CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – While NASA evaluates how soon it can send astronauts on a loop around the moon in an Orion capsule, Lockheed Martin is promoting a concept that would send crews on a three-year trip around Mars in just over a decade.
"This is all doable in the next 10 to 12 years," said Tony Antonelli, a former NASA space shuttle pilot who heads advanced civil space programs for Lockheed Martin, lead contractor for the Orion spacecraft being assembled at Kennedy Space Center. "All that we have to do is decide that we’re going to go collectively, together — government, industry, international participation. This is a mission for citizens of Earth, and there’s a role for everyone to play."
Addressing more than 300 guests at the National Space Club Florida Committee's meeting on Tuesday, held at the KSC Visitor Complex, Antonelli outlined Lockheed's concept for a "Mars base camp," reported News 6 partner Florida Today.
The symmetrical spacecraft would feature Orion capsules on either end of habitat and laboratory modules, enabling six astronauts to depart as soon as 2028 on a roughly three-year, round-trip science mission orbiting Mars.
Astronaut scientists orbiting the Red Planet could perform a variety of research, potentially including remotely controlling rovers and drones. They could help scout future human landing sites. An Orion could fly sorties to explore the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos.
The vision relies on systems that are either already available or in development, Antonelli said.
"We’re not waiting for the future and some kind of magic," he said.
Some magic probably wouldn't hurt, however, to produce the necessary budgets and technologies.
On the budget front, the concept assumes NASA ends International Space Station operations in 2024 and redirects several billion dollars a year toward exploration systems. It's unclear if the Trump administration's proposed cuts to non-defense discretionary spending might affect NASA's exploration funding.
Lockheed anticipates involvement from unspecified international and commercial partners, many of whom now seem more keen on the moon as a near-term destination.
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, for example, recently expressed his interest in a "Blue Moon" cargo service to help establish a human lunar outpost, saying that learning to live on the moon first offers the fastest path to Mars.
In terms of technology, Lockheed's Mars base would pre-stage science equipment around Mars with robotic vehicles using solar electric propulsion not yet available in the large scale envisioned.
NASA is considering flying a deep space habitat module on a yearlong "shakedown cruise" in lunar orbit in 2029, testing its viability for a "Journey to Mars" projected in the 2030s.
The concept relies on Orion capsules that under current schedules astronauts will not fly until 2021 at best, and possibly not until 2023.
NASA is studying the risks and costs of accelerating a test flight with a two-person crew around the moon to the 2019 timeframe. The flight would take place on the giant Space Launch System rocket's first launch from KSC.
As of now, the first Orion launching on the SLS, on an unmanned trip around the moon targeted for late 2018, won't have completed life support systems. That capsule will also be flying a redesigned heat shield.
Asked about flying astronauts on the first SLS mission, called Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1, Antonelli said Lockheed would support whatever direction NASA chooses.
"On a personal note, really exciting idea," said the retired Navy test pilot and shuttle pilot who flew missions to the space station in 2009 and 2010.
Humans haven't flown beyond a few hundred miles above Earth since late 1972, Antonelli noted. Seeing the Earth from a few hundred miles up is a life-changing experience, he said, so just imagine seeing all humanity on an Earth the size of a "blue marble," as Apollo astronauts did.
"It would be really exciting to get the opportunity," he said. "And if it turns out we can’t fit it in on EM-1, just getting on with it and doing it soon is going to be exciting."