Only SpaceX Thinks Trump's Mars Deadline is "Achievable"

"Having people on Mars in the mid-2020s is something that is achievable."

On Tuesday, the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C. kicked off, a day filled with panels on questions surrounding how we’ll get to the red planet: Standard fare. But, it ended quite unpredictably: Retired Astronaut Buzz Aldrin posed a question inspired by an off-the-cuff remark from President Donald Trump.

Representatives from five different juggernaut spaceflight companies were the same stage to face Aldrin’s question, at the end of a panel on the different kinds of architectures each is developing to safely transport humans to Mars and establish a colony there.

Aldrin reminded them of the strange scene in the White House on April 24, when Trump, in a call to the International Space Station, asked a question about when NASA planned to make it to Mars.

After being told in no uncertain terms it would be a while, Trump rattled off the following line the same way a small-town contractor does when bidding on a city-financed project at a city council meeting. You know he’s bullshitting, but everybody pretends he’s serious:

“Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, OK?”

Those comments were enough to spur Aldrin into asking the various commercial spaceflight reps from Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Orbital ATK, SpaceX, and Aerojet Rocketdyne whether their plans could be sped up to perhaps make a 2020 or 2024 crewed landing on Mars possible.

For most, the various Mars transport and habitat architectures are inextricably tied to the development and testing of NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule, both of which are crucial to meet the agency’s 2033 deadline to send humans to Martian orbit and put boots on the ground shortly after. Speeding up that process for any company would be highly contingent on what NASA is able to do on its end — apart from the obvious obstacle of affordability.

The only company that seemed willing to entreat an incredibly short timeframe was SpaceX, which is already working hard to get humans to Mars by 2025 or 2026. Its founder, Elon Musk, has been an aggressive deadline setter his entire career in various projects, so it’s no surprise his subordinate echoed that sentiment.

Here’s how each company rep responded to Aldrin’s questions of whether they could meet Trump’s goal, which at the latest would be early 2025, if he’s elected to a second term.

Matt Duggan, the Boeing Corporation, Manager for Exploration:

“It would certainly be very challenging for the Boeing architecture to produce any milestone by 2020. It depends on SLS and Orion as vehicles, which are still being developed, still heading for a launch not before 2020. That being said, I think 2024 could be doable, but, we’ve talked a lot about affordability, and that’s where you really need to make a lot more investment. We’ve self-imposed that constraint on us, which is what pushes us out. So I would say a date of 2033 for the Boeing architecture, for footprints on Mars.”

Timothy Cichan, Lockheed-Martin, Space Exploration Technology Architect

“The milestone before 2020 really is EM-1. Those are systems we need to go to Mars, and that’s going to be a big mission. When we look out to 2024, now we’re talking about Deep Space Gateway missions, operating farther than we ever have before. Perhaps, if we’re talking about a world where we’re accelerating and we’ve gotten a budget, getting into that shakedown cruise earlier might work. ’24 is a little sporty. We think we can be in orbit by ’28. And then as far as boots on the ground, I think I agree with Matt…The 2033 timeframe is the right timeframe.”

Mike Fuller, Orbital ATK, Propulsion Systems:

“From a current architecture standpoint, we see 2033-2035 as kind of being the sweet spot as far boots on the ground. As far as the potential for an earlier mission, there have been a number of studies that have looked at those type of missions, whether they are under the current budget caps, whether they are pursuable…I don’t know if I can go into a whole lot of detail on that. We haven’t looked at those in great detail recently….we haven’t really been focused on the more recent comments.”

Paul Wooster, SpaceX, Lead, Technical Development Mars Architecture and Vehicles:

“So we’re very focused on identifying and pursuing the fastest possible path to affordably getting people to Mars. As part of that, there’s a number of preparatory activities that we have — both in the development of our vehicle, and precursor activities that we can do along the way and at Mars, such as our Red Dragon efforts. Overall, I think that having people on Mars in the mid-2020s is something that is achievable. It’s definitely going to take a lot of work to make that happen. But it’s something that we’re actively pursuing. I would encourage others to also identify what areas that they could contribute to take that path as well.”

Tim Kokan, Aerojet Rocketdyne

“When we think about some of the things that we could be doing in the early 2020s, we think of some of the items that [Duggan, Chican, and Fuller] mentioned: the first launch of SLS-Orion; the [DSG] at the moon that could happen in that timeframe; high-power [uncrewed] SEP missions to Mars delivering large payloads to Mars could certainly happen in that timeframe; ground demonstration of nuclear-thermal propulsion technologies could certainly happen before 2024 as well.”
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