Pontifications: Boeing’s focus on going to Mars

By Scott Hamilton

Oct. 23, 2017, © Leeham Co.: New Orleans: Going to Mars is a daunting task, says John Shannon, a Boeing vice president and program manager of the SLS

John Shannon of Boeing. Photo via Google images.


But it’s one of the greatest and most exciting challenges of today’s science community.

In a speech before the annual conference of the Aerospace Alliance Oct. 12 in New Orleans, Shannon used illustrations to explain the challenges of going to Mars. Some of the art he used are contained in this presentation (NASA Space Launch System). Boeing did not make its presentation available.

The SLS, or Space Launch System, is larger than the Saturn 5 rocket used in the Apollo astronaut and Skylab space programs in the 1960s and 1970s. It was used to send Apollo to the moon and it was the only rocket capable of launching beyond low earth orbit.

Boeing is building the rocket, which will be capable of sending supplies to Mars, followed by astronauts.

Supplies first

Supplies have to be sent to Mars before astronauts, Shannon said. It’s impossible for the astronauts to take enough supplies, or equipment to manufacture basic needs, air, food and water, for a 15 month stay on Mars. So an advance supply mission is necessary.

Getting the orbits right

Why 15 months on Mars?

Astronauts must stay on Mars for 15 months while its orbit realigns with Earth’s. It takes 8 ½ months to get to and from Mars, for a total of about 32 months.

If the astronauts don’t follow this schedule and planet alignments, they’d miss the return to Earth, or the alignments, they’re dead, Shannon said.

Huge rocket needed

To get the supply mission, and the astronauts, to Mars, a huge rocket is needed. This is where Boeing and other manufacturers and suppliers come in.

“The SLS is designed in Alabama, built in Louisiana, tested in Mississippi and launched in Florida,” Shannon said.

This is true space exploration, Shannon said. The International Space Station (ISS) is about science, not exploration. The ISS is only 250 miles above Earth; Mars at its closest is 47m miles away and 233m miles at its farthest.

“As big a challenge as going to the Moon was, it’s not going to Mars,” Shannon said. Mars needs 15 supply missions.

Although not entirely accurate, the movie The Martian gives a good, general understanding of the logistics and orbital considerations involved. (Shannon liked the movie, but noted the book went into far greater detail of the challenges and problem-solving involved in a Mars mission.)

The SLS, as all NASA rockets since the dawn of the US space program, are tested at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. I spent last week touring and meeting aerospace facilities and officials from Mobile to New Orleans, including Stennis Space Center. In the coming weeks, I’ll have more reports about this trip.


27 Comments on “Pontifications: Boeing’s focus on going to Mars

  1. The Space Launch System (SLS) — or Senate Launch System — has less to do with manned space exploration than to maintain the Space Shuttle’s industrial complex. For example, Obital-ATK which manufactured the Space Shuttle’s large 4-segment Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) will manufacturer the even larger 5-segment SRBs for the SLS. In short, the US Congress wants pork to go to SLS SRB manufacturing in Utah in order for the US to easier maintain the technical expertise required for the design of new generation ICBMs.


    • It’s not really about maintaining technical expertise for next gen ICBMs. Large five segment SLS boosters don’t translate well to nuclear missiles. Besides the US military still has an active Trident II production line which will simply produce upgraded Tridents for the next generation Columbia nuclear submarine. The real reason is the solid booster manufacturing industry. The Shuttle used 5x the amount of solid propellant as the amount used in ICBMs and other similar solid fuel missiles. US industry would like to have that kind of volume again and the only way is to launch really big solid fuel rockets, like the SLS or Orbital ATKs next generation launch system which would be based on the SLS solid rocket boosters.

  2. Is there a new space race? So why do we still have the same old chemical engines and not a more suitable electrical engine (ion) for manned missions to Mars?

    I can’t see a reason why we should send some people to Mars now. The Saturn V was capable for such a mission and the people in charge also. Why is there no manned station on the moon?

    For me such a mission is wasted money for scientific work. Get the right engines ready first.

    • As ov099 suggests above
      No one is going to mars for a long time. More Boeing pork. People of my age can remember being hauled out of bed to see the moon landing, people were already flying 737s back then. No more moonshots, unless the government pays for it.

    • Well they are working on bigger and better ion engines to take men to Mars. While the Saturn V might have gotten us to Mars sadly life support technology wasn’t up to the task by any measure. Regardless you are still going to need big chemical engines to get these ships to Earth orbit.


      As for the Moon I agree wholeheartedly. A worthy project would be to build a radio telescope on the farside!

  3. Of course this is public money and yes technology goes downstream into civil aerospace. And yes it’s many billions and unfair, “long term vision”, “ambition” pride and patriotism help a lot.

    It’s the way it’s always has been in global aerospace 🙂 also for entrants, money talks.

  4. SLS is a boondoggle everyone knows this. It is the super expensive rocket that nobody wants.

    Why launch for $1 billion on an untested vehicle when you can launch more for 50-100 million on either SpaceX’s BFR or probably BO’s New Glenn… even if those didn’t and never exist SLS wouldn’t make sense just on the basis of the cheapness of Falcon 9/Falcon Heavy.

    BFR is currently planned for 2020 or 2021, and even with slips might easily fly before SLS Block 1B, which is NET mid-2022 and very likely slips to 2023. I am surprised Boeing took the time to make a Mars presentation because it is clearly never going to happen unless they figure out a way to get SpaceX to be charged with illegal dumping of cheap rockets into the US market.

  5. I think we need to stick to LEO where there is a return.

    Pie in the sky and yes its truly a public feeding trough for Boeing, Lockheed.

    With what they should be paying in taxes (and penalty for Program delays) we could fund it out of that.

  6. Animals, human and otherwise, are very poorly suited for space. They need air, food, water, a controlled narrow temperature range, protection from ionizing radiation, etc. etc.

    If you want real excitement and knowledge from space exploration go with (ever more sophisticated) robotic craft and leave the animals on the surface of the earth (or in aircraft!).

    Cassini and most other planetary, planetary moon, comet, asteroid, space telescope missions/programs have been nothing short of revelatory, inspiring to the heart and mind.

    Please, lets spend the money (and plenty of it) on this kind actual inspiring science and skip sending the bags of water into space

  7. Let them eat cake!
    At a time when the government cannot fulfill its basic promises, going to Mars can only be called an unaffordable luxury.
    At this very moment we engaged in a battle over tax reform (tax cuts) and who’s ox will be gored.

  8. The nay-Sayers are the same as back in the Apollo days, waste of tax payer money etc. That program was the best investment our tax payers could ever have made. The benefits are too numerous to mention here, but it advance technology in way nothing else could. If we decide to go to mars, and make it a national effort, it would be like putting our technology development on turbo-boost We would have to solve some many problems that are directly related to living in today’s world, (environmental, energy, AI/computing, rocket tech, medical, etc) This will put the US back in the drivers seat in terms of leading the world in technology advancement.

    • Why not allow private enterprise to do this. They would own the rights to the IP that they develop and would make a profit based decision on the value. They could vote for this with their own dollars and not mine.

    • „The benefits are too numerous to mention here, […]“.

      Just try to mention one made by the Apollo program.

      • Of the top of my head; it advanced (if not created) Teflon, Kevlar, microchips, rechargeable batteries, I think microwave cooking, water purification, the ballpoint pen, LCD screens, telecommunication, programmable computers, video cameras, fuel cells, electric motors – as well as the obvious ballistics and rocketry in general.

        There’s other stuff that I think was developed but I’m not sure. There’s bound to be a list somewhere.

        • I’m reading about baby formula, heart monitors, lasers, the CAT scan, freeze drying of food, insulation materials, the joystick, memory foam, scratch resistant coatings, trainer insoles, the smoke detector…

          Not all of these NASA developments will be directly a result of Apollo, but most are

    • @Eric L

      Being critical of SLS is not equivalent to being a”nay-sayer”

      Obviously I agree that the Apollo programme is the greatest achievement of manned flight to date and it’s probably the most impressive technological undertaking ever attempted (i.e. goal achieved 8 years and two months after Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 Speech; technology developed etc.).

      What I’m critical of, though, is SLS. Unlike Apollo it will not advance technology. What we (mankind) need to do first — before we’re going anywhere beyond the Moon — is to develop affordable space access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO); then planning for a gradual utilisation of the material and energy resources of the entire Solar System (not just Mars) that will be essential for the development of a sustainable space economy and associated infrastructure.

  9. Forty years after astronauts on NASA’s Apollo 11 spacecraft first landed on the moon, many experts say the historic event altered the course of space exploration as well man’s view of itself in the universe.

    The Apollo missions also had another major affect on the world — rapidly accelerating the pace of technology development. The work of NASA engineers at the time caused a dramatic shift in electronics and computing systems, scientists say.

    Without the research and development that went into those space missions, top companies like Intel Corp. may not have been founded, and the population likely wouldn’t be spending a big chunk of work and free time using laptops and Blackberries to post information on Facebook or Twitter.

    “During the mid- to late-1960s, when Apollo was being designed and built, there was significant advancement,” said Scott Hubbard, who worked at NASA for 20 years before joining the faculty at Stanford University, where he is a professor in the aeronautics and astronautics department. “Power consumption. Mass. Volume. Data rate. All the things that were important to making space flight feasible led to major changes in technology. A little told story is how much NASA, from the Cold War up through the late ’80s or early ’90s affected technology.”

    But the string of Apollo missions alone — which ran from the ill-fated, never-flown Apollo 1 mission in 1967 to Apollo 17, the last to land men on the moon, in 1972 – had a critical, and often overlooked impact on technology at a key time in the computer industry.

    Daniel Lockney, the editor of Spinoff, NASA’s annual publication that reports on the use of the agency’s technologies in the private sector, said the advancements during the Apollo missions were staggering.

    “There were remarkable discoveries in civil, electrical, aeronautical and engineering science, as well as rocketry and the development of core technologies that really pushed technology into the industry it is today,” he said. “It was perhaps one of the greatest engineering and scientific feats of all time. It was huge. The engineering required to leave Earth and move to another heavenly body required the development of new technologies that before hadn’t even been thought of. It has yet to be rivaled.”

    Lockney cited several technologies that can be directly linked engineering work done for the Apollo missions.

    The development of that integrated circuit, the forbearer to the microchip, basically is a miniaturized electronic circuit that did away with the manual assembly of separate transistors and capacitors. Revolutionizing electronics, integrated circuits are used in nearly all electronic equipment today.

    While Robert Noyce, co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and then Intel Corp. is credited with co-founding the microchip, Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments demonstrated the first working integrated circuit that was built for the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA.

    NASA, according to Lockney, set the parameters of what it needed out of the technology and then Kilby designed it. Kilby later won the Nobel Prize in Physics for for creating the technology.

    “The co-investment between defense and civilian space was very real and hugely important,” said Hubbard.

    “With Apollo, they needed to cut down on weight and power consumption. Mass into space equals money,” he said. “It has been and continues to be about $10,000 a pound to get to lower Earth orbit. They certainly don’t want computers that take up basketball courts. They want something very powerful and very light that doesn’t take massive power. That was one of the driving requirements that led to the development of the integrated circuit, where you put all the components on a chip rather than having a board stuffed with individual transistors and other circuit components.”

    He added that the microchip took the high-tech industry to a place of mass production and economies of scale.

    “There was a major shift in electronics and computing and at least half credit goes to Apollo,” said Hubbard. “Without it, you wouldn’t have a laptop. You’d still have things like the Univac.”


      • You noticed this part of your citation?
        „Daniel Lockney, the editor of Spinoff, NASA’s annual publication that reports on the use of the agency’s technologies in the private sector, […].“

        I would say NASA has an own department to promote the idea of GREAT spinoffs.

        The Laptop was an result of companies like Commodore or Apple building computers for normal people.

        I will not say NASA did not promote any ideas mentioned above like „Teflon, Kevlar, microchips, rechargeable batteries, I think microwave cooking, water purification, the ballpoint pen, LCD screens, […]“ but only a fraction of the money for the Apollo mission was going into research. Everything mentioned above was already existing without the Apollo program.

        SLS made by Boeing will be based on commercial of the shelf products. No moonshots. Just a chunk of money for Boeing. No boost for innovations or spinoffs.

        NASA likes to put “spinoff” on everything used by NASA.

        • But that just isn’t true… The relevant research into materials, semiconductors etc. got all of its funding at the time from being part of the space program. It was a period when there were a lot of big new problems to solve and a bottomless government piggy bank. If anyone in the labs thought something they’d heard about in an academic paper just might be a solution, or if some engineer had put together a crazy new idea in his garage, NASA would bankroll a team to try and develop it.

          Taking laptops as an example, the first electronic computers only came about because of a similar all-or-nothing effort during World War 2. During the 1950s development was almost all academic with only a very small number of non-governmental commercial applications – and they were huge and incredibly expensive. And based on valve technology.

          Come the space race, there is suddenly a very real need for much much much smaller and more efficient devices to handle the onboard navigation and maneauvering systems. Cue massive investment in electronics research which leads to semiconductors and microchips. This government spending is also what makes companies like IBM giants.

          Apple (which has never actually “invented” anything) simply makes use of the fact that these technologies have been brought into the public domain by other companies and previous research. Without NASA there would have been no Apple because those guys wouldn’t have had the off-the-shelf components to play with in the first place.

          And Apple also had nothing to do with the first laptops… Those were imagined by the same Xerox PARC guys that Apple ripped the desktop UI off and the first practical laptop being created and patented by Epson in Japan back in 1980. The portable Macintosh (still not a laptop) came out in 1989. First actual laptop from Apple was the PowerBook in 1991.

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