24 September 2015

The Collins Task Force Says Aim for Mars (1987)

The Apollo 11 crew of Neil Armstrong (left), Michael Collins, and Edwin Aldrin. Image credit: NASA
The January 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle accident laid bare many shortcomings of the U.S. space program. NASA, which only 14 years before had soared to the moon, had suffered chronic underfunding since the truncated Administration of President Richard Nixon (1969-1974). At the same time, expectations for the Shuttle grew, until, in January 1984, President Ronald Reagan called upon NASA to use its Shuttle fleet to build an Earth-orbiting Space Station within a decade.

NASA had eagerly encouraged such expectations. The Shuttle, it promised, would fly cheaply and often, permitting it to replace all U.S. expendable rockets and fly commercial payloads for domestic and foreign customers. It would fly so inexpensively that Shuttle astronauts would economically service Earth-orbiting satellites. The Shuttle would reliably launch all U.S. robotic planetary missions, saving so much money that a new era of planetary exploration could begin. By conducting secret military missions - many launched from California into near-polar orbits - it would help to ensure U.S. national security. It would be safe enough that it would carry non-astronaut passengers - researchers, teachers, journalists, and others - and its crews would fly without pressure suits.

The Space Shuttle would also open the door to new space programs. The Space Station, NASA declared, was "the next logical step" after the Shuttle. That implied other, unspecified steps after the Space Station, in the 1990s and beyond.

Even before the Challenger accident called many of NASA's promises into question, Reagan had come under pressure to give the space agency a long-term goal that would provide a clear rationale and context for the Shuttle and Station programs. In late 1984, in fact, Congress mandated that the White House appoint an independent commission to study NASA's long-term options and offer recommendations for its future direction.

The Space Shuttle was developed in a dangerously constrained funding environment. Despite this, NASA sought to promote a bold vision of a Shuttle-launched future. Image credit: NASA
The National Commission on Space (NCOS) began its planned year-long study on 29 March 1985. Reagan tapped Apollo-era NASA Administrator Thomas Paine to head up the Commission. Among its commissioners were such aviation and spaceflight luminaries as first moonwalker Neil Armstrong, Chuck Yeager, the first person to fly faster than sound, and Kathryn Sullivan, the first U.S. woman to walk in space.

The NCOS report, titled Pioneering the Space Frontier, reached the news media in March 1986. Paine formally presented it to the White House and Congress on 22 July 1986. It called for a 50-year program that included fully reusable shuttles, heavy-lift rockets, an Earth-orbiting spaceport, a variable-gravity space station for biomedical research, lunar oxygen mines, cycling Mars liners, an outpost on inner martian moon Phobos, and a science base on Mars. It touched on topics as wide-ranging as self-replicating space factories, submersibles for the hypothetical world-ocean of Uranus, and U.S. involvement in the International Space Year of 1992.

Set against the backdrop of the Challenger accident and NASA's revealed weaknesses, the NCOS program appeared at best grandiose. The Reagan Administration quietly shelved the NCOS report.

Concern over NASA's long-term direction had, however, not abated. If anything, it had increased, in part because the Soviet Union had launched its long-awaited Mir core space station (20 February 1986). Many feared that the U.S. civilian space agency had lost not only its sense of direction, but also its place as the world leader in spaceflight.

On 18 August 1986, less than a month after the NCOS report reached Congress and the White House, NASA Administrator James Fletcher appointed Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space, as his Special Assistant for Strategic Planning. He charged her with preparing a new blueprint for NASA's future - one more focused and readily achievable than the NCOS blueprint - that would emphasize specific ways that NASA could demonstrate U.S. leadership in space.

Robotic Mars missions would have played significant roles in both the Collins Task Force piloted Mars program and Sally Ride's robotic Solar System exploration "leadership initiative." Image credit: NASA
While drafting her report, Ride received input in the form of a three-and-a-half-page paper from the NASA Space Goals Task Force, a 12-member group appointed by NASA Advisory Council chairman Daniel Fink and chaired by Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Michael Collins. The Council gave the Collins Task Force final report its blessing during its 3-4 March 1987 meeting, and Fink submitted the report to Fletcher to pass on to Ride on 16 March.

The Space Goals Task Force declared that a "bold goal, clearly stated" would help the space agency to "focus and clarify" its long-term objectives. Mars, the Task Force declared, stood out as "the one entity most likely to capture widespread enthusiasm and support, while pulling considerable scientific and technical capability in its wake." It called for a public declaration that astronauts "exploring and prospecting on Mars" would henceforth become NASA's "primary goal."

The Task Force then outlined "preliminary steps" that the U.S. would need to take before Americans could take steps on Mars. First, the Space Shuttle would need to resume operations and new expendable rockets would need to be developed to supplement it. This would help to ensure uninterrupted U.S. space access. Funding for space technology research would need to be increased to reverse the "serious erosion of our technology base" that began during the Nixon Administration. In addition, an "aggressive" program of robotic Mars missions would be required.

NASA would also need to complete the Space Station as soon as possible so that it could serve as a test-bed for the development of Mars Program technologies and a laboratory for studying long-duration spaceflight effects on human physiology. "The Space Station is an element of human expansion [into space] in its own right," the Task Force declared, "but it is far more important because of its essential role in building the capability to conduct programs that achieve and demonstrate [space] leadership."

One of many piloted Mars lander designs proposed in the mid-to-late 1980s - the "molly bolt" configuration. Image credit: Eagle Engineering/NASA
When Americans set foot on Mars, the Task Force continued, it should be as part of a "peaceful enterprise done in the name of all humankind." It asserted, in fact, that American Mars explorers should, "[u]nder appropriate conditions," be accompanied by astronauts of other "qualified nations," including the Soviet Union.

The Task Force called for "a realistic schedule" for its Mars Program that would ensure "stable planning and execution of a studied, orderly, progressive series of events." As part of the effort to develop a schedule, NASA, the President, and the Congress would need to decide "whether the moon should be used as stepping stone to Mars, or should be bypassed."

It concluded by considering commercial opportunities that the Mars Program might create. NASA would "pull" commercial space ventures into existence through its revitalized research programs, the Collins Task Group report argued, adding that the "history of this Nation is replete with examples of successful commercial activity stimulated by the technologies resulting from the exploration of new frontiers." "The technical challenges associated with a program of human exploration of Mars are of such a magnitude," it continued, that they would "certainly provide many direct and indirect stimuli to American industry."

The Space Goals Task Force report influenced Sally Ride's August 1987 report Leadership and America's Future in Space, though she gave equal emphasis to four leadership initiatives (Earth studies, robotic Solar System exploration, an outpost on the moon, and humans to Mars). She believed that the U.S. could not demonstrate space leadership in all areas of spaceflight endeavor, so should choose one or two and excel in them. She also believed that NASA should return astronauts to the moon before accepting the greater challenge of astronauts on Mars.

Collins, probably the most articulate of the astronaut writers, subsequently sought to build support for the Mars-centered Space Goals Task Force program. In a prominent article in the November 1988 issue of the widely circulated National Geographic magazine and in his 1990 book Mission to Mars, he called upon NASA to bypass the moon and launch humans to Mars as early as 2004.


Letter with enclosure, Daniel J. Fink to James C. Fletcher, "NASA Space Goals Task Force Final Report," 16 March 1987

"Mission to Mars," Michael Collins, National Geographic, Volume 174, November 1988, pp. 732-764

Mission to Mars: An Astronaut's Vision of Our Future in Space, Michael Collins, Grove Press, 1990

Humans to Mars: Fifty Years of Mission Planning, 1950-2000, David S. F. Portree, Monographs in Aerospace History #21, NASA SP-2001-4521, February 2001, pp. 68-69

More Information

Sally Ride's Mission to Mars (1987)

Evolution vs. Revolution: The 1970s Battle for NASA's Future

What Shuttle Should Have Been: NASA's October 1977 Space Shuttle Flight Manifest

Where to Launch and Land the Space Shuttle? (1971-1972)


  1. Hi David,
    From your studies, do you have any sense of what was envisioned post-1st-boots-on-Mars? Seems to me the Mars concept is modeled after Apollo - make a couple trips for posterity, then be a bit lost for some decades.

    The US has been pursuing space almost whimsically. Since Kennedy/Johnson and maybe Reagan, it seems our ability to articulate specific rationale for space travel has been pretty bad. Both Kennedy and Reagan had cold-war driven rationales. But once we remove the cold war from the thinking space becomes boring for governments.

    What is a credible goal for space exploration that politically and economically survive changing administrations?

  2. Ben:

    This post is not so nuts-and-bolts, it's more policy, which means it probably won't excite many people.

    The Collins Group didn't specify what would happen after Americans reached Mars. Ride had in mind several expeditions following a split-sprint profile (I'll be posting on that soon).

    Split-sprint includes a short stay at Mars - about three weeks - which implies flags-and-footprints, not an outpost. I'll get into this in more detail later, but the NASA HQ Office of Exploration - founded because of Ride's recommendations, but barely funded - focused on more long-term commitments.

    I don't know if one can say that space becomes boring for governments. Mostly they don't think about it. Jobs and prestige account for much of our continued involvement in space, just as they always have. Highly visible cooperative ventures have played a greater role than many acknowledge. Defense, commercial communications, Earth obs - stuff near Earth - are the main things for a lot of folks involved in space.

    Personally, I believe that the most credible goal beyond job creation, prestige, and old standbys like defense is exploration. Of course, much of that can be accomplished using robots.


    1. Thanks David,
      I sometimes wonder if space travel is merely an extension of American narcissism. I mean, remove the United States from the space exploration scenario after 1945, and what's the result?

      Who's going to the Moon? Who's incentivizing the Soviets to compete? Basically Americans were scared and insulted by Sputnik and from 1957 to 1970 we pretty much had to compete. Once that was nearly done, Johnson got caught up in Vietnam/Great Society, and Nixon fumbled the ball early and Watergate shifted focus late.

      I confess I am a bit caught up now in Dr. Lodgson's "After Apollo". It's a bit depressing with all the muddle, committees, and compromises that festered under Nixon's administration without clear direction.

  3. Ben:

    Narcissism? Possibly. I think there was real fear involved in the early days, and by the time that faded to manageable proportions NASA and Apollo had developed their own momentum.

    If you look at the Ride Report, it's all about "leadership." U.S. space leadership all across the board is assumed. But Ride cuts through the nonsense and notes, quite correctly, that no nation can lead in all aspects of space endeavor. That NASA only printed about 2000 copies of her report indicates that they weren't having any of that, even if it was patently true and demonstrable.



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