The Mars Excursion Module: One More Small Step (Integrated Program Plan, Part IV)

Mars Excursion Module 1967

The Mars Excursion Module, as shown in 1967’s “Definition of Experimental Tests for a Manned Mars Excursion Module, Volume IV”. By 1969 it would evolve to have a truncated rather than rounded nose, and the base section was larger to notionally support storing a rover. This view affords an excellent look at the central ascent vehicle and its tanks, which would leave the rest behind. Public Domain image via NASA. Click for a larger view.

What it was: The last piece of the Integrated Program Plan’s mission to land astronauts on Mars in the 1980s. First proposed in 1966 (though with a similar, smaller craft being advocated by Philip Bono in 1964), in 1969 it was presented by Wernher von Braun to the Space Task Group and adopted as part of NASA’s proposal for the post-Apollo focus of that agency. Though not developed by him, it represented the culmination of his lifelong dream to visit Mars vicariously through the people he would be instrumental in sending.

Details: In a world where NASA’s Integrated Program Plan of 1969 went forward, you might be an astronaut on the first mission to Mars. After getting to orbit on board the Space Shuttle (likely the “DC-10” of Max Faget‘s design, or similar), you’d board a Nuclear Shuttle-driven

mem-schematic

MEM schematic view, 1969, showing the standing pilots and the tunnel to the lab and living area in the lower section. Public domain image from NASA. Click for a larger view.

interplanetary ship gingerly fuelled by personnel in Space Tugs. The journey would be a long one: hundreds of days, and possibly including a flyby of Venus, the exact duration depending on the year when the mission got underway. Eventually you’d get to your destination, though, and assuming all was well your ship would settled into an elongated orbit around the Red Planet. Half of the crew would stay aboard, while the remaining six astronauts (hopefully including you) would get to go down to the surface. To accomplish that, you’d use the Mars Excursion Module (MEM).

NASA studied a variety of craft that might make this final leg of the journey, but the MEM as pictured in 1969 first made an appearance in a study done at the Marshall Space Flight Center in June of 1966. A year previous, Mariner IV had shown that NASA’s previous best estimate of Mars’ atmospheric density, which had been about 25 millibars, or about 2.5% of Earth’s atmosphere, was much lower than expected at just 6 millibars. Previous designs were useless, relying as they did on lifting bodies and parachutes that would get some “bite” from the air on the way down. Marshall’s suggested shape, resembling an oversized Apollo capsule, was the first to deal with the reality of the situation: after entering the Martian atmosphere, even the MEM’s capsule-shaped body would only slow to a terminal velocity of 900 m/s and then carry on at that rate until hitting the ground. As this is just a little over 2000 miles per hour, it would bring the “terminal” to the fore if nothing else were done.

By November 1967 the details had been worked out after the problem was handed off to North American Rockwell. Their MEM was now recognizably the craft pitched by von Braun in 1969, though different in carrying four astronauts. During the descent the crew would be in the command module which took up the point of the MEM’s conical shape, while the lower deck’s laboratory, living quarters, and external airlock would be reached through an internal airlock and tunnel. The capsule was 30 feet in diameter at its base (9.1 meters) and 29 feet tall (8.8 meters). At re-entry time it would weigh 46.1 tonnes. Altogether this made it approximately the same size as the full Apollo CSM if the latter craft’s service module had continued the slope of the capsule on top of it instead of following parallel lines down to the engine. The contents of the extra volume enclosed made for a 14-tonne difference in mass, though, and later iterations of the MEM upped its base to 32 feet, the same diameter as a Saturn V, with a corresponding increase in weight.

The MEM in the context of the larger Mars Expedition craft.

The MEM in the context of the larger Mars Expedition craft. Public Domain image from 1968’s “Integrated Manned Interplanetary Spacecraft Definition, Volume IV”, via NASA.

After departing the Mars Expedition ship, the MEM would use a solid retrorocket to leave orbit and a liquid fuelled one to land, parachutes being all but useless in the thin air. On the plus side NAR’s engineers noted that Mars’ pitiful atmosphere meant that heat shields could be a lot lighter than those needed for re-entry on Earth. The one on the underside would a titanium honeycomb covered with ablating AVCOAT, also used by the Apollo capsule as well as with the Orion MPCV. The ones on the upper slopes of the MEM, made of titanium or L605 cobalt alloy depending on the heat it would endure, could be jettisoned to lose weight partway through the trip down to the ground. Daringly, two of the crew would remain standing to pilot the craft (probably supported by a harness when under heavy deceleration loads), and get the MEM landed on its six-legged landing gear. If they had to, they could hover the MEM above the surface for as much as two minutes.

Once down, the crew of the MEM would begin a 30-day stay on Mars. On the surface the MEM would be powered by two fuel cells in the mission module. An S band microwave link would be used for a TV signal back to Earth, as well as telemetry and voice communications, while a VHF link would be used for communications back to the orbiter as well as linking astronauts on the surface to the capsule.

Various configurations of the MEM as it goes through its mission

The many faces of the NAR MEM, from Mars deorbit, lower left, to ascent and rendezvous with orbiter, lower right. Public domain image via NASA, same source as previous. Click for a larger view.

When the mission was over, the toroidal mission module and the landing gear of the MEM would be discarded. Getting back off Mars was arguably the most difficult part of the mission, as North American Rockwell found that even LOX and LH2 was not powerful enough to do the job. Instead they settled on FLOX (70% liquid oxygen and 30% liquid fluorine) as the oxidizer and methane as the fuel, with careful staging of the ascent module’s tanks to minimize mass during the flight, in order to make it back to orbit. Rather than have to deal with two different sets of propellants, the landing engine would have burned the same. This is a somewhat alarming choice, both because the words “liquid fluorine” are always alarming and because FLOX and methane have never been used together in an operational rocket engine (Atlas engines had tested with FLOX and kerosene at least, in the years prior to 1967). The MEM’s reaction thrusters used an odd combination too, chlorine pentafluoride as an oxidixer and hydrazine.

North American Rockwell declared that they could build the MEM given seven years from 1971 to 1978, including heat shield tests from orbit, two manned test flights, and a 242-day “soak” in LEO vacuum to simulate the transit to Mars, with an actual Mars mission sometime from 1981 onward. Hardware development costs would be in the range of US$3.1 to US$5.0 billion.

What happened to make it fail: We’ve discussed the Mars Expedition as a whole previously, and the answer is still the same. Richard Nixon was uninterested in manned space programs and was only willing to support the Space Shuttle for fear of being remembered as the man who ended the Space Age. It’s easy to paint Nixon as the villain here, but he was a reflection of the reality that was the incoming 1970s: the economy was sputtering, Vietnam was costing a fortune, a majority of the American public didn’t care, and Congress was deeply hostile to a Mars mission. A crewed trip to Mars was pushed off nebulously to the year 2000, safely a minimum of five presidential administrations away. Even slight familiarity with American politics unmasks this as the political equivalent of your mother saying “We’ll see” when you asked her for a dog.

What was necessary for it to succeed: The IPP’s Mars landing was the end point of a large number of complex programs. In rough order these were: a Space Shuttle based on a winged orbiter, a LEO Space Station, small Space Tugs, orbiting propellant depots, Reusable Nuclear Shuttles, a Moon base, and possibly an Orbiting Lunar Station. By 1972 NASA’s future was busted down to the Shuttle, and as of 2016 they’re all the way up to step two.

The world where the Integrated Program Plan was followed is a very different one from ours, so it’s difficult to say what could possibly have brought the MEM to fruition. The best-known attempt is SF author Stephen Baxter’s misanthropic novel Voyage, but his suggested alternate outcome of the Kennedy Assassination isn’t sufficiently different to overcome the economic and social tides that sunk the IPP. Early collapse of the USSR in the late 1960s? Election of Gerard O’Neill as dark-horse, third-party President of the United States in 1976? Wernher von Braun finds a magic monkey paw? Your guess is as good as mine.

Technically, the MEM was sound. It was just about everything else outside its conical shell that went awry.

Other Fun Stuff

A picture of a MEM on the surface of Mars by artist Tom Peters

A neat shot of the heat shield jettison on a variant MEM using a ballute to maintain attitude, also by Tom Peters.

Sources

“An Initial Concept of a Manned Mars Excursion Vehicle for a Tenuous Mars Atmosphere”, Gordon R. Woodcock. NASA, Marshall Spaceflight Center. 1966.

“Definition of Experimental Tests for a Manned Mars Excursion Module. Final Report, Volume IV—Briefing”, Geoffrey S. Canetti. North American Rockwell. 1967.

“Integrated Manned Interplanetary Spacecraft Definition, Volume IV, System Definition”, Anonymous. Boeing. 1968.

OLS: The Orbiting Lunar Station (Integrated Program Plan, Part III)

OLS Schematic

The (surprisingly crude) schematic of the OLS from North American Rockwell’s Orbiting Lunar Station (OLS) Phase A Feasability and Definition Study, Vol. V. Public Domain image via NASA.

What it was: An April 1971 study by North American Rockwell, commissioned by NASA, on putting an eight-astronaut space station in polar orbit around the Moon.

Details: There was a short period of time prior to NASA settling on the Integrated Program Plan when some within that organization advocated a more conservative “space stations everywhere” program instead. A combination of NASA administrator Thomas Paine’s insistence on being bold and Spiro Agnew’s enthusiasm for Mars got the focus shifted to the Red Planet, but the space agency did its due diligence and took a look at the suggested stations in the context of the IPP.

From the standpoint of the 21st century, the most unusual of of these was a space station around the Moon, plainly dubbed the Orbiting Lunar Station, or OLS for short. North American Rockwell got the contract to flesh out the idea and dropped the result on NASA desks in April of 1971, just as Apollo 13 was gripping the world.

NASA’s basic intention was that the orbiting station would have several purposes. Scientific study of the Moon from orbit was one, and so was a supporting role for a surface base—communications with the Far Side, for example, or serving as an emergency shelter, or as a command station for remote rovers (thus alleviating the roughly 2.5 second round-trip delay between the Earth and the Moon). There was also a requirement to use the station for astronomy, including an intriguing suggestion to perform high-resolution X-ray astronomy using the edge of the Moon as an occulting edge, and the idea that the station would serve as an excellent test bed for the systems that would be used in the orbiting command centers that would probably feature during interplanetary missions.

What North American Rockwell presented was a station that would have been launched on a Saturn INT-21 (essentially a Saturn V without its upper stage, similar to what was used to launch Skylab) or in the cargo bay of the then-conceptual Shuttle that NASA was working on. After being checked out in LEO by a crew which would return to Earth, the unmanned OLS would be sent into lunar orbit using a Nuclear Shuttle, and then the first eight-astronaut expedition to the station would be sent using another. The vagaries of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth suggested a mission every 109 days to the station, with North American Rockwell arbitrarily deciding to swap half the crew out each time. After ten years, the OLS would be decommissioned.

As to where the astronauts were going, exactly, North American Rockwell came up with two possibilities. One was a purpose-built station, to which they specifically assigned the name OLS, while the alternative was a refit of a modular station originally built for Earth-orbital activities, which they dubbed the MSS. The end result was functionally the same, however, so for the purpose of simplicity we’ll focus on the OLS.

DeckPlans

The four habitable decks of the OLS. Composite image from the same source as previous. Click for a larger view. Public Domain image via NASA.

The station would have been built around a cylindrical core module 60.83 feet long and 27 feet in diameter (18.5 × 8.2 meters). It would have four receptive docking ports around its side, and one “neuter” port on each end, all intended for docking visiting ships or expansion with further modules later. Within were six decks, four of which were pressurized for human habitation. Access between these decks was provided by a series of circular openings on the station’s long axis; the exception was between decks 2 and 3, which were connected by a hatch that could be sealed off in the case of emergency.

One of the end ports would be used to attach a 33.42′- (10.2 meter-) long power module, which would unfurl four solar arrays totaling 10,000 square feet (929 square meters) hooked to regenerative fuel cells for storage, while one of the four receptive ports would house experiments that needed “a clear field of view” (the astronomy experiments, one presumes) and a bay for storing and repairing satellites the station would drop into other lunar orbits. Altogether it would have a dry mass of 107,745 pounds (48.75 tons); compared to other stations it would have been intermediate in size to the larger Skylab and the smaller Salyut-7.

The core module would also have a radiation shelter on the second deck, containing a secondary control room, backup galley, and toilet, protected by the stations 16,000 pounds of water (roughly 7250 liters) stored in a jacket around the shelter. The water was also used by the thermal radiators to deal with what NAR termed “the significantly more severe” environment in lunar orbit.

The OLS’s ten-year lifespan was specifically targeted to the 1980s, giving some idea of how long North American Rockwell though it would take to get it up and running.

What happened to make it fail: Like the rest of the IPP with which it was associated (with the partial exception of the Space Shuttle) the OLS ran into the avalanche that was the early 1970s. As well as major budget cuts and indifference on the part of the government and the American public toward space ventures, it had the additional problem of no high-level advocate. NASA administrator Tom Paine in particular was critical of the “stations everywhere” approach and preferred Wernher von Braun‘s more audacious Mars mission. There it would be only a minor part, if it existed at all.

What was necessary for it to succeed: You’ve got to start somewhere, begin with an administrator or a “rock star” like von Braun backing it to the full. Then all you have to do is prevent the economic troubles of the 1970s, end the Vietnam War, and somehow get one of the President or the general public on side. Piece of cake.

If you relax the requirement for success to include a lunar station not directly descending from NAR’s study, the situation gets a little easier. The American and Russian space agencies have discussed the possibility of a lunar station as a follow-up to the ISS, and it’s to North American Rockwell’s credit that both have described a setup not too dissimilar from the OLS. Though NASA still seems more interested in an asteroid redirect mission or a Mars mission at the moment, there’s a halfway decent chance that, about sixty years after the fact, the OLS’s descendant will take flight.

Sources

Orbiting Lunar Station (OLS) Phase A Feasibility and Definition Study, Vol. V; Space Division North American Rockwell; Downey, California; April 1971.

The Space Shuttle Decision; T.A. Heppenheimer; NASA History Office; Washington, DC; 1999.

 

 

 

The Reusable Nuclear Shuttle: To the Moon, Again and Again (Integrated Program Plan, Part II)

Sample Nuclear Shuttle configurations

A 1971 slide prepared by Marshall Space Flight Center showing an unloaded Nuclear Shuttle (top) and two configurations with a various components docked to its forward end (middle and bottom). Public domain image by NASA via Wikimedia Commons. Click for a larger view.

What it was: The solution NASA envisioned to the difficulty of getting large payloads to anywhere much beyond Earth with mere chemical rockets. Something like a dozen of them would serve as the brute force “trucks” of the American space program beyond Low Earth Orbit.

Details: We’ve already discussed some aspects of the Integrated Program Plan, NASA’s ambitious 1969 proposal to follow up the Apollo Moon landings with a new goal and new technology. The new goal was a manned Mars Mission, but the new technology had two particular pieces that would do the grunt work of building a space station and a Moon base as intermediate steps to the red planet: a reusable orbiting space plane (not yet dubbed the “Space Shuttle”) and the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle (RNS), many of which would have been built. It would have been the space plane’s role to get astronauts and cargo into low Earth orbit, while the RNS would have been used for the “high frontier”, so to speak. If something was going to go higher a few hundred kilometers, it would be offloaded from the spaceplane to an RNS, and then sent on its way—potentially to the Moon, or even beyond.

The RNS was suited for this task and similarly restricted from landing on Earth for one reason: their engines were given oomph by a nuclear reactor, but approaching one too closely at the wrong angle would expose a person to a fatal dose of radiation.

Start with the Nuclear Shuttle’s advantages. A variety of factors affect the power of a rocket, but the dominant number is the specific impulse (ISP) of the propellants it uses (to be precise, it’s a proportional measure of how much propellant the rocket has to use to add or subtract a given amount of velocity, though confusingly its unit is the second). With variations due to several other factors, rocket engines that use UDMH and N2O4 produce a specific impulse in the neighbourhood of 280 seconds, while LOX/LH2 is much more efficient at around 450 seconds (the low density of liquid hydrogen hamstrings it, though, so it’s often only used in upper stages where the rocket is already well underway and moving fast).

Unfortunately, all chemical fuels with a better ISP than that are either fantastically explosive, corrosive, toxic, or some hellacious combination of all three of those characteristics. Even at that, the best known ISP ever obtained (with a tripropellant of lithium, hydrogen, and fluorine) is 542 seconds.

Ultimately this because chemical propellants depend on chemical bonds, and there’s only so much energy you can contain in those. Quite early on rocket engineers realized that a good way to higher ISP was to use a different source of energy. In the absence of real exotics like nuclear fusion and matter/antimatter reactions, nuclear fission was the way to go. Hydrogen heated by a nuclear reactor can have an arbitrarily high ISP; it’s just a matter of how much heat one can get away with before the physical components of the engine are melted away.

When John F. Kennedy made his famous 1961 speech that started the race to the Moon he made a largely-forgotten reference to the Rover nuclear rocket, a contemporary project that was working on a preliminary nuclear-fission powered rocket. This in turn led to successively more advanced nuclear engines with the colourful names KIWI, Phoebus, and Peewee-1. By the end of 1969, NASA had a design for a functional nuclear rocket engine, the NERVA-2.

NERVA-2 would have had a specific impulse of 825 seconds in vacuum, and be able to burn for 20 minutes and produce 399.5 kilonewtons of thrust. Compare this to the J-2, NASA’s comparable workhorse engine (used on the second stage of the Saturn V, among others): it produced 486.2 kN of thrust, but was far less efficient at just 421 seconds of ISP. Accordingly, even though the NERVA-2 was far larger and heavier than the J-2 (having an entire nuclear reactor on board does that), the savings on propellant mass and the mass of the tanks needed to store it would make any spacecraft using one smaller than the same spacecraft based around a J-2.

Getting to the Moon is considerably more difficult than getting to orbit—you need to add another 3 to 4 kilometers per second to your orbital speed—and so the radically reduced fuel consumption of a NERVA-2 engine was very useful. Enter the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle. This was a conceptually simple ship: a single large fuel tank containing LH2 would have a NERVA-2 attached to one end, while the other had a docking adapter that could connect up to a variety of payload containers. Attach your payload, light the engine, and the RNS would push the payload into high orbit, to the Moon, or even beyond. Ideally you’d also put it on a trajectory which would let it return to Earth orbit, as the NERVA-2 was designed for ten round trips before it would be unsafe to light up again.

The disadvantage of the RNS lay in the radiation environment it produced. The rocket’s exhaust was only marginally radioactive and so arguably acceptable to allow on a launchpad, but in the event of a containment breach on the ground or, worse, in the air the engine would have sprayed uranium all over the environment. Even in the heady days of the late 1960s this was considered too risky, so the plan was to launch an RNS on top of a Saturn rocket using conventional fuels—if the Saturn blew up, the reactors were sufficiently ruggedized that they could survive the accident intact and fall into the ocean safely (by 1960s standards anyway).

What was more problematic was the NERVA-2 in orbit. Once the reactor was up and running it needed a great deal of shielding to protect approaching astronauts. As shielding was heavy, the RNS wasn’t going to have much of it. Instead the approach chosen was the have a “shadow shield”, where the propellant tank and any propellant aboard would provide most of the shielding. This meant that humans getting close to an RNS had to approach it from the front at a fairly shallow angle, using the bulk of the RNS to cover them from the reactor. If they approached from the sides or, God forbid, the aft where the engine was located they were assured of radiation sickness or death. Even on top of the RNS, a crew member would get about the recommended annual maximum radiation dose each time the engine fired.

Nevertheless, the advantages of the RNS outweighed the disadvantages in NASA’s collective mind, and the Integrated Program Plan called for it to be the workhorse of the space program beyond Earth orbit. Each would be used up to ten times (with refueling gingerly taking place after each use), after which it would be discarded in a high orbit due to its extreme residual radioactivity. With it, crews and payloads could be sent to the Moon and returned, and ultimately the American manned Mars mission craft envisioned for the early eighties would be perched on top of three of them.

What happened to make it fail: As with much of the IPP, the nuclear shuttle never got built because of a combination of disinterest from the Nixon administration and the falling budgets that that caused. Of all its parts, only the re-usable Space Shuttle and its rocket stack made it off the ground.

The RNS has its own particular story embedded in this larger tale, though. For many years the nuclear rocket engine program had been championed by New Mexico Senator Clinton P. Anderson, as much of the work on NERVA had been done at Los Alamos. Just as NERVA-2 was ready to become operational he became seriously ill and unable to press his case as much as he had in the past. The White House convinced Congress to pull the plug on the nuclear rocket on the grounds that it would be the basis of a manned mission to Mars, a goal about which Congress was quite negative at the time. The plan was that the freed-up funds could be used for the more-practical Boeing 2707, a Mach 2.7 supersonic commercial passenger plane similar to the Concorde or the Soviet Tu-144. Ironically, Anderson had enough clout remaining in the Senate to apparently engineer a 51-46 vote against moving ahead with that project; the House of Representatives soon followed. While the exact maneuvering involved has never been documented, the vote was widely considered retaliation for the cancellation of NERVA.

Regardless, with its funding quickly dwindling despite Congressional efforts to keep it going, NERVA was cancelled on January 5, 1973, and the Reusable Nuclear Shuttle was dead.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Like much of the Integrated Program Plan, the RNS was doomed by the political currents in Washington, within NASA, and in the general public. When it came down to picking something to move forward on NASA picked the Space Shuttle and the hope that one day they would be able to move on to a space station from there. The RNS ranked third (with the Moon base and Mars landing fourth and fifth) on their priority list, and they even tried very hard to claim that without the Space Shuttle they would not be able to get any nuclear shuttles into space. This was not actually true as the initial plan to use NERVA involved an upgraded Saturn rocket, but it was a measure of NASA’s determination to do anything to get the Space Shuttle built.

Ultimately that’s the main route to getting the RNS into the sky. NASA engaged in a great deal of internal debate from 1968 to 1970 over whether to continue with ballistic capsules or move on to a reusable, winged orbiter. Related to this was the debate over whether or not to focus on Earth orbit as a testing ground or push hard into the rest of the solar system. If both debates had gone the other way, a nuclear engine would have been very attractive to planetary mission planners and the money would have been there to continue with NERVA and the RNS–despite Congress’ objections to Mars missions, the presidential Office of Management and Budget had considerable discretion to ignore how it was told to allocate the money it received until a post-Nixon backlash in 1975.

Instead the arguments settled around a winged orbiter and sticking close into Earth unless the mission was unmanned, and we got the space program that we did from 1975 to the first decade of the 21st century. Nuclear rockets were revived for a short while during the days of the Strategic Defense Initiative’s Project Timberwind, but again it never came to anything.

Even if the RNS got built, there’s the possibility that it would have been much restricted in use or even cancelled outright no matter what successes it scored. The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 soured the American public on nuclear power in general, and after the Challenger explosion in 1986 NASA became very leery about dangerous payloads–for example, deciding against the planned Centaur-B booster that was to be orbited aboard STS-61-G later in the same year for the purposes of getting the Galileo probe to Jupiter. While both were specific incidents, they were each the culmination of long-term cultural trends that likely would have choked off the use of the RNS no later than the mid-1980s, and possibly earlier if one of them was involved in an accident.

Mars Expedition 1969: NASA’s Waterloo (Integrated Program Plan, Part I)

A cutaway view of the Mars craft proposed by MSFC in 1969.

A cutaway view of the Planetary Mission Module (centre) and Mars Expedition Module (right) on top of the Nuclear Shuttle (fully visible on the second ship in the background). Public domain image from the Marshall Space Flight Center, NASA. Click for a larger view.

What it was: NASA’s follow-up to the Apollo program. A manned mission to Mars would have been launched in November 1981, brought twelve men to Mars—six of them landing—and then returned to Earth in August of 1983 (with a flyby of Venus along the return route). There would be two more manned missions by the end of 1985, and a manned base by the middle of 1987.

Details: Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon on July 21, 1969 and the obvious next question was “Now what?”

NASA had been answering it intermittently for years prior to this but now they got down to business. In particular, while they supported the Apollo Applications Project they were not content to stick to those missions’ main goal: to find out new things to do with the hardware they had already developed. Quite reasonably they decided that they needed to carry onwards and upwards with their engineering. Not only was a manned mission to Mars the obvious next step from an exploratory standpoint, it had the advantage of requiring that they move beyond Apollo equipment.

To that end they turned once again to Wernher von Braun. This was the culmination of his life dream: he’d published a Mars program in 1948, made a splash with the variant of it published in Collier’s in 1954, come up with another smaller expedition in 1956, and then sponsored the so-called EMPIRE and UMPIRE studies in 1962-64. On August 4, 1969 he made a presentation of what would be his final Mars proposal to the Space Task Group (STG), chaired by Vice President Spiro Agnew.

The mission was to be the penultimate part of a two-decade effort, the Integrated Program Plan, which could really be thought of as “Apollo 2.0”: another vast effort with an end goal, designed to replace the one that had just finished. As such it was part of an integrated whole that developed orbital operations into a finely tuned science, first by practicing with the Apollo Applications Program space stations and lunar base. One of the tools was to be a new space-only booster based on NERVA—which is to say, the first ever nuclear thermal rocket. This piece of equipment, dubbed the Nuclear Shuttle, was intermediate in mass between the second and third stages of a Saturn V, and had a higher specific impulse than any rocket ever flown.

Individual Nuclear Shuttles would be fueled in orbit with liquid hydrogen and used to push men and cargo to the Moon, then the empties returned to Earth orbit when they could be refueled and used again—up to ten times in all. Regular Saturn V launches would occur all through the early to mid-70s, building a space station and generally preparing the necessary infrastructure to be a “gas station”.

Meanwhile the other necessary equipment would be tested as part of an Apollo Moon base (basically a revival of the ALSS Lunar Base, which had been cancelled when new Saturn V production went into hiatus). There would be tests of the Nuclear Shuttle by the end of 1977, and 25 men living on the Moon by 1982.

With all that shaken out, the Mars mission would begin on November 12, 1981 with two ships launched on a Mars-bound a trajectory from low-Earth orbit. Each would consist of three Nuclear Shuttles strapped in tandem and a Mars craft made up of a Planetary Mission Module (PMM) habitation section and a Mars Excursion Module (MEM) lander mated to the tip of the one in the centre. The two side Shuttles would get the centre one and its payload up to speed, then peel loose and re-enter Earth orbit for reuse, while the two diminished mission craft would carry on their way.

There were two because the mission had the unique profile of backing itself up. Strictly speaking only one would be necessary for the mission, but the second would fly in formation to be a lifeboat in the case something went horribly wrong on the first—and the first served the same purpose for the second.

This kind of redundancy was necessary because the mission’s twelve crew were going to be away a long time. They’d arrive at Mars on August 9, 1982, stay there for almost three months, and then return to Earth for August 14, 1983: 640 days in all. In theory you wanted to minimize the weight of what you sent, but no margin for error meant nothing could go wrong without endangering the whole mission. NASA had always operated on the principle that you needed something to work with in case of an emergency, a principle that would prove its worth a few months after von Braun’s presentation when one whole side blew off of Apollo 13’s CSM and the astronauts on board were able to ride the excess margins back to Earth. Away from Earth for far longer than any space mission flown to that point, the Mars expedition would get its margin by literally flying two missions at once.

While at Mars six astronauts would stay aboard the PMM and Nuclear Shuttle combinations, flying in an elliptical orbit (a clever innovation by von Braun which made docking harder but cut the mass needed for the mission in half). After a remote sampler determined that it was safe to descend, six more astronauts would go to the surface in two groups of three aboard the Mars Expedition Modules, a capsule derived from the cone-shaped Apollo Command Module. They would slow down in what had only recently been discovered to be Mars’ very thin atmosphere by combination of a parachute, a ballute (a balloon-shaped inflatable parachute that works well at low atmospheric densities), and finally retrorockets starting three kilometers up.

Cutaway view of a MEM

Cutaway view of a MEM lander. Public Domain image from NASA’s Humans to Mars: Fifty Years of Mission Planning, 1950-2000. Click for a larger view.

A MEM could support its crew on the ground for up to sixty days, then its upper stage could climb back into orbit for rendezvous with the PMMs and Nuclear Shuttles. The latter would then fire up one more time and start the long journey back to Earth on 28 October, 1982.

The mission was not quite done, however. Their trajectory would take them back inside Earth’s orbit on a flyby of Venus on February 12, 1983. While this was a second opportunity for scientific study, it was primarily a speed-shedding maneuver. Four probes would be dropped on the way by.

Having got the right trajectory and speed, the two Mars craft would pull into Earth orbit where they would dock with the space station (while not the Orbiting Quarantine Facility, which was proposed several years later, it would serve the same purpose). From there they would be picked up by the Space Shuttle for the last leg of the journey home. If for whatever reason the space station didn’t exist or wouldn’t be suitable for this, the mission could be designed instead with an Apollo-style command module would let the crew splashdown directly to Earth.

Note that four of the Nuclear Shuttles had returned to LEO near the start of the mission; now the last two had done the same and so had their associated Mars craft. Only the MEMs would have been used up. Accordingly the ships would be refurbished and sent out again in 1986. Meanwhile, a second pair of ships would have been launched early in 1983, and on return be re-launched in 1988. By mid-1989, the intention was to have a 48-man semi-permanent base on Mars.

Bearing in mind that the proposal was part of a larger manned space effort including the Space Shuttle and a Moon base, the total cost of NASA’s programs was estimated about US$7 billion per year through at 1976 and $8 to 10 billion for the few years after that. The Space Task Group accepted von Braun’s Mars proposal and the NASA Integrated Program Plan as a whole, and passed it on to President Nixon on September 15, 1969.

What happened to make it fail: There was an utter disconnect between what NASA thought they should get in funding and what everyone else in the government was willing to give them. Even the Space Task Group was uneasy about the von Braun plan and offered two decompressed (and cheaper) versions of it—one where the Mars landing didn’t take place until 1986 and another where the landing was the goal but there was no set date for it. They still underestimated the opposition they would face.

Mariner 7 flew by Mars the day after von Braun made his presentation to the Space Task Group, and appeared to back up what Mariners 4 and 6 had shown previously: that Mars was a dead world, cratered not overly different from the Moon. We now know that by bad luck these missions happened to photograph the most inhospitable parts of Mars rather than the (slightly) more Earth-like northern Hemisphere, but that realization was in the future. Initial jubilation over Apollo 11 faded within a few months in favour of hard questions about why men had to go to Mars in light of what had been learned.

There was also a strong sense among the public and politicians that the United States had to get its house in order down on Earth. Protests against the Vietnam War were at their height and the country was still reeling from the urban riots of 1968. The Republicans had been voted back into power in the presidency in response (though the Democrats still controlled Congress) and Nixon was to continue the squeeze on the NASA budget that his Democratic predecessor had begun. When his director of the Office of Management and Budget Robert Mayo—an observer on the STG—objected to NASA’s proposal for FY 1971 coming in 29% over the cap he had imposed on them (US$4.5 billion instead of $3.5 billion) he convinced Nixon to put his foot down and NASA’s entire manned space program entered a death spiral.

By the time the dust settled almost all of von Braun and NASA’s programs had been cut. On March 3, 1970 Nixon announced that he’d allow only a truncated Apollo program, one space station (Skylab) and a commitment to the Space Shuttle. NASA would try one more Mars proposal in 1971; Wernher von Braun left NASA in 1972 and died in 1977 even before his proposed mission would have launched.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Almost everything was pointing against a Mars mission being approved in 1969. Public opinion was dubious (a Gallup poll in July 1969 found 53% of Americans against it—as Apollo 11 was going on!), the political interest to explore space was fading away in the Democratic Party as John F. Kennedy receded into the past, and Nixon was struggling with paying for the Vietnam War just as the US economy was sliding into recession. After his presidency various inside sources reported that he had been looking for a way to wrap up Apollo without looking like “The Man Who Killed the Space Program”; ironically, the less-ambitious options included in the STG’s report gave him the loophole he needed to dive through.

One possibility that could have brought about the mission would be a virtual tie in the space race, with the Americans and Russians getting to the Moon in a dead heat or possibly even the Russians getting a man on the Moon first. Under those circumstances the US might have committed to “Space Race, Round 2” and go for Mars. But this is a hard one to get flying, for all that it’s about the closest we’ve ever been to seeing a manned Mars mission. Even if it had been approved how much it would have had to shrink and delay as it rode out the 1973 Oil Crisis and the jittery economic conditions that lasted into the early 1980s is an open question.

Some very nice renders of this mission can be found on the DeviantArt page of Drell-7, AKA Tom Peters.