Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

Cape engineers tackle launching from Mars
Returning samples from Red Planet
Posted: Dec. 1, 1999

It doesn't take much prompting to get Dave Taylor talking about KSC's role in the Mars Ascent Vehicle project. As the lead engineer on the team developing its booster system, Taylor radiates enthusiasm as he discusses all aspects of the project.

But there is one frequent question that leaves him temporarily speechless. "People are always asking me what I can compare this to," Taylor said. "There isn't anything."

Artist's conception of the Mars Ascent Vehicle lifting off from Martian surface. Photo: NASA/KSC
The concept of a rocket that will launch from the surface of another planet and place a cargo into the planet's orbit is unprecedented for any NASA center. The nearest likeness Taylor can offer would be the lunar module used by the Apollo missions, although that was much larger, carried humans and served a different purpose.

So the project would be unique for any center, but it represents a particular departure for KSC -- which is precisely why Taylor and his teammates are so excited about it. If the designing of an exploratory vehicle may seem incongruous with KSC's past as a launch processing center, Taylor sees it as perfectly compatible with KSC's future as a Spaceport Technology Center.

"The stakes are high," Taylor said. "For us, it's a chance to get involved with something that's not very common to Kennedy."

Working on the Mars Ascent Vehicle, or MAV, will be the first time that KSC is involved in spacecraft hardware development.

Dudley Cannon, the MAV team's legal counsel, sums it up this way: "Not to belittle any other KSC activities, I think that this is one of the most exciting things that KSC has done in a long time."

KSC's involvement arose from its ELV Program resident office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. Because of limited resources, JPL sought a NASA center to take responsibility for one portion of the Mars Sample Return project -- the booster system, consisting of a rocket and a launcher.

The MAV project, with its hybrid team composition and emphasis on ground-level design work, typifies the role KSC increasingly seeks to fill as a Spaceport Technology Center. The KSC portion of this collaborative effort has been established as a "matrix organization" under the Advanced Development Office.

International endeavor to sample Mars
Mars Sample Return (MSR) is an ambitious plan for collecting material from the Martian surface and returning it to the Earth. The joint endeavor among NASA, JPL and Europe's Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES), with the potential to answer questions about life on the red planet, calls for the first journey toward Mars to begin in 2003 on a rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Station. The launch service will be procured and funded by the KSC ELV Program.

MSR diagram
Drawing of the Mars Sample Return mission including the rover that will collect materials for transport to Earth. Photo: NASA/KSC
An Ariane 5 rocket to be launched in 2005 from Kourou, French Guiana, will take a second MAV to Mars. A smaller spacecraft carried aboard the Ariane will capture the orbiting samples and return them to Earth in 2008. KSC has responsibility over the MAV booster system, including such elements as primary propulsion; structures, mechanisms and cabling; thermal systems; a reaction control system; a guidance navigation and control system; avionics and software. The booster system will receive samples collected by a rover on each of the two missions and launch them into orbit above Mars for later retrieval. It includes a launcher that will lift the rocket from its horizontal landing position on the planet's surface to a vertical launching orientation.

KSC will oversee production of two booster systems each for the 2003 and 2005 launches.

The rocket itself will be approximately six feet tall and 13 inches in diameter and will weigh about 300 pounds.

"I've seen bigger model rockets than that," Taylor said. "But not with as much punch."

Using a two-stage, solid-fueled motor, the rocket will produce 2,000 pounds of thrust, enough to place it in orbit about 310 miles above Mars.

The sample container, with a power system and beacon but no propulsion, can remain in orbit for several years if necessary.

MAV booster "most exciting" project at KSC
The KSC team, in conjunction with a JPL group, worked from April to September to solidify design concepts and develop technical requirements for the project. When that work was completed, KSC and JPL collaborated on the technical and contractual requirements for the release of a Request For Proposals (RFP).

With the release of the RFP on Oct. 6, KSC now can await bids by contractors to do the detailed design and fabrication of the booster system. The KSC team hopes to secure a contractor by year's end. At that point, its role will shift to project management during an 11-month design phase followed by a critical design review.

Once a contract is awarded, the KSC team will work with JPL's System Engineering Team and the industry partner to perform trade studies, solidify requirements and complete the MAV design.

KSC will be responsible for ensuring that the contractor delivers the booster system on time and within budget. In addition, the KSC team will contribute expertise on engineering issues during the building and testing of hardware and will work with JPL on the integration of the booster system with the payload assembly and other missions elements, such as the lander and rover.

Taylor notes that a successful mission could solidify a new role for KSC in future exploratory missions. JPL has suggested that KSC could have responsibility over ascent vehicles on any subsequent missions to the moon or other planets.

"The MAV Booster is, without a doubt, the most exciting project going on at KSC," said Jonathan Stabb, a KSC system engineer stationed at JPL. "We can step up to the plate and apply both our spacecraft and launch vehicle expertise since the MAV must endure an Earth launch and then perform its Mars launch. As if that isn't enough, excitement comes from knowing that we sit squarely on the critical path to successful Mars sample return. I also feel that I'm learning more every day as a result of the daily exchange of ideas between KSC engineers and JPL engineers. Simply put, I'm stoked."

Explore the net
Missions to Mars - details of the 2003 mission from Cornell University

Kennedy Space Center - official home page.

Mars Exploration - information from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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