The Road to Mars...
...is paved with good inventions.
- By David S. F. Portree
- Air & Space magazine, March 2000
(Page 3 of 5)
If Mars was to be NASA's target after the moon, no NASA center wanted to be excluded, so in 1963 several centers launched their own Mars studies. The earliest at Houston's Manned Spacecraft Center—known today as the Johnson Space Center—came under the supervision of MSC assistant director for engineering Maxime Faget, designer of the Mercury capsule. Faget believed Marshall's Mars enthusiasm was premature and scorned the rival center's focus on manned flybys. "The flyby mission will demand the least energy but will also have the least scientific value," he declared in 1962. He wanted a gradual approach to human spaceflight, with a space station and moon-base ahead of Mars flights. Robots could do flybys, he thought.
Despite this, MSC's first in-house Mars study used flyby techniques. Near Mars the crew entered a small lander and abandoned their flyby vehicle. They landed on Mars and explored the surface. An unmanned second flyby vehicle then flew past Mars, and the crew launched to meet it for the ride home to Earth. MSC's approach saved propellant—except for the small lander, at Mars. But the risks were significant: What if the lander missed its appointment with the second vehicle?
MSC also contracted with Ford Aeronutronic for the first detailed Mars lander study. For its design—a tub-shaped lifting body with twin winglets—Aeronutronic assumed that the Martian atmosphere was largely nitrogen, with a density that was 10 percent of Earth's sea level pressure. The astronauts would seek out Martian life. Among other things, they would study it for possible food value.
Mars Planning Moves to Washington: 1965-1967
It became apparent in July 1965 that Aeronutronic's lifting body design would have crashed on Mars—a radio experiment using the Mariner 4 robot flyby probe found that Mars' atmosphere is carbon dioxide with a density of less than one percent of Mars' atmosphere is carbon dioxide with a density of less than one percent of Earth's atmosphere. Mariner 4's effects on NASA's 1960s Mars plans cannot be overestimated. In addition to finding a painfully thin atmosphere, it snapped 21 pictures of moon-like craters containing no signs of life, edible or otherwise.
What's more, it showed that Faget was right. Robots could do flybys—no people were required. But the concept persisted. In 1966, Charles Townes, a Nobel laureate and head of the NASA Advisory Council, asked George Mueller, head of the Office of Manned Space Flight at NASA headquarters, to study a manned flyby mission. The task fell to Mueller's Planetary Joint Action Group (JAG), a NASA-wide team already in place to plan nuclear-powered Mars landing missions.
The JAG's manned flyby attempted to integrate humans and robots. The spacecraft would release a robot lander as it neared Mars. The lander would touch down, scoop a sample, then immediately lift off and return to the flyby craft. The astronauts would then study the sample for any life-forms mere minutes after it left Mars. A robot could, of course, launch a sample directly back to Earth—but would Martian life forms survive the long voyage?
In 1967, the Vietnam War's cost dominated the federal budget. Congress warned NASA that it would tolerate no new undertakings. Despite this, MSC incautiously called for industry bids to design the Mars sample retriever robot. Congress angrily quashed the effort and went one further—it killed a new robotic program called Voyager that would have sought evidence of life on Mars.
End of the Beginning: 1968 and 1969
More than any other individual, NASA Administrator James Webb was responsible for Apollo's success. An ingredient in that success was his refusal to discuss NASA's post-Apollo plans. He knew that NASA detractors might seize on them to the agency's detriment by allowing the to paint NASA as fiscally irresponsible. Washington-savvy Webb stepped down in 1969. Tom Paine, an entirely different kind of NASA chief, replaced him. Pain, a Washington neophyte with little grasp of politics, let vision be his guide as he set out to define NASA's post-Apollo goals. He liked the audacity of a plan that Mueller's office had outlined for NASA. Evolved from JAG work, Mueller's Integrated Program Plan saw a space base in Earth orbit, a moon base, and humans on Mars—all by 1982.