It seems like we’re hitting peak Mars.
On Sept. 27, the space community, and many others, will turn their attention to Guadalajara, Mexico, where Elon Musk will give his long-anticipated speech at the International Astronautical Congress outlining SpaceX’s architecture for Mars missions. He’s released few details in advance of the speech, other than it will likely involve a new interplanetary spacecraft and a heavy-lift launch vehicle, and could be ready to start taking people in a decade.
SpaceX, though, isn’t the only company talking about Mars. In recent weeks more conventional aerospace companies, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK have all been talking up Mars exploration, although with different approaches than what SpaceX is likely envisioning.
At the AIAA Space 2016 conference in California, Boeing distributed booklets titled “The Path to Mars” outlining its concepts for getting humans to Mars, such as the development of cislunar habitats. A week later, Lockheed Martin hosted a reception in Washington to discuss Mars exploration, including its “Mars Base Camp” concept unveiled earlier this year that could send humans to Mars orbit (but not the surface) as soon as 2028.
There are variations in some of these concepts, but they’re all based on the same general approach: develop habitats in cislunar space to build up experience before sending humans to Mars. It’s the same overall strategy as NASA’s own Journey to Mars.
“Hopefully, what you see today is a whole lot of similarity,” said Kent Rominger of Orbital ATK. He spoke at a panel session on Capitol Hill organized by the advocacy group Explore Mars that included Aerojet Rocketdyne, Boeing and Lockheed.
There are differences in the details, he acknowledged, like Orbital ATK’s use of cislunar habitat modules based on its Cygnus cargo spacecraft, but the general aims are similar. “Hopefully, you’ll appreciate how similar they are.”
So why the push now? A big reason is the upcoming presidential transition. The candidates have said little about space policy, and seem unlikely to say much more.
Hillary Clinton, in response to a questionnaire on science policy issues from the group ScienceDebate, said she backed the goal of humans to Mars in general, but didn’t mention if she supported NASA’s current strategy. That’s still more detail than Donald Trump, who said he supported the space program in only the broadest of terms, without specifically endorsing humans to Mars.
A bipartisan group of senators has emphasized that uncertainty in their effort to pass a NASA authorization bill that formally endorses both NASA’s overall goal of humans to Mars and specific efforts like the Space Launch System and Orion. “Whenever one has a change in administration, we have seen the chaos that can be caused by the cancellation of major programs,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), sponsor of the bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee Sept. 21.
SpaceX’s Mars plans, though, are something of a wild card: Musk isn’t playing along with NASA’s Journey to Mars, and seems willing to go it alone, without NASA funding. Does that distract from the message other space companies are trying to coordinate about Mars exploration?
The panel at the Explore Mars panel seemed hesitant to answer that question. “Anything that highlights going to Mars is good.” Rominger said. “It brings it to the attention of the American public, and really the international public.”
“I think it’s an example of how the public and people of means are really excited about Mars exploration,” said former astronaut John Grunsfeld. “There’s a true hunger, a thirst, for us to go out and explore Mars.”
However, will that hunger be satisfied by NASA’s plans, or will the public find the menu Musk unveils in Mexico more appetizing?