars and landed here as a meteoroid that was contaminated by space and Earth!?

Any one interested?

Kenny Chaffin
Kenny Chaffin

This is a total waste of money. If we can't land, explore and bring back samples then we need to keep practicing and keep sending our instruments and rovers.

james cooper
james cooper

Naught to be gained that robots haven't done. The congress members who propose this are fools. Much more to be gained from a manned landing, or as a more expedient substitute, a large sample return missiion.

Vision please !

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

And by the way. People, including Buzz Aldrin, will say, "We've already been to the Moon", and the public will echo, "Been there, done that!".

To Mr. Aldrin, I say, "No Buzz. You and 11 other guys have been to and landed on the Moon. The rest of us watched  it on television!"

The Moon is roughly the size of North and South America wrapped up into a ball, and we've landed men at SIX sites on that world, in addition to many robotic orbiters and landers.

We've hardly explored the Moon, and we have not at all utilized it. Lots of aluminum and titanium, as well as frozen water ice in polar craters and oxygen in the rocks up there to use and process for human habitation.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

I'm a lifelong space exploration and utilization enthusiast, and a manned voyage to orbit around Venus and Mars is very exciting, and I'm sure we'll learn many valuable lessons for future exploration from such a journey.

Having said that, however, I think, at this point in time, that such an above mentioned venture would be a complete waste of money and time. We don't need another one-off, sensational mission. What we need is a logical, step-by-step space program, whose first goal should be to establish permanent and eventually self-sufficient bases on the Moon.

The Moon is our practical and logical platform for eventually going deeper into the Solar System. There, we will learn how to live and work in cold, hostile space for indefinite periods far beyond our protective magnetosphere, AKA the Van Allen Belt.

Sure, the public loves drama and inspiration, and a manned Venus and Mars flyby offers such drama. But what if something goes terribly wrong? That same shallow public, the vast majority anyway, will lose heart and become dispirited, and there goes any more funding. And then we will end up goofing around in Low Earth Orbit for ANOTHER 40 years!

If something goes wrong on any moon bases or colonies, it's only 200,000 miles away, and aid from Mothership Earth can be readily and relatively easily sent. Not so with Mars.

Once we have viable, virtually self-sufficient bases on the Moon, then, and only then, should we venture off to Mars. I'm all for transforming the human, global community into a truly spacefaring civilization. But the Moon is our only feasible platform for doing so. 

David Vanderschel
David Vanderschel

It is unlikely that this flyby mission will ever be approved, since it actually accomplishes nothing but a PR stunt which can only make sense for political reasons.  Astronauts flying by either planet cannot accomplish anything that cameras and instruments have not already accomplished on unmanned missions.  You don't have to go that far to test the function of the spacecraft.  Only by actually landing on the surface can real progress be made.  (Venus is not a viable candidate for that.)  Hopefully rationality will prevail.

Roy Munson
Roy Munson

@Lamont Balongue  

The one thing that bothers me about all of the future plans N.A.S.A. has is they are so far in the future. We went from no manned experience in space in 1960 to landing a man on the moon more than once by the end of the 1960's. Now we do not have the ability to send our own astronauts into space. 

I know a lot of the issues facing N.A.S.A. is monetary, but it seems like there is so little initiative and motivation for these missions to get going, it is extremely frustrating for me to accept.

I also do not know why it is so hard to come up with a direction to go in. Doesn't it seem logical to shoot for the moon first, and then branch out from there?

I just hope everything turns out well, and N.A.S.A. gets going at a strong pace again in the near future, so that the nation as a whole can be proud of the achievements of our scientists and astronauts. 

I think a Mars flyby mission will capture the imagination of the nation as a whole, and get the nation behind N.A.S.A. again in a way that's not been seen in 40+ years. (my fingers are crossed for better things to come in the near future)  

Tony Albutt
Tony Albutt

Once you prove the craft around earth, you boost to the moon, then beyond.

You do not have to throw away the craft after each test

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Roy Munson @Lamont Balongue  As far as Apollo goes, well, it demonstrates amply what a country with means, especially the United States, can do when it feels threatened.

Yep. Collectively, the nation was threatened by the Communist Russian Soviets outdoing us in technology. Because we all mostly felt the threat, we were determined that the Ruskies would not one-up us!

It's a sad testimony to the nature of man. We could have viable, productive, profitable, virtually self-sufficient moon bases and colonies (yes, plural) by now if we had just put our minds and wallets to it.

It seems that only if there is a mortal threat that a man, or mankind, gets off his own or collective duff and does anything really worthwhile.


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