|August 2014. Image credit: NASA.|
This post contains more than its share of significant acronyms. As an aid to the reader, these are grouped alphabetically and defined at the bottom of the post, just ahead of the list of sources.
NASA's first Mars DRM, designated DRM 1.0 in 1997, was developed by a NASA-wide team during the 1992-1993 period. It was based on Martin Marietta's 1990 Mars Direct mission plan. SEI's demise temporarily halted NASA Mars DRM work in 1994.
The civilian space agency resumed its Mars DRM studies after the announcement in August 1996 of the discovery of possible microfossils in martian meteorite ALH 84001. This enabled NASA planners to release their baseline chemical-propulsion DRM 3.0 in 1998. There was no official DRM 2.0, though a "scrubbed" (that is, mass-reduced) version of DRM 1.0 bears that designation in at least one NASA document.
Shortly thereafter, NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, which led the DRM study effort, was diverted from DRM work by the in-house COMBO lander study (more on this below). Left largely to its own devices, NASA GRC developed a pair of DRM 3.0 variants: a solar-electric propulsion (SEP) DRM 3.0 and the BNTR DRM 3.0 discussed here.
In BNTR DRM 3.0, two unpiloted spacecraft would leave Earth for Mars during the 2011 low-energy Mars-Earth transfer opportunity, and a third, bearing the crew, would depart for Mars during the corresponding opportunity in 2014. Components for the three spacecraft would reach Earth orbit on six Shuttle-Derived Heavy-Lift Vehicles (SDHLVs), each capable of launching 80 tons into 220-mile-high assembly orbit, and in the payload bay of a winged, reusable Space Shuttle Orbiter, which would also deliver the Mars crew.
The SDHLV, often designated "Magnum," was a NASA Marshall Space Flight Center conceptual design. The Magnum booster would burn liquid hydrogen (LH2)/liquid oxygen (LOX) chemical propellants in its core stages and solid propellant in its side-mounted boosters. Magnum drew upon existing Space Shuttle hardware: its core stages were derived from the Space Shuttle External Tank and its twin solid-propellant rocket boosters were based on the Shuttle's twin Solid-Rocket Boosters.
|The mighty Magnum was the conceptual ancestor of the equally conceptual Ares V and the Space Launch System, now under development. Image credit: NASA.|
SDHLV launch 3, identical to SDHLV launch 1, would place into assembly orbit BNTR stage 2 containing 46 tons of LH2 propellant. SDHLV launch 4 would place the unpiloted 60.5-ton habitat lander into assembly orbit. The habitat lander would include a Mars aerobrake & entry shield/launch shroud identical to that of the cargo lander, parachutes, a descent stage, and a 32.7-ton payload including the crew's Mars surface living quarters.
The BNTR stage forward section would include chemical thrusters. These would provide maneuvering capability so that the stages could dock with the habitat and cargo landers in assembly orbit. During flight to Mars, the thrusters would provide each stage/lander combination with attitude control.
|2011: the unmanned BNTR 1 stage/cargo lander and BNTR 2 stage/habitat lander spacecraft orbit the Earth prior to departure for Mars. Image credit: NASA.|
Each BNTR engine would include a nuclear reactor. When moderator elements were removed from its nuclear fuel elements, the reactor would heat up. To cool the reactor so that it would not melt, turbopumps would drive LH2 propellant through it. The reactor would transfer heat to the propellant, which would become an expanding very hot gas and vent through an LH2-cooled nozzle. This would propel the spacecraft through space.
Following completion of Earth-orbit departure, the BNTR engine reactors would switch to electricity-generation mode. In this mode, they would operate at a lower temperature than in propulsion mode, but would still be capable of heating a working fluid that would drive three turbine generators. Together the generators would make 50 kilowatts of electricity. Fifteen kilowatts would power a refrigeration system in the BNTR stage that would prevent the LH2 it contained from boiling and escaping.
Much like the LH2 propellant in BNTR propulsion mode, the working fluid would cool the reactor; unlike the LH2, however, it would not be vented into space. After leaving the turbine generators, it would pass through a labyrinth of tubes in radiators mounted on the BNTR stage to discard leftover heat, then would cycle through the reactors again. The cycle would repeat continuously throughout the journey to Mars.
|2012: Cargo lander/Mars Ascent Vehicle Landing. Image credit: NASA.|
After casting off its heat shield, it would deploy three parachutes. The engines would fire again, then landing legs would deploy just before touchdown. The GRC engineers opted for a horizontal landing configuration; this would, they explained, prevent tipping and provide the astronauts with easy access to the lander's cargo.
As illustrated in the cargo lander image above and the MAV launch image below, the four MAV engines would serve double-duty as cargo lander engines. In addition to saving mass by eliminating redundant engines, this would test-fire the engines before the crew used them as MAV ascent engines.
|2012: Automated propellant manufacture for MAV ascent begins. Image credit: NASA.|
SDHLV launch 5, identical to SDHLV launches 1 and 3, would mark the start of launches for the 2014 Earth-Mars transfer opportunity. It would place BNTR stage 3 into assembly orbit with about 48 tons of LH2 on board. Because it would propel a piloted spacecraft, its BNTR engines would require a new design feature: each would include a 3.24-ton shield to protect the crew from the radiation it produced while in operation. The shields each would create a conical radiation "shadow"; the radiation shadows would overlap to create a safe zone in which the crew would remain while they were inside or close to their spacecraft.
|2013: the BNTR 3 stage and the first Crew Transfer Vehicle components dock automatically in Earth orbit. Image credit: NASA.|
A Shuttle Orbiter carrying the Mars crew and a 20.5-ton deflated Transhab module would rendezvous with the BNTR stage 3/truss combination one week before the crew's planned departure for Mars. Following rendezvous, the spare ECRV would undock from the truss and fly automatically to a docking port in the Space Shuttle payload bay. Astronauts would then use the Orbiter's robot arm to hoist the Transhab from the payload bay and dock it to the front of the truss in the spare ECRV's place.
|2014: Crew and a deflated Transhab arrive on board a Space Shuttle Orbiter to complete Crew Transfer Vehicle assembly. Image credit: NASA.|
The CTV's truss-mounted tank and BNTR stage 3 would hold 90.8 tons of LH2 at the start of CTV Earth-orbit departure on 21 January 2014. The truss tank would provide 70% of the propellant needed for departure. In the most demanding departure scenario, the BNTR engines would fire twice for 22.7 minutes each time to push the CTV out of Earth orbit toward Mars.
|2014: Crew Transfer Vehicle departs Earth orbit. Image credit: NASA.|
In artificial-gravity mode, "down" would be toward the spare ECRV on the CTV's nose; this would make the Transhab's forward half its lower deck. Halfway to Mars, about 105 days out from Earth, the astronauts would stop rotation and perform a course-correction burn using the attitude-control thrusters. They would then resume rotation for the remainder of the trans-Mars trip.
The CTV would arrive in Mars orbit on 19 August 2014. The crew would halt rotation, then three BNTR engines would fire for 12.3 minutes to slow the spacecraft for Mars orbit capture. In its loosely bound elliptical Mars orbit, the spacecraft would circle the planet once per 24.6-hour martian day.
|2014: Crew Transfer Vehicle arrival in Mars orbit. Image credit: NASA.|
If the orbiting habitat lander and landed cargo lander checked out as healthy, however, then the crew would fly the spare ECRV to a docking port on the habitat lander's side. After discarding the spare ECRV and the habitat solar arrays, they would fire the habitat lander's engines, enter the martian atmosphere, and land near the cargo lander.
The habitat lander's horizontal configuration would provide the astronauts with ready access to the martian surface. After the historic first footsteps on Mars, the astronauts would inflate a Transhab-type habitat attached to the side of the habitat lander, run a cable from the habitat lander to the nuclear power source cart, unload at least one unpressurized crew rover, and commence a program of Mars surface exploration that would, if all went as planned, last for nearly 17 months.
In case of hardware failure or other emergency, the crew could retreat to the MAV and return early to the orbiting CTV. They would, however, have to wait in Mars orbit until Mars and Earth aligned to permit a minimum-energy Mars-Earth transfer (that is, until the originally planned end of their stay at Mars).
|2014-2015: The first Mars campsite. In the foreground is the habitat lander with inflated Transhab surface habitat; in the background, the nuclear power source cart and the cargo lander with Mars Ascent Vehicle. Image credit: NASA.|
|2014-2015: Exploring Mars with a crew rover and two teleoperated robot rovers, one small and one large. Image credit: NASA.|
|2014-2015: Drilling for water, geologic history, and, just possibly, life. Image credit: NASA.|
|2015: Mars Ascent Vehicle liftoff. Image credit: NASA.|
The CTV would leave Mars orbit on 3 January 2016. Prior to Mars orbit departure, the astronauts would abandon the contingency supply module on the truss to reduce their spacecraft's mass so that the propellant remaining in BNTR stage 3 would be sufficient to launch them home to Earth. They would then fire the BNTR engines for 2.9 minutes to change the CTV's orbital plane, then again for 5.2 minutes to escape Mars and place themselves on course for Earth.
Soon after completion of the second burn, the crew would fire attitude-control thrusters to spin the CTV end-over-end to create acceleration equal to one Mars gravity in the Transhab. About halfway home they would stop rotation, perform a course correction, then resume rotation. Flight home to Earth would last 190 days.
|2016: Return to the Earth-Moon system. Image credit: NASA.|
The authors compared their Mars plan with the baseline chemical-propulsion DRM 3.0 and with the NASA GRC SEP DRM 3.0. They found that their plan would need eight vehicle elements, of which four would have designs unique to BNTR DRM 3.0. The baseline DRM 3.0, by contrast, would need 14 vehicle elements, 10 of which would be unique, and SEP DRM 3.0 would need 13.5 vehicle elements, 9.5 of which would be unique. BNTR DRM 3.0 would require that 431 tons of hardware and propellants be placed into Earth orbit; the baseline DRM 3.0 would need 657 tons and SEP DRM 3.0, 478 tons. Borowski and his colleagues argued that fewer vehicle designs and reduced mass would mean reduced cost and mission complexity.
The BNTR DRM 3.0 variant became the basis for DRM 4.0, which was developed during NASA-wide studies in 2001-2002 (though NASA documents occasionally back-date DRM 4.0 to 1998, when BNTR DRM 3.0 was first proposed). DRM 4.0 differed from BNTR DRM 3.0 mainly in that it adopted a "Dual Lander" design concept developed as part of JSC's 1998-1999 COMBO lander study. COMBO was the brainchild of William Schneider, NASA JSC Engineering Directorate boss.
|Dual Lander concept. The lander in the foreground is the habitat; the background lander is the Mars Descent/Ascent Vehicle. Image credit: NASA.|
In 2008, a decade after BNTR DRM 3.0 first was made public, NASA released a version of DRM 4.0 modified to use planned Constellation Program hardware (for example, the Ares V heavy-lift rocket in place of the Magnum and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle in place of the ECRVs). The space agency dubbed the new DRM Design Reference Architecture (DRA) 5.0.
The DRA 5.0 Mars plan acknowledged that, largely as a result of the 1 February 2003 Columbia accident, the Space Shuttle would be retired after the remaining Orbiters — Endeavour, Discovery, and Atlantis — completed their part of the task of building the International Space Station. The last Space Shuttle mission, STS-135, took place in July 2011.
DRA 5.0 also saw the return of ISRU. A Descent/Ascent Vehicle (DAV) and a Surface Habitat (SHAB) would capture into Mars orbit in the first minimum-energy Earth-Mars transfer opportunity. The DAV would descend, land, and begin making propellants for its ascent stage. The SHAB would loiter in orbit awaiting arrival of a crew on board a Mars Transfer Vehicle (MTV) launched from Earth during the second Earth-Mars transfer opportunity of the mission. The crew would transfer to the SHAB in an Orion/service module and land on Mars near the DAV. After a stay on Mars lasting more than 400 days, they would lift off in the DAV ascent stage, dock with the waiting MTV, and return to Earth.
Though DRA 5.0 exerts influence on current NASA planning, the precise form a piloted Mars mission will eventually take remains unclear at this writing. NASA increasingly has shifted its attention toward finding low-cost stepping stones that could lead to a piloted Mars landing in 2033. A crew-tended — that is, not permanently staffed — Deep Space Gateway space station in cislunar space, for example, could be established by 2026 through a series of Orion missions launched using the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket (SLS replaced Ares V in 2010). Other possible interim steps toward Mars include an SLS-launched robotic Mars sample return mission in the mid-2020s and a piloted mission to Mars orbit in 2030 using a Deep Space Transport based partly on Deep Space Gateway hardware.
BNTR = Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket
CTV = Crew Transfer Vehicle
DAV = Descent/Ascent Vehicle
DRA = Design Reference Architecture
DRM = Design Reference Mission
ECRV = Earth Crew Return Vehicle
GRC = Glenn Research Center
ISRU = In-Situ Resource Utilization
JSC = Johnson Space Center
LH2 = liquid hydrogen
LOX = liquid oxygen
MAV = Mars Ascent Vehicle
MTV = Mars Transfer Vehicle
SDHLV = Shuttle-Derived Heavy-Lift Vehicle
SEI = Space Exploration Initiative
SEP = Solar-Electric Propulsion
SHAB = Surface Habitat
SLS = Space Launch System
"Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket (NTR) Propulsion for Power-Rich, Artificial Gravity Human Exploration Missions to Mars," IAA-01-IAA.13.3.05, Stanley K. Borowski, Leonard A. Dudzinski, and Melissa L. McGuire; paper presented at the 52nd International Astronautical Congress in Toulouse, France, 1-5 October 2001.
"Vehicle and Mission Design Options for the Human Exploration of Mars/Phobos Using 'Bimodal' NTR and LANTR Propulsion," AIAA-98-3883, Stanley K. Borowski, Leonard A. Dudzinski, and Melissa L. McGuire; paper presented at the 34th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference & Exhibit in Cleveland, Ohio, 13-15 July 1998.
"Artificial Gravity Vehicle Design Option for NASA's Human Mars Mission Using 'Bimodal' NTR Propulsion," AIAA-99-2545, Stanley K. Borowski, Leonard A. Dudzinski, and Melissa L. McGuire; paper presented at the 35th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference & Exhibit in Los Angeles, California, 20-24 June 1999.
NASA Exploration Team (NEXT) Design Reference Missions Summary, NASA, 12 July 2002 [draft].
"Enabling Human Deep Space Exploration with the Deep Space Gateway," Tim Cichan, Bill Pratt, and Kerry Timmons, Lockheed Martin; presentation to the Future In-Space Operations telecon, 30 August 2017.
Humans on Mars in 1995! (1980-1981)
Bridging the Gap Between Space Station and Mars: The IMUSE Strategy (1985)
The Collins Task Force Says Aim for Mars (1987)
Sally Ride's Mission to Mars (1987)
Footsteps to Mars (1993)