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A Tale of Two Mars Missions

/Musk’s Mars plans stole the show at the Astronautical Congress, but Lockheed’s vision for a Mars Base Camp makes a lot more sense.

by Daniel Oberhaus
Oct 1 2016, 3:00pm

Image: Lockheed Martin Corporation.

Earlier this week Elon Musk outlined his plans to take humans to Mars at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. There were a lot of unresolved issues with his vision to turn humans into a multiplanetary species (particularly its cost), but his grand unveiling was met with great fanfare and excitement about the future of crewed interplanetary travel.

While Musk's Mars ambitions are certainly out of this world, his unveiling overshadowed another presentation given the following night which detailed a far more realistic, albeit less sexy, plan to take humans to the Red Planet by 2028.

This plan—known as Mars Base Camp—is the brainchild of the defense contractor Lockheed Martin and was detailed to an audience about a third the size of Musk's on Wednesday evening. Mars Base Camp, which seeks to put a crewed space station in orbit around Mars by 2028, was first announced by Lockheed Martin last May, but this year's Astronautical Congress got an in-depth look at just how the company plans to make it happen.

Although it has yet to be adopted as an aspect of NASA's Mars mission (indeed, the point of the presentation seemed to be to convince NASA it was worth pursuing), Lockheed's vision for a Mars Base Camp relies heavily on NASA's Mars technology, like the Space Launch System rockets and the Orion crew vehicles. In fact, none of the technology used for the Mars Base Camp would need to be developed specifically for the mission—most of it has already been used by NASA for decades.

The Mars Base Camp mission would begin by assembling the components of the space station (which will mostly consist of two Orion vehicles, a crew habitat, and a laboratory) in cislunar space. The lab would then be sent to Mars orbit to wait for the arrival of the astronauts. The laboratory's journey will take about three years because it is making use of solar-electric propulsion, a far more efficient, albeit slow, method of propulsion when compared with chemical rocket propellant.

Once the lab is in Mars orbit, the rest of the space station—including six astronauts—will begin its nine month journey to the Red Planet. Most of their time will be spent in the portion of the crew habitat that is surrounded by fuel tanks filled with liquid hydrogen, which will help shield them from the high levels of radiation they will endure on their journey. Once the crewed spacecraft has made it to Mars it will rendezvous and dock with the lab, and the base camp will be ready to host the astronauts for their stay in orbit.

While it may seem redundant to sandwich the space station in between two Orion vehicles, that's the point. One of the Orion vehicles can be undocked from the base camp and used for short-duration crewed missions to explore the small Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos. It also ensures that in the event that one of the Orion vehicles malfunctions, the crew of Mars Base Camp will still have a way to get back home to Earth.

Image: Lockheed Martin Corporation

Although the Mars Base Camp crew will never descend to the Martian surface during their stay, there will be no shortage of scientific activities for them to do during their one year in orbit.

Prior to their arrival, NASA will have dispatched the Mars 2020 rover, which will have cached samples of the Martian soil which will be sent up to the astronauts for analysis to hopefully determine whether Mars ever hosted life. There will also be other robotic Martian exploration vehicles at the crew's disposal, including aircraft. These aircraft will allow the astronauts to explore far more of the Martian surface than any rover ever could, but making use of autonomous aircraft is impossible without a crew in orbit around the planet due to the roughly 20-minute lag time in radio transmission from Earth to Mars.

Ultimately the Mars Base Camp proposal is far more conservative than SpaceX's plans to start human colonies on the Martian surface, and as a result more likely to succeed—at least within a 12 year timeframe. Unlike SpaceX, which must develop all of its technology from scratch (a highly labor and resource intensive task), all of the Mars Base Camp tech is tried and true, having been successfully deployed on multiple NASA missions over the years.

Moreover, one of the trickiest things about sending people to Mars is figuring out how to safely deposit them on the surface (to say nothing of getting them off the surface again and back to Earth). Although Lockheed's Mars Base Camp is less ambitious than SpaceX's plans insofar as it won't be sending humans to the surface, it will give humans time to map Mars and figure out the best place for people to land when the time is right.

Ultimately, the success of the Mars Base Camp vision depends on whether NASA decides to actually incorporate it into its Mars mission. This seems probable, considering that NASA's Mars plans have been repeatedly called out for being too vague. With Mars Base Camp, Lockheed Martin is offering—and independently developing—a concrete solution.