US News and World Report is reporting that a Mars "flyby" mission superficially similar to the one developed by Dennis Tito's Inspiration Mars was proposed to NASA in the 1990s, but was rejected by the space agency.
Athena flyby mission
Athena, as it was called, was first developed in a study by Dr. Robert Zubrin in 1996. It was a bare bones deep space mission that would have taken two astronauts to the Mars/Sun Lagrange Point 1, about a million kilometers from Mars, for a stay of about a year according to the Encyclopedia Astronautica. The Athena spacecraft would have been assembled in low Earth orbit using two space shuttle launches and four Russian Proton launches. Athena would be five meters in diameter and 15 meters in length, would be spun to create artificial gravity, and would be powered by solar panels. Total mass would be just below 26 metric tons. The voyage to the Mars/Sun L1 would take 280 days. The spacecraft would stay for 360 days while it tele-operated Mars rovers that would have been launched separately. The astronauts would return in a voyage of 270 days and would use a capsule to return to Earth. Total cost was estimated at about $2.2 billion in mid 1990s dollars. There were three possible windows for such a mission for a launch in April, 2001, June, 2003, or August, 2005.
Why NASA passed
The US News and World Report story reports that Zubrin personally presented his proposal to then NASA Administrator Dan Goldin in the late 1990s. Goldin passed on the proposal, suggesting that it did not go far enough that if it did not involve a landing on Mars it was not worth doing. Issues of funding and risk were likely also reasons for not doing this kind of interplanetary mission. The Clinton Administration had cancelled previous plans for deep space missions to the moon and Mars and seemed disinclined to revive them. Zubrin maintained then as now that such a mission would be a good precursor to a Mars landing, answering a number of questions about deep space travel and its effects on human beings, while doing some good science.
Differences from Inspiration Mars
Fast forward about 15 years and, according to the US News and World Report Story, an eventual mission to Mars has become official policy of the United States government, first proposed by President George W. Bush in 2004 and confirmed by President Barack Obama in 2010. But such a mission will not take place until the 2030s at the earliest, according to the current schedule. In the meantime, Dennis Tito, a former NASA scientist, financier, and private space traveler has proposed his own Mars flyby mission, called Inspiration Mars. There are some crucial differences between Inspiration Mars and Athena, however. Inspiration Mars will be privately financed. The trajectory would take the Inspiration Mars ship in a loop around Mars before it returns to Earth. The spacecraft would be inflatable and would be launched in as few as one flight of a commercially available spacecraft. The Inspiration Mars mission would take 501 days as opposed to 910 days for Athena.
But if Inspiration Mars actually occurs, it will take two astronauts on the first voyage across interplanetary distances in history and answer some of the questions of deep space flight and its effect on human beings. Inspiration Mars would take place, not decades hence, but in just a few years.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo, The Last Moonwalker, and Dreams of Barry's Stepfather. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.
- Science, Social Science, & Humanities
- Space & Astronomy
- Robert Zubrin