1986 started out as a good year for NASA, as it did for just about every other space agency in the world.
For NASA all this changed as the CIA secured information, that the Soviets planned to launch a manned mission to Mars in the year 1988, two years ahead of the schedule NASA had expected.
NASA’s plans were all set up to an opposition fast-transit class mission in 1990. Most of the systems needed for landing and returning from Mars were only in their early stage of development.
NASA had already been close to rush things and now even had to step it up a notch if they were to make it to Mars first. They decided to take at least a little additional time to prepare and plan considering the changed playing field. NASA launched a Thirty Day Study in June 1986, asking any of their aerospace contractors and organizations, like the RAND Corporation, to provide them with additional ideas.
Martin Marietta and the RAND Corporation put forth similar ideas, namely utilizing the resources already on Mars, to cut down on the payload needed for Mars. Fuel and oxygen could be produced on site with the 19th century Sabatier or Bosch reactions, reducing the martian CO2 with hydrogen into water and methane. Water could be electrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen could return into the reaction.
Methane and oxygen could also easily be used in a rocket engine to propel an ascent stage back to a spacecraft waiting in Martian orbit.
Another interesting idea, though not completely related to the actual problem, came from Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin. He proposed ‘Mars Cyclers’, spacecraft that would be sent into an orbit that regularly crossed the earth and martian sphere of influence and created something of a ‘commuter train’ on a tight schedule, as Aldrin called them.
The idea fit worked with NASA’s path of durable commonality. A Mars Cycler could contain heavy life support and radiation shielding, as well as storage for Martian artifacts and needed only a single time to boost it into its orbit, afterwards any course correction could be done with fly by maneuvers. Theoretically such a Mars Cycler could be used for several decades, reducing the cost to keep a Mars expedition alive on the way to Mars and back.
Additionally Aldrin noted, the craft carried by a Mars Cycler would only need enough delta v to meet up with the Cycler, as the Martian and Earth atmosphere would allow for aerobraking to shed speed and get captured by the planet in question.
The Thirty Day Study provided NASA with many interesting and new ideas. Especially the In Situ resource utilization was well received. The well understood Sabatier reaction was relatively easy to adapt and build a chemical reactor that could be used on Mars, based on the information NASA had on the red planet.
After the Thirty Day Study, the plan of the 1988 revised Manned Mars Mission shaped up quickly. The original plan of sending two nuclear powered spacecraft to Mars was kept, but the earlier date of the mission made it impossible to use the full six CAPM systems, as originally intended. Instead NASA was ready to sacrifice the conventionally powered CCPM One systems to support a single CAPM for the Mars injection and return, by grouping them around the CAPM to act as boosters.
The planned high energy trajectory cut down travel time by two months, allowing them to be ahead of the Soviets by at least three months due to a launch window in May 1988, whereas the Soviets would only launch in June 1988.
Both spacecraft were to carry a single stack of CID modules with additional reentry shields for the Martian atmosphere. Only one was a return vehicle with a landing stage modified to use methane and oxygen as propellant, while the other carried additional supplies for a crew of four for four years and an In Situ plant.
After a stay of ninety days, half of the crew would then leave Mars, with material from FRM-1, to create a return rocket in orbit, attaching the two nuclear engines to each other, using the first to accelerate into an Earth bound trajectory and using the second to slow down for a meeting with SOC Hephaestus.
The other half of the crew would remain on Mars to keep up with research, to continue exploration and to possibly establish contact with any Martians, if found.
On the Soviet side of the globe, NPO Energia had already finished their planning for the Mars mission. Rather than the mixed strategy of NASA, the Soviet Union was going for a short term opposition mission, with a short thirty day stay on Mars to get as much information and artifacts as possible and then return them to the Motherland.
Only a single spacecraft was constructed in orbit, using a MOK base module as living space with an attached TKS providing additional living space. Three Block N nuclear rocket stages with two additional hydrogen tanks were intended for the flight to Mars and back, while a massive lander was constructed to land on Mars and return to Orbit.
A second, smaller lander carried a single modified DLB Lunar Base Module, to act as shelter for the Mars mission and any other to follow, to slowly grow to a more permanently manned Mars base.
The plan for the mission itself was to land on the surface near Honore City, hopefully well within walking distance, and then use most of the following thirty days to either make contact with any possible inhabitants or to collect as many different samples as possible. In the case of a collection mission, the weight limit had been designed to be about two tons worth of artifacts to be transferred back to the parked spacecraft.
Until early 1988 the three craft took shape in Earth orbit. The Soviet construction happened without any significant problems, while the NASA construction at SOC Hephaestus was pretty much troubled from the start.
Delivered parts to fit propulsion modules together were faulty and new parts had to be delivered. The heat shields, which had to be taken apart to fit into the payload fairing of the Saturn CC-11 for delivery, were very difficult to reassemble again. The parachutes needed to slow down the landers caused the biggest problems, as several showed damage during their final packaging and had to be redesigned and manufactures again.
The American public also caused some headaches, as NASA had to deal with hundreds of thousands of mails with suggestions of how to name both Mars going spacecraft. It even got worse when President Glenn himself was overheard during a party, saying that NASA should let the people decide on a name, which ended up in newspapers across the United States.
In the end NASA decided to give the public their chance of naming the two spacecraft by selecting the five most suggested names and publishing them, followed by opening televoting lines for two days, from February 3 to February 5, 1988. The final names of the two Mars craft were announced on April 14, 1988. The Mars Habitat would be named Enterprise and the Return Craft Artemis.
On April 20, Enterprise and Artemis executed their Transmartian Injection Burn, sending them on their way to Mars. They were cheered away by over one hundred of million of Americans that were glued to their TV sets or watching the show with telescopes and binoculars, as the timing was set in such a way that it happened over the United States. Only the official selection of music coming from NASA was a cause for complaints. Many had the superstitious belief, that the Mars movement from Holst’s ‘The Planets’ could make the mission, already troubled by many small problems, suffer from even bigger ones, or maybe even fail catastrophically.
Three weeks into the transfer to Mars, Artemis was narrowly missed by an asteroid that was detected by the radar system originally intended for the powered descent portion of the landing. NASA noted that they were relieved that the asteroid missed the spacecraft as it would have lead to the destruction of Artemis and the death of four astronauts.
June 3 finally was the day when the Soviet Union launched their Mars Expeditionary Complex into a Mars bound trajectory. The construction of the spacecraft in orbit had gone off without any problems and on launch the nuclear boosters went flawlessly, even though they had not been tested beforehand. The Soviet Union therefore was positive the mission would continue without any troubles. Mikhail Gorbachev wished them well on their journey in a great speech that was broadcast into the entire Warsaw Pact, asking them to make their nation proud.
The only problem with the entire mission was that the Soviet Union was going to be beaten by the United States. But the return of Martian technology was reward enough, that it, while a big loss in credibility and prestige, was not considered to be complete failure. The planned mission to Venus, already under construction, would claim the Veneran derelict and return much of that loss anyway.
Enterprise and Artemis reached Mars on July 17, executing a final injection burn to enter a Martian orbit that brought them into a favorable position for the reentry and descent to Honore City three days later. This time would be used to prepare for the reentry and prepare the two nuclear CAPM systems for the return trip in December 1988. They were docked to each other and set into a sleep mode to wait.
During the approach to Mars and the stay in its orbit, the two spacecraft were able to detect the radio emissions from FRA-1 again. The advance in technologies, since the discovery, allowed for better observations of the transmissions, confirming them to be a highly advanced phased radar system that could be part of a traffic control system or any other guidance system.
On 10:14 PM on July 20, Enterprise and Artemis executed their final descent burns, bringing them into a reentry trajectory and lost contact with Earth for four minutes between 11:01 and 11:05 PM. The heat shields, which had been a main concern during assembly, held perfectly and were jettisoned, before the parachutes opened, thirty kilometers above the martian surface. The parachutes were jettisoned in turn at an altitude of four kilometers after they had slowed the two landers down to less than one hundred fifty meters per second. The engines of the landers carried them the rest of the way, making a perfect touchdown three kilometers west of FRA-1, five point four kilometers north west of Honore City and five hundred meters away from each other.
Nearly two billion people worldwide were glued to the TV screens as they watched the transmission of the first manned Mars landing.
The first man to take a step onto Martian soil was overall Mission Commander, and Commander of Artemis, Story Musgrave. He was unable to say anything for at least five minutes from the emotional impact of this historic moment. As he finally spoke, he began with a quote.
“Antoine de Saint Exupéry once wrote ‘Our task is not to foresee the future, but to enable it.’ Our first steps in Mars today, are only the first steps into our future, our destiny in space.”
Following this historical moment, the first three days were used to allow the eight astronauts to get reacquainted with gravity again. Afterwards the astronauts began with a program to prepare a welcome for the arrival of the Soviets, like how to best welcome them in a humorous way without causing a diplomatic incident, as well as for longer exploration of Honore City and FRA-1.
Two simple rovers, largely modernized versions of the Lunar Rovers from the Apollo missions, were assembled and tested, while equipment from both landers was unloaded and set up around Enterprise. Enterprise itself started with the production of oxygen and methane for Artemis, even though the distance between the two landers presented something of a problem for refueling.
To this end, the remaining original fuel of Artemis was used to carefully maneuver the lander closer to Enterprise. It made a final landing about fifty meters away, well within range of the refueling hoses.
First smaller excursions to FRA-1 and into Honore City revealed that both were ancient ruins. There were no living beings to be seen, just Martian winds whistling through dead ruins, slowly eating away on their substance.
The Soviet MEK arrived at Mars two months later on October 30. Unlike the US mission, the MEK made use of aerocapture to slow the spacecraft down for initial capture, before using the nuclear engines of the craft to reduce the velocity to orbital speeds. This technique allowed the MEK to save a good amount of propellant for the return trip.
It came with problems later on however. While the landing of the small cargo and habitat lander went out without any difficulties, the descent of the MEK lander on November 4 was a failure due to unnoticed micrometeorite damage to the heat shield and the strain of the aerocapture.
Some of the heat transferred through the shield and damaged internal systems of the lander. One of two parachutes did not open and the remaining chute hat to be cut to avoid an uncontrolled tumble and the three man crew of the lander had to use the entire propellant of the descent stage as well as about fifty percent of the ascent stage to try and make a soft landing.
Yet the ascent stage impacted into the martian surface at fifty kilometers per hour. The crash happened ten kilometers northeast of Enterprise and Artemis and the American crew quickly decided to go and look for any survivors, before they could get any orders from Mission Control.
Arriving at the site of the Soviet crash they discovered that only a single Cosmonaut out of three had survived. The two others had perished, one from a depressurized space suit, while the other was crushed to death by equipment.
The unconscious survivor, Captain Vladimir Putin, was returned to Enterprise, where he got a thorough medical checkup by Manley Carter, the mission’s physician. Putin was diagnosed with several bruised ribs, a broken arm and severe whiplash.
Mission Control was less than pleased about the survivor though. At least two astronauts had to remain behind to keep an eye on him and then there was the hurdle of language as well- Putin was only able to speak basic broken English, while only one of the astronauts was able to speak some Russian. The next five days were used to evaluate the new situation and how to handle the guest.
President Glenn himself was the one to come up with an elegant solution for the United States. Artemis was to return Putin to Earth, where he could be handed over to the Soviets. It would make the United States look good in front of the international community, the Soviets would look ungrateful if they did not thank the United States for the return of their cosmonaut. At the same time the United States would retain artifacts from Mars, denying them from the Soviets for at least two more years.
The downside was that one of the Artemis crew members would have to stay behind on Mars until the next Mars Mission, slated for 1990. Enterprise was equipped with stores to supply a crew of four for four years, and an additional astronaut would be quite a strain on the supplies, but it was thought to be a feasible option with some clever rationing. Additionally it would be necessary to raid the intact Soviet supplies to increase the odds of success.
It was Commander Musgrave, who decided to give up his return place on Artemis for Putin. In the United States he was seen as a hero, as he was willing to wait for a return to allow the Soviet to return to Earth, thus showing the superior American morals. Musgraves real reasons were more profane. He just wanted to remain on Mars as long as he could.
In the aftermath of the Soviet crash and the recovery of the survivor, the two dead Soviet cosmonauts were buried in Martian soil near the intact habitat lander at the request of the Soviet Union.
Mid December, Artemis was refueled from Enterprise and launched back into Mars orbit on December 20, where it docked with the dual CAPM stack on December 21. The Transearth Injection Burn took place on December 24, sending three Americans and one Soviet back to Earth.
Artemis returned to Earth on March 21, 1989, docking with SOC Hephaestus. While the three Americans were welcomed back by the crew of Hephaestus, Putin got a less warm welcome by the two man crew of the Soviet TKS 24, waiting for him in close formation with Hephaestus. Putin had to spacewalk to get to the TKS spacecraft as it was not equipped with a compatible docking adaptor.
While Putins reception in space was less than warm, he was welcomed back on Earth as a Hero of the Soviet Union for being the first Soviet to land on Mars and return home. Although his method of return was less than satisfactory, he did bring back very valuable information on the American space program, how they were handling things and a host of other details of interest.
On the American side, the three returning Mars astronauts were welcomed back with a ticker tape parade in New York, while for the five astronauts on Mars everyday life turned into routine. As much of a routine as can be on another world, surrounded by the ruins of a lost civilization.