Many H2M (Humans to Mars) architectures have been proposed over the years. One of the most important of these was Mars Direct, principally because it introduced the concept of ISPP (In Situ Propellant Production) as a method for drastically reducing the mass and therefore the investment required for a successful H2M mission.
In 1995 NASA began developing a new Mars mission architecture, known as the NASA Design Reference Mission, which incorporated elements of Mars Direct, including ISPP. This architecture has since evolved to version 5.0, and is now called the Design Reference Architecture (DRA). The DRA has been in development for at least 12 years (more if you include Mars Direct and all the other H2M work that has gone before), involving many experts and departments within NASA, and arguably represents the best H2M architecture currently available. (In this blog/book, DRA 5.0 is abbreviated “DRA5”.)
Nonetheless, a variety of improvements to the DRA5 have been proposed, including:
- The use of MLLV (Medium Lift Launch Vehicle) or EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) to eliminate the significant investment required to develop a suitable HLLV (Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle) (see: Mars For Less – Bonin).
- The use of inflatable modules to significantly expand habitat volume (see: Dr. Janek Kozicki).
- The use of biconic spacecraft to improve EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) performance and better optimise spacecraft and habitat geometry (see: Mars-Oz – Willson and Clarke).
The Blue Dragon architecture is a new H2M mission architecture based primarily on DRA5, with several improvements. These include some of those listed above, or variations thereof, plus additional architectural improvements. Most importantly, Blue Dragon utilises a number of COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) hardware components that have recently become available. The result is an affordable and achievable architecture that offers increased safety and reliability, and improved outcomes.
Blue Dragon is based on the DRA5, but could also be adopted and achieved by the private sector. In particular, since this mission principally leverages SpaceX hardware, this mission could potentially be achieved by SpaceX in collaboration with partners, investors and contractors.
The mission is named “Blue Dragon” because it will build on the achievements of the Red Dragon mission, which proposes landing a Dragon capsule on Mars that contains a number of scientific experiments. In Blue Dragon, Dragon and DragonRider capsules are utilised for ferrying crew and cargo to the MTV (Mars Transfer Vehicle), and for landing crew and cargo on the surface of Mars. (Yes, there is also a “Green Dragon” mission, discussed separately.)
Blue Dragon forms the core mission of the Tiw Program.
The following acronyms for hardware elements are referred to in this architecture. Just to be annoying, some of these vary slightly from those used in DRA5. In some cases user-friendly names are assigned in order to reduce acronym overload.
|Acronym||Meaning||Equivalent in DRA5||Name|
|MAV||Mars Ascent Vehicle||DAV (Descent/Ascent Vehicle)|
|MCM||Mars Cargo Module||Cargo Dragon|
|MSH||Mars Surface Habitat||SHAB||the hab|
|MTV||Mars Transfer Vehicle||MTV||Abeona|
Variation from NASA DRA5
- Blue Dragon aims to significantly decrease costs and increase reliability and safety by utilising primarily COTS hardware for space vehicles, including SpaceX rockets, capsules and engines, and Bigelow Aerospace inflatable space station modules.
- The hab does not wait in Mars orbit, but is landed on arrival, and, like the MAV, is activated and all its systems checked out remotely.
- The crew do not descend to the Mars surface in the hab, but in a DragonRider capsule (named Pern-1). This capsule is initially used to ferry the crew from Earth surface to Abeona, remains attached to Abeona during the Earth-Mars transit, and ferries the crew to Mars surface on arrival at Mars.
- The hab includes ISRU (In Situ Resource Utilisation) equipment with which to extract oxygen, nitrogen and water from the Martian atmosphere in order to support hab and crew requirements prior to, and during, the surface stay.
- The hab includes inflatable sections in order to significantly increase habitat volume beyond the size of the initial spacecraft.
- (Optional, TBD) After the MAV launches from Mars at the end of the crew’s surface stay, and delivers them safely to Abeona, it returns to the base at Mars surface rather than be discarded.
- In DRA5, a capsule for the purpose of transporting the crew from the MTV back to Earth surface at the end of the mission is launched with the MTV and remains connected to it for the entire journey out to Mars and back. In Blue Dragon, a DragonRider capsule (Pern-2) is launched from Earth after EOI (Earth Orbit Insertion) to pick the crew up for descent to Earth surface. This saves mass and thus fuel and thus money.
Benefits of using COTS hardware
Focusing on a single technology for surface-to-space and space-to-surface crew transport reduces mission complexity and generally improves robustness. Rather than having a collection of one-off custom-built components that only a few specialist engineers understand (space agency SOP (Standard Operating Procedure)), using COTS components gives several advantages:
- The hardware will already have been tested in a variety of situations and refined. This drastically improves confidence in the tech and the likelihood of spotting or anticipating design flaws, whether in equipment or mission architecture.
- Many engineers will have detailed knowledge of the hardware, rather than just a few. This makes problem identification and resolution quicker, easier, and more likely to be correct.
- Components produced in quantity, rather than one-off, are generally cheaper; sometimes orders of magnitude cheaper.
Our goal should not be to do the cheapest possible H2M mission. It should be to do the smartest one. Cost is a crucial consideration, because, as we’ve seen, too high a price tag will make the mission non-viable. The $450 billion bottom line of the 90-Day Report was prohibitive, wiping out all chances of it ever being taken seriously. But then, the cheaper you make the mission, the more dangerous it becomes. A balance must be struck between cost and safety. We don’t want to spend $450 billion, but getting a crew safely to Mars and back should be worth at least around $10 billion. To give you some perspective, MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) has cost about $2.5 billion so far. Fortunately, as we will see, with the development of the Dragon capsule comes the ability to land several tonnes on Mars for ~$250M per capsule, greatly reducing the cost of an H2M mission based on this technology.