Wired’s Beyond Apollo blog examines a study done in 1966 that speculated about a manned mission to Mars taking place in the 1980s, preferably starting in 1986. The fascinating part of the study is that it examined political considerations.
The study, conducted by Robert Riedesel and John Wall, respectively Project Manager and Chief Engineer of the Future Systems Department at Douglas Aircraft Company, assumed that NASA funding levels would remain at Apollo program levels of about $5 billion a year in 1966 dollars, of which $3 billion would be spent on human space flight. Assuming that a manned mission to Mars would cost $62 billion, which would include a space station, a new heavy lift rocket more powerful than the Saturn V, and a number of precursor missions, 1986 would be the optimal year for launching the first expedition to the Red Planet.
The study even looked at the presidential politics involved in a decision to go to Mars.
“Riedesel and Wall predicted that, if President Lyndon B. Johnson won reelection in 1968, then he would have little incentive to commit funds and political capital to a piloted Mars program that would not succeed until long after he left office. The Mars program might start when Johnson’s successor took office in January 1973. The new president would, however, find no personal political benefit in championing a Mars expedition even if he initiated it immediately after he took office. This was because it would leave Earth no earlier than the 1981 launch opportunity, which would commence in November, nearly a year after his second term ended in January 1981.
“If, on the other hand, President Johnson were not reelected in 1968, then his successor could initiate the automated Mars probe and space station programs in 1969 with a good chance of seeing them succeed before his second term ended. Commitment to a piloted Mars expedition would probably have to wait until another president took office in January 1977, however. Given the time required for hardware development, this would, Riedesel and Wall estimated, postpone launch of the first U.S. piloted Mars expedition until at least 1984.”
Ironically the second scenario played out in the real world with Johnson declining to run for re-election and Richard Nixon being elected president. Nixon declined to commit to a Mars mission or even a space station that Riedesel and Wall suggested would be a precursor to such an undertaking, despite both being recommended by the Space Task Group. The Viking probes that sent to landing vehicles and two orbiters to Mars were dispatched in the mid 1970s.
Is there a scenario in which President Nixon or some other president elected in 1968 could have followed the Riedesel and Wall plan? Maybe someone should write a book about it.