The Planetary Society says humans orbiting Mars is important before they land on it

On Thursday night (IST), the Planetary Society announced the results of a workshop it hosted earlier this week to re-engage with the future of human spaceflight. The advocacy group concluded that humans orbiting Mars was a crucial step before humans could land on Mars.

The workshop, called “Humans Orbiting Mars”, was held with officials from the aerospace industry, scientific community and NASA in attendance. They addressed the question of whether human spaceflight to Mars by 2033 was feasible if NASA’s budget increased only by 2-3% between now and then (to keep up with inflation), and assuming the agency’s contribution to the International Space Station would end by 2024. The answer was ‘Yes’ conditional to the orbit-first-land-next strategy.

Some results from the workshop were made public by Scott Hubbard, former director of the NASA Ames Research Center, and John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, in a presser. The Society’s president and popular science communicator Bill Nye also presented some tidbits, but none of them were forthcoming about the precise details of the Society’s strategy.

Hubbard said that having humans orbit Mars first before landing was important to break “this very challenging effort into smaller, more executable pieces”, differentiating it from some private sector approaches to the red planet that Logsdon said “exist but don’t seem credible”. They admitted they were conscious of the strategy’s parallels to the Apollo 8 mission, which invigorated public interest in space exploration by carrying the first humans into an orbit around the moon in 1968 and giving humanity its first view of Earthrise.

A notional timeline for the 2033 mission was presented also, with crewed test-flights in cislunar orbits being planned for 2025 and 2027. Mars missions are fixed to launch windows every 26 months to coincide with the planet’s opposition, when it comes closest to Earth. However, the launch window in 2033 provides a suitable focus year also because NASA hopes to have tested the necessary spaceflight technologies and experience through its Asteroid Retrieval Mission in the 2020s.

The Society’s space-policy writer Casey Dreier concluded on his blog:

Over the next few months, we will work to publish as much of the content presented at the workshop as we can. And later this year, we will release a report based on the discussions and feedback from this meeting formalizing our thoughts and ideas on this path forward.

However, the presser only left reporters with more questions than answers. It may have been wiser to announce all the results of the workshop alongside the report instead of releasing vague details now, even if it appears the Planetary Society has a detailed architecture of the concept in place.

And – as if to have the Society reconsider its barb about infeasible private missions to Mars – the report’s release later this year could coincide with SpaceX’s much-awaited announcement of the details of its Mars Colonial Transporter, a transport vehicle that CEO-CTO Elon Musk has promised will be very different from the Dragon and Falcon 9 rockets it currently operates. Musk is also expected to announce new spacesuit designs meeting utility requirements by the end of 2015.

Featured image credit: NASA