SpaceX’s billionaire founder Elon Musk was beaten to the punch on Friday by US Defence contractor Lockheed Martin, which revealed new details of its ‘Mars Base Camp’ concept at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, including how it aligns with NASA’s lunar Deep Space Gateway and a Mars surface lander.
Mars Base Camp is Lockheed Martin’s vision of how to send humans to Mars in about a decade. It competes with Musk’s vision, on which he is planned to give an update via a presentation in Adelaide on Friday afternoon.
Musk was also due to conduct a press conference following his presentation but, in a curious move, it was seemingly cancelled 50 minutes into Lockheed’s one-hour long presentation early in the day. Organisers for the congress announced to media via email that Musk’s post-presentation press conference “will most probably not take place”.
“We are very sorry for this last-minute change,” an International Aeronautical Federation media person, going only by the name “Emma”, told media.
Asked whether she thought Musk might be running scared of their Mars concept, a spokesperson for Lockheed answered diplomatically.
“I appreciate everybody’s interest in space, whether it’s a presentation or a press conference,” Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft software engineer, Danielle Richey, told Fairfax. “What it’s really driving on is stimulating that interest from everybody around the world. I am excited for anybody doing anything generating interest in science and space.”
Asked about the chances of organising comment from Musk, congress organisers told Fairfax Media there was “no chance. He’s worse than Mick Jagger.”
According to some experts, Lockheed and Musk’s visions and timeframes are just fantasies, at least for now.
“It’s just basic vapourware at this stage,” Jeff Lock, the newsletter editor of the Royal Aeronautical Society Australian Division, told Fairfax Media.
Lock said it was not possible to do within the timeframe stipulated, ten years, adding that “we haven’t built any structures for living in space” for the amount of time that would be required.
“We have transitions to International Space Station for up to three months and back again,” Lock said. “But it is a quick trip. Going to the moon [and Mars] is not a quick trip. It is probably ten days to and from [for the moon]
The cost to go to Mars would also be astronomical, Lock said.
Getting the cost of Mars travel down
Lockheed Martin’s Robert Chambers, Orion production strategy, told Fairfax Media the project was doable if costs could be reduced.
“There is not a point where we see a lot of new money showing up for any of the [world’s] space agencies,” said Chambers.
“We have things to work on on our planet first before we necessarily go elsewhere. So if you look at just the buying power that space agencies have today, what we have to do is get [the] Orion [spacecraft] … into a production phase where we are down to about half of the funding model that we have today.”
He added that budgets could be adjusted to make it work.
“If you stack them all up as straight as you can make them — and we are not inventing what you don’t need to invent — that’s when you get to a point where you can do this in about a decade. You could beat that 2033 deadline. That goal that’s been set,” Chambers said.
Chambers also said that if the world’s space agencies combined their efforts, a Mars colony could be a reality sooner.
“I think that’s what NASA has asked if people are interested in doing,” Chambers said.
“We are always team sport players. You’re always better together than alone. And so NASA has put that out from the news reports this morning. And Russia is showing interest to participate. I hope that that sort of continues. That will allow us a much richer experience as we voyage after the moon and out to Mars.”
Meanwhile, Lock said the United Arab Emirates’ plan for a Mars colony was more realistic.
“I had a chat with them [on Thursday] and their timeline, I think, is 2121 to have a colony on Mars and their idea of doing that is by utilising 3D printing and the materials on Mars,” Lock said.
“So, they’ve got rocks and God knows what [on Mars] and they will feed that into a printer and build an establishment there [using that] … and that is over 100 years away. That seems to me to make a lot more sense.
The gateway to Mars
Lockheed said on Friday that its project was “a sound, safe and compelling mission architecture” centred around an orbital outpost where scientist-astronauts can perform “unprecedented, real-time scientific exploration” of the Red Planet.
Regarding Lockheed’s Mars concept, the company’s vice president and general manager of Commercial Civil Space Lisa Callahan said that while sending humans to Mars had always been a part of science fiction, she believed that we now had the capability to make it a reality.
“Partnered with NASA, our vision leverages hardware currently in development and production,” Callahan said. “We’re proud to have Orion powered-on and completing testing in preparation for its Exploration Mission-1 flight and eventually its journey to Mars.”
Lockheed’s Mars Base Camp concept is aligned with NASA’s recently-announced lunar Deep Space Gateway approach for developing and testing systems, including Orion, in cis-lunar space before using them to go to Mars.
The Gateway allows astronauts to live and work in orbit around the Moon for months at a time while gaining experience with extended operations far from Earth, Lockheed said.
On the Gateway, they can perform lunar science and test out systems and operations such as habitats, airlocks, solar electric propulsion, surface tele-robotics and even landers. Mars Base Camp would ultimately be built up at the Deep Space Gateway, away from Earth’s gravity, before being deployed to Mars, Lockheed said.
Mars Base Camp’s first mission is intended to be an orbiting mission around the Red Planet. Following this, the architecture allows for a surface lander. The concept is designed to be a reusable, single-stage lander capable of descending to the surface from Mars orbit.
Each surface mission could last two weeks with up to four astronauts, and then return to the orbiting Mars Base Camp where it would be refuelled and readied for another mission.