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Former NASA chief Mike Griffin supports 2021 Mars/Venus flyby mission

Mars from the Hubble Space Telescope
Mars from the Hubble Space Telescope

The concept of a Mars/Venus flyby mission got some institutional support thanks to an oped piece in the Houston Chronicle on Monday. The authors are Mike Griffin, CEO of Schafer Corp., NASA administrator between 2005-2009, and the outgoing president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Jim Albaugh, the president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes and Integrated Defense Systems, and the incoming president of AIAA. The American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics is one of the oldest and most prestigious aerospace organizations on the planet.

The idea of a flyby of the two planets first was proposed as a flyby of Mars to launch in 2018 using a heavy lift Space Launch System, an Orion spacecraft, and some kind of habitation module to send two astronauts on a trip around the Red Planet. It has been since reworked for a 2021 launch to include Venus as well as Mars. The mission is the brainchild of Dennis Tito and is called Inspiration Mars.

The planetary flyby mission is seen as an alternative to the asteroid capture mission that is currently on NASA’s manifest and is also scheduled to occur in the 2020s. It would test out both spacecraft and human beings on an interplanetary voyage without actually having to land on any planet. The flyby mission is considered challenging and risky, but technically feasible. Because of the alignment of the planets, 2021 provides an opportunity to do the mission that will not come again for a considerable period of time.

The main argument that Griffin and Albaugh use to support the planetary flyby mission is to demonstrate that the United States is back as a preeminent space power. Just as the Apollo 8 lunar orbital mission served as good precursor to the Apollo 11 moon landing, the Inspiration Mars mission would be a prelude to an actual landing on the Red Planet. The idea has gotten some support in Congress but not, thus far, in NASA or the White House.