As with most things in life, NASA missions tend to gain the most attention when they either succeed fantastically or fail utterly. When Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface in 1969, the New York Times ran with the headline "MEN WALK ON MOON." And when NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory took a nosedive into the Indian Ocean in 2009, newspaper editors and bloggers alike were quick to break out the "FAIL" headlines. But what about the NASA programs that neither soared nor plummeted? In this article, we'll run through five space missions that wound up on the cutting room floor.
NASA/Smithsonian National Air and Space Museu
5. Mercury-Atlas 10
NASA's groundbreaking Project Mercury encompassed six manned launches between 1959 and 1963 -- the first of which saw Alan Shepard make history as the first American to fly in space. Each subsequent solo mission allowed NASA to hone its space flight technology, leading to the second U.S. manned space flight program, Project Gemini. NASA had originally planned to finish the project in style with a 10th Mercury launch, sending Alan Shepard up on an encore mission to perform re-entry experiments. But by 1963, NASA's attention was firmly set on getting the two-seater Gemini spacecraft into orbit. In June of that year, NASA canceled Mercury-Atlas 10. Two years later, Gemini's debut manned flight soared up through the clouds to carry out the previously slated re-entry experiment, only without Shepard. The astronaut was diagnosed with an inner-ear condition called Meniere's disease and did not return to space until 1971's Apollo 14 Moon mission. This, his second and final space mission, took place a full decade following his historic space flight.
4. Comet Rendezvous and Asteroid Flyby
NASA canceled Mercury-Atlas 10 in order to move on to bigger and better things. The Comet Rendezvous and Asteroid Flyby (CRAF) mission, however, failed to come to fruition in part because it was bigger and better. The ambitious mission got the boot in 1992 when Congress rolled out funding cuts. NASA scientists had big plans for CRAF's Mariner Mark II spacecraft, which would have launched in 1995 to not only perform an asteroid flyby, but also ride along with a comet and fire a sensor into its heart. As with many overly ambitious projects, it was also overbudget. So when the axe came down, NASA shuffled the remaining CRAF funds into the endangered Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn. Fortunately, CRAF's objectives weren't forgotten, as NASA's Stardust and Deep Impact missions, as well as the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission, would later follow up on these aims.
3. Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter
Say what you will about NASA's Prometheus Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) plan, but it certainly wasn't canceled for being boring. Begun in 2004, the robotic mission would have seen a nuclear-powered, arrow-shaped vessel set out in 2015 for three frozen Jovian moons -- Europa, Ganymede and Callisto -- where beneath caps of ice, lightless oceans might just hide alien life. Naturally, the mission came with a hefty price tag: $500 million. Given the funding cuts in President George W. Bush's 2006 budget request and the mission's highly ambitious engine design, NASA decided to go in another direction. The agency allocated $320 million to continue work on the proposed spacecraft's nuclear thermal rocket propulsion system while scrapping the actual trip to Jupiter's frigid moons. Meanwhile, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto continue to keep their secrets.
2. Mars Telecommunication Orbiter
If you were to touch down on Mars today, you'd really have to rough it. There's no breathable air, the temperature extremes are brutal and there's not a single Internet connection on the entire planet. Seriously, just try and stream your cute cat and Lady Gaga videos on the slopes of Olympus Mons. It's not going to happen. Yet NASA actually planned to make the first step toward a YouTube-enabled Mars in 2009, when it would have launched the Mars Telecommunication Orbiter (MTO). The spacecraft would have arrived in 2010 to establish the first interplanetary Internet link. The connection would have streamed data between Mars' current population of robotic rovers and their creators on Earth. NASA killed the $500 million mission in 2005 as part of a shift in priorities. The expected surge in Mars-to-Earth data transmissions just wasn't shaping up as anticipated and, without an immediate need for MTO, it made more sense to devote the precious funds to other missions. While the orbiter itself was canceled, NASA hasn't given up on the idea. If Earth's involvement with Mars increases in the decades to come, an interplanetary Internet connection will likely come to pass.
1. Pluto Kuiper Express
As we saw with the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter, a canceled NASA mission is often just a little ahead of its time. The Pluto Kuiper Express (PKE) was a similar case. This spacecraft was originally slated to launch in 2004 for a 2012 arrival at the dwarf planet Pluto, where it would study the far-flung Kuiper Belt of space beyond Neptune. With a year 2000 price tag of $350 million, can you guess why NASA canceled its first mission to Pluto? That's right: budgetary concerns. When news spread that the PKE was destined for the scrap heap, the Planetary Society, the world's largest space interest group, launched a letter-writing campaign to try to save the project. Naturally, efforts to win over members of U.S. Congress failed and, in 2006, Pluto fans suffered another blow as the International Astronomical Union took away its planet status. Yet, that same year, NASA successfully launched PKE's successor, the New Horizons Pluto Kuiper Belt Flyby. In 2015, the spacecraft will indeed cross paths with the black sheep of our planet's solar family.
Planetary flybys are awesome.
As a spacecraft swings around the trailing side of a planet it gains speed and direction, momentum engineers can use to accelerate it to its next destination using little if any fuel for mid-course corrections. It’s not a new idea. Gravity assists are how the Voyager probes visited the outer planets with one launch, it’s how NASA got Apollo 13 home and it’s how Denis Tito plans to whip a married couple around the far side of Mars within the decade.
And in the mid 1960s, it’s something NASA considered as a future application for its Apollo hardware.
NASA’s study of manned flybys came via Bellcomm, a division of AT&T established in 1963 to assist the space agency with research, development, and overall documentation of systems integration. In the mid 1960s, flybys with upgraded and modified Apollo hardware seemed like a natural stepping stone between the Apollo lunar missions and the agency’s inevitable next steps of an Earth-orbiting space station, manned Mars landings, and manned missions in orbit around Venus.
It was Bellcomm mathematician A. A. VanderVeen who studied the manned flyby possibilities for NASA.
In 1967, he identified 5 favorable launch opportunities for a Mars flyby between 1978 and 1986. Two windows in 1979 and 1983 were ideal, feasible with then-existing launch technology and had the shortest transit time between planets. VanderVeen found that very little propulsion was needed with these launch windows.
After the initial burn towards Mars, physics would take over and guide the spacecraft to its rendezvous with Mars. Probes would do the hard work. Approaching Mars, the crew would release automated probes, one of which could even land on the surface, collect a sample, and launch to rendezvous with the spacecraft on its way back to Earth. VanderVeen also noted that these dates were perfect: Mars was bound to be NASA’s next target after Apollo.
But weight was a persistent issue in all the Mars flyby scenarios; the propulsion needed to launch a spacecraft into Earth orbit then fire it off to Mars was substantial. VanderVeen found an elegant, and scientifically exciting, solution: add a Venus flyby to the Mars trip. Mars, Earth, and Venus align with the sun five times every 32 years, but Venus and Mars alignments happen more frequently making double (Earth-Venus-Mars-Earth) or even triple (Earth-Venus-Mars-Venus-Earth) flybys a viable mission. Taking advantage of favorable launch windows to Venus also reduced overall launch weight.
VanderVeen found triple flyby opportunities in February 1977, as well as in 1981 and 1983. He described the 1981 mission in detail in a report from September 1967. The 790 day mission would begin, ideally, with a launch on May 26, 1981. It would swing by Venus on Dec. 28, past Mars on Oct. 5, 1982, past Venus again on March 1, 1983 before splashing down on Earth on July 25.
VanderVeen kept looking for possible flyby windows, and the more he looked the more he found them. He found a chance in 1978 for a dual-planet flyby, an Earth-Venus-Mars-Earth mission that had the option of adding a second pass by Venus on the return leg from Mars. This mission would ideally launch on Nov. 28, 1978, the crew would pass Venus on May 11, 1979, Mars on Nov. 25, Venus again on Jan. 29, 1980 and return to Earth on Jan. 31, 1981. It would be an 800 day mission.
With every launch opportunity, VanderVeen highlighted the unique scientific aspect of each mission. By virtue of the planets’ continual motion around their own axis and orbits around the sun, each flyby window presented the potential crew with a different view of the planet. In windows would have the crew fly over a planet’s pole, others around the equator. Some missions would take the crew around the night side of the planet, others would have then swing around the day side. But, scientifically speaking, there were no bad paths. Whatever the crew couldn’t see and record visually they could measure with infrared sensors and mapping radars.
These flybys never really stood a chance at flying. Not only were they predominantly proof of concept mission studies designed to show what Apollo hardware was capable of, NASA’s future was too uncertain to really plan something so lofty at the time.
Maybe the time is right now. Maybe Dennis Tito’s team will discover some awesome multi-planet flyby opportunity as a backup in case Inspiration Mars misses its January 2018 launch date.