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New Budget Bolsters NASA's Journey to Mars Plans

Posted by Jason Davis

08-01-2016 6:04 CST

Topics: SLS, Orion, human spaceflight

On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed an omnibus spending bill that funded the federal government through the rest of fiscal year 2016, which ends on September 30. The bill, which passed the House and Senate with comfortable margins, included $19.3 billion dollars for NASA—an increase of $1.3 billion from last year. Many NASA programs got the funding they requested or received even more. Back in October, when Casey Dreier first mentioned this possible outcome, he called it the "everybody wins" scenario.

For some programs, the bill included specific provisions on how funds must be spent. That's the case for NASA's human exploration program, a $4 billion budgetary line item that includes Orion, the Space Launch System, ground systems, and research and development. SLS received $2 billion—$640 million more than requested—with $85 million earmarked specifically for development on the rocket's new upper stage.

The first SLS flight will send Orion on an uncrewed trip to lunar orbit in 2018. For that mission, the rocket will fly with an off-the-shelf upper stage called the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, or ICPS. The ICPS is a modified United Launch Alliance Delta IV upper stage. It's not rated to carry humans. 

The second flight, Exploration Mission 2, is also headed to lunar orbit—but with humans. That means NASA needs to either human-rate the ICPS at an additional cost, or have a new upper stage ready to fly by EM-2 (currently scheduled sometime between 2021 and 2023). The latter is the preferred choice, since long-term SLS plans call for a more powerful upper stage anyway. The new stage will be called the Exploration Upper Stage, or EUS.

SLS evolved configurations


SLS evolved configurations

Specific designs have yet to materialize, but NASA officials have been quoted saying the EUS would likely be Boeing-built and use four RL-10 engines—the same engines used to power ULA's Atlas and Delta upper stages and the ICPS. 

In order to have the EUS ready in time for EM-2, NASA said it needed more money. The omnibus delivered:

"Within amounts provided for SLS, the agreement provides no less than $85,000,000 for development of an enhanced upper stage that is intended to be the human-rated upper stage engine for Exploration Mission (EM) -2. NASA shall not expend funds human rating the interim cryogenic propulsion stage."

This move should help keep SLS development on track. That's good news for the Europa mission, which may use SLS as a launch vehicle. The EUS provides shorter travel times to the outer planets, and both NASA and Boeing have promoted its use for planetary exploration. The spending bill sets a Europa mission launch date of 2022, which is aggressive for both the spacecraft and the stage itself. 

In the 2020s, after EM-2, NASA plans to start making longer trips to lunar orbit—the interim destination and so-called "proving ground" before Mars. Here, astronauts will learn to live and work where it takes days, not hours, to make an emergency return to Earth.  

The spending bill allocates $55 million to deep space habitat development:

" less than $55,000,000 is provided for a habitation augmentation module to maximize the potential of the SLS/Orion architecture in deep space. NASA shall develop a prototype deep space habitation module within the advanced exploration systems program no later than 2018 and provide a report within 180 days after enactment, and annually thereafter, regarding the status and obligation of funding for the program. The first such report shall include an analysis to determine the appropriate management structure for this program."

That's a relatively small amount of money, but it can be interpreted as a congressional endorsement of NASA's current humans to Mars strategy. It might also be the most NASA has spent on habitation module work since the introduction of SLS. By comparison, NASA spent $17.8 million on BEAM, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, an inflatable habitat testbed that will launch to the ISS as soon as February. And last year, four companies were awarded up to $1 million each under the NextSTEP program to develop small-scale habitat concepts capable of supporting Orion and a crew of four for 60 days in cis-lunar space. 

It will be interesting to see what NASA does with the habitat funding. The four NextSTEP awardees were Bigelow, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK. Bigelow's concept is based on its inflatable habitat technology. Boeing's emphasis is on evolvability, with the company drawing on its heritage in constructing the International Space Station. Lockheed's module builds upon Orion technology, while Orbital ATK proposes a design based on its Cygnus ISS resupply spacecraft.

NASA NextSTEP EAM habitat concepts

Bigelow Aerospace / Boeing / Orbital ATK / Lockheed Martin

NASA NextSTEP EAM habitat concepts
In March 2015, four companies received up to $1 million in NASA funding for one-year projects to show how their deep space habitats could be used for an Exploration Augmentation Module (EAM). An EAM would initially house a four-person crew for 60 days in cis-lunar space. Clockwise from top left: Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Orbital ATK, Lockheed Martin.
See other posts from January 2016


Or read more blog entries about: SLS, Orion, human spaceflight


Arbitrary: 01/08/2016 11:23 CST

What "Journey to Mars"? I think that some movies recently have been more specific than that P.R. NASA phrase. There's no plan, is there?

GaryChurch: 01/08/2016 12:47 CST

The problem is that Mars is not the place to go. It has been used as a P.R. hook to garner support from emoting sci-fi fans for so long that NASA thinks they cannot do with it as a gimmick. The ocean moons of the gas giants are the best exploration destination but require true nuclear pulse propelled massively shielded spaceships to get there. Actually Mars also requires such spaceships.

Atom: 01/08/2016 07:31 CST

Jason, would you please elaborate on the "advanced boosters" shown on the SLS Block 2 Cargo version and when they might become available.

dougforworldsexplr: 01/08/2016 11:19 CST

Hi Jason; I appreciate you up-date on the SLS/Orion spacecraft and the budget for it for fiscal 2016. My question to you is what are the prospects that some of the leading candidates could revise the SLS/Orion to include immediate targets including manned missions to the surface of the Moon instead of docking with a rock from an asteroid on the way to the ultimate goal of landing astronauts on the surface of Mars as I heard it has been President Obama who has especially led NASA to focus away from the surface of the Moon as an immediate goal to going to the surface of Mars even though it would also be several days resupply from Earth and would have more similar gravity to the surface of Mars than in lunar orbit? Also how readily could the manned version of SLS/Orion be reconfigured to include a descend probe to the surface of the Moon and a means of returning some astronauts to Orion for return to Earth similar to the Apollo Lunar module?

GaryChurch: 01/09/2016 09:22 CST

NASA will hang on to the Mars gimmick because they think they cannot do without it. Big mistake number 1. NASA will continue to pander to the cheaper flexible path crowd because they have been whipped into thinking they will never get more funding. Big mistake number 2. NASA refuses to admit that the only solution to radiation and debilitation is massive shielding and artificial gravity (a tether system) and the only way push such a true spaceship is with nuclear pulse propulsion (H-bombs). The only place to both get the shielding and light off bombs is the Moon. Final and most egregious mistake of all.

GaryChurch: 01/09/2016 09:30 CST

"-elaborate on the "advanced boosters"-" The basic building block of any real space program would be reusable pressure-fed boosters in the several million pound thrust range (as originally specified for the shuttle). To date no work has been done on this at all except for the original study completed in the 70's. Until such a project is underway there is not much hope of rapidly creating a cislunar infrastructure. It is the critical technology that NASA lacks and has never been funded because the military never did any original research to cut costs. We went cheap and nasty and now seem to be stuck with solid fuel.

Karen: 01/11/2016 04:30 CST

@GaryChurch 1) The moon is a terrible place to get raw material. It's a deep gravity well. If you want to mine in space, you want to mine asteroids. 2) Every project has a cost. Landing on the moon and setting up an entire mining-and-launch operation that can provide for most of its own consumables (otherwise, what's the point?) would cost orders of magnitude more than just simply launching hundreds or even thousands of tonnes of shielding, and be far more likely of an endeavour to fail. If we want to make long-term space travel more realistic, everything stems down to a single issue: launch costs. Any project not focused on this is not focused on the core issue. Kudos to SpaceX with their work on reusability, but there's a lot more to demonstrate. For a real spacefaring future we don't want launch costs to go simply down to ~$1k/kg, we want it down to where fuel is half or more of the launch costs. With a 20:1 payload ratio and $0.80/kg propellant as 50% of the launch costs would imply $30/kg to orbit - now *that* would be a sustainable future in space. This is not "new physics". Nor is it nuclear (if you're looking for "cheap" on anything, nuclear is almost certainly not your answer). Chemical propellants can yield cheap access to orbit, and thus beyond... *IF* the incremental costs of the launch vehicle can be made reasonable.

GaryChurch: 01/11/2016 06:00 CST

@ Karen 1. The energy required to chase down these asteroids and return any product to cislunar space means mining them is far, far, more expensive than ISRU on the Moon. You have it backwards. Presently the only revenue generator is GEO and if you take a look at page 23 and figure 10 you will see the energy it takes to travel between the Moon and GEO tells the whole story: 2. The entire NewSpace business plan is about screaming cheap when, again, money has never been the problem- that is just marketing strategy. We have trillions to invest in public works projects and the problem with space has always been scale. Extremely large rockets compete with military profits and have never been attractive. NewSpace is the antithesis of the O'Neill concept of colonization and that path was so well thought out in the 70's there is still no arguing with it. NewSpace and their LEO tourist empire is a dead end. The Super Heavy Lift Vehicle going direct to the Moon dumps NewSpace in the trashcan which is why anything having to do with state sponsored giant rockets and lunar return is shouted down by a legion of Ayn-Rand-in-Space libertarians. The ice on the Moon is no lie.

GaryChurch: 01/11/2016 06:57 CST

@ Karen "-(if you're looking for "cheap" on anything, nuclear is almost certainly not your answer). Chemical propellants can yield cheap access to orbit, and thus beyond... -" I am not the one looking for cheap. There is no cheap. Actually there is enough bomb material that we cannot get rid of for dozens of nuclear pulse missions to the outer solar system. And because of cosmic radiation and the required massive shielding chemical propulsion for human missions Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit (BELO) is worthless. Only nuclear energy will work and there is only one practical nuclear propulsion system; bombs. NewSpace has been preaching false information for so long that everyone just takes it as fact now. Time for a wake-up call.

Jason Davis: 01/12/2016 05:14 CST

@Atom: The advanced boosters will likely be liquid-fueled versions that will be introduced at a later date. NASA opted to upgrade the upper stage before the boosters. @dougforworldsexplr: I'm not aware of any major space policy statements from any presidential candidates thus far, but I believe TPS is working on a project to track future statements and positions in the run-up to the election. When Orion was slated for crewed surface lunar missions during Constellation, it would have remained in orbit, similar to the Apollo CSM. A lander and ascent vehicle would have been separate components.

Karen: 01/13/2016 04:45 CST

@GaryChurch 1) No, you are incorrect about this. Check out delta-V maps. NEOs take far less energy to reach and return from than the moon. Delta-V is the figure that matters in rocketry, not energy well depth (although the two are related). Earth to LEO is about 10k m/s (this is the one cost that you only have to pay once). LEO to the Lunar surface is about 6,0k, a bit more on the return because of gravity losses. LEO to 2006 RH120 by contrast is a mere 3,81k. That may not sound like much, but due to the rocket equation, small differences in delta-V equation make for big difference in rocket size. 2) "I am not the one looking for cheap" - so unlike most of humanity, you don't care about expensive unsustainable boondoggles. Great. Meanwhile, over here in reality, the rest of us do give a rat's arse about what things cost and whether we can sustain them. And FYI, a NPP spacecraft is not just "take a bunch of bombs and blow them up". They're huge, ridiculously costly endeavours. And FYI, nobody is just "giving away" bombs - global nuclear stocks are rising, and they cost serious money. And they're very valuable even from a dismantle-and-sale perspective.

GaryChurch: 01/13/2016 05:18 CST

"-you don't care about expensive unsustainable boondoggles. Great. Meanwhile, over here in reality, the rest of us do give a rat's arse about what things cost-" I am not going to get goaded into an exchange that will get me banned. That is the standard NewSpace tactic you are hoping to pull off here. Goodbye.

GaryChurch: 01/14/2016 09:51 CST

To paraphrase my comment on another blog: As with almost everything concerning space, the prerequisite to an discussion is defining the terms being used. There is an ambiguity and misuse of analogy that seems to invade any discussion of spaceflight. The first rule is to troubleshoot a problem an understanding of how the system works is necessary. “Economic sense” in space is about GEO satellites. At around 200 billion dollars a year in revenues these satellites (and their launchers) are all that matter. “Economic sense” means Human Space Flight does not make sense. The profit motive quickly becomes confused with the survival imperative because of the military. Most people understand the Cold War was the father of the first space age. The survival imperative that keeps nuclear weapons in service ultimately connects with space in terms of catastrophes that may threaten our species with extinction. The survival imperative means Human Space Flight does make sense. I submit the real issue is not primarily economic. However, to achieve any success involves the profit motive. There is no denying money is the god of this world. The trick, as Gerard K. O’Neill understood, is to combine both economics and species survival. That is going to take a public works project on the scale of the Hoover dam and the Panama canal. NewSpace is the anti-thesis of this. “The market” as all that matters is the path to extinction. If “entrepreneurship” was the solution I would be the first to embrace it. It is in this case the main obstacle. NewSpace is the worst thing that has ever happened to space exploration and a real threat to acquiring any insurance against extinction in the near future.

GaryChurch: 01/14/2016 10:03 CST

I don’t believe any meaningful “discussion” can be undertaken without first defining exactly what space, and space travel is, and what space stations and spaceships actually are. I would suggest “space” be redefined as beginning at GEO. “Space travel” properly means leaving Earth’s magnetosphere. A “space station” provides a Beyond Low Earth Orbit (BLEO) near-sea-level radiation environment and one Earth gravity. A “spaceship” also provides an Earth environment while capable of Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit (BELO) interplanetary travel. Using these definitions any “discussion” of space leads straight to the BLEO/BELO requirements and the ice on the Moon as the critical enabling resource. It also relegates NewSpace to the hobbyist category. The first step is to replace the present GEO satellite junkyard with human-crewed lunar water shielded telecom space stations, thus acquiring those 200 billion dollar a year revenues for further investment in a cislunar infrastructure. The second is to replace the nuclear deterrent with a fleet of spaceships, modeled on the now-aging Ohio boats, that would also provide planetary protection. Time to abandon the dead ends of LEO and Mars and go back to the Moon.

GaryChurch: 01/15/2016 09:39 CST

"The moon is a terrible place to get raw material." Such a ridiculous statement I did not even bother to comment on it initially. But it just sits there like trash on the floor every time I look at the page so I might as well put it where it belongs; Gerard Kitchen O'Neill did not seem to think it was such a terrible idea.

Julia: 01/18/2016 02:05 CST

Well, in reading the comments, I guess my opinion is you get what you pay for, and I am in favor of both saving money & achieving the goal we are shooting at. Where ever we get our raw materials, I hope that we can do so with quality in mind, not just how much it costs. Moon, asteroid...both, neither. Whatever works. ( I would kind of like to see the moon before we start mining it though. ) Back on topic : I am loving any serious discussion of deep space habitats. The fact that it is actually happening encourages me to be less cynical about our overall future as a species. The NASA NextSTEP EAM habitat concepts personally make me feel that there is a promising future for our kids, and that really is nice to think about.

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