With a new president coming in just about 6 months from now it is time to be proactive and admit the current journey to Mars mirage is nothing more than a hashtag. Instead of waiting for the coming blue ribbon panel and revector let's take the hard look at the situation and get out infront of things by being honest and laying out a more thoughtful strategy for achieving Mars in 20 years. It may garner a knee jerk reaction from certain circles but if they are truly in it for exploration and not just jobs/contracts then they can find their way through to actual deep space exploration not just lobbying about it.
Step 0: Give up building launch vehicle and orion. They are albatrosses around our neck. A heavy lifter for use 20 years from now sucks up way more budget than relying on multiple launches and robotic assembly which is needed anyway. Plus since we are going with a reusable Mars transit vehicle crew loading and unloading can occur in earth orbit serviced by one of the many commercial crew vehicle coming online. How much more Mars technology could we fund if we free up SLS/Orion funds. Don't worry congress folks and old space wanting to suckle at the government tit of cost plus contracts there will be plenty of pork to spread around with the new plan. Don't bring up the suck cost fallacy cause continuing to pour money for something 20 years down the road while you starve all the tech that is truly needed for Mars is only going to continue the myth that going to Mars is within the next 20 years. Staying the course is not the answer if you really want to actually make progress.
Forward plan Step 1: Best case we plan for upcoming commercial heavy lift like falcon 9H worst case we design for existing HLV. Either way we can cross that bridge to pick a launcher 12 years from now when we start locking down the design . Since crew rotation occurs in LEO it should be no different than what we will be paying for astronauts to the ISS in the next couple of years and entry speeds will be similar as well.
Step 2: time to stop iterating on an evolvable Mars campaign and hand out a design to the agency to start building.
We need a clean sheet 90 day study to pick a design so that the technology investment can start working towards putting things together. This gets divided up among the centers (see Congress we will spread things around) and gets everyone on the same path and garners support for the pivot from congress and incoming president.
It will help focus on what can be commercially sourced versus what needs internal development. We dont need to be spending money on our limited use case for something the commercial market is going to far surpass our needs down the road. We just need to have a viable onramp plan for the cots 10+ years from now. the study will provide the focus needed so no more centers working on what they think they should instead of what the politics/HQ wants. If we are infusing $3B in tech we need to make sure the design is anchored so that they are building the ins/outs/size/volume/power for the integrated systems/ mission operations parameters.
We can reevaluate every four years to ensure the tech tree is bearing fruit or if we need to pick a new branch and what the launch vehicle situation is. For now we start with existing HLV and it only gets better from here at the next review in 4 years.
Step 3: Develop LEO to Lunar cycler
Now that we have SLS out of the way the plan is whichever HLV we use just has to get the mass to LEO. Our solar electric propulsion tug will move it out to the lunar shipyard. This gives us run time on sep that will eventually grow to the transit vehicle size. The cycler also gets to test out deep space navigation (like pulsar/x-ray) and autonomous deep space rendezvous and docking.
Step 4: Use Cycler to build out lunar shipyard
Robotic assembly, radiation protection methods and testing of "MCC in a Box" autonomy gets shaken out as the the two Mars Transit Vehicles are built up. Eventually there could be living quarters for science and telerobotics to lunar surface it would require a hab attachment for the cycler since we scrapped orion but that becomes a long term closed loop eclss test bed so bonus points. The human occupation of the shipyard appeals to the international partners as it gets them closer to lunar surface
Step 5: Large scale technology investment
With the SLS/orion money freed up that gives us about $3B a year to put towards the major hurdles for Mars like radiation, EDL, autonomy, ISRU, closed loop ECLSS, robotic helpers, fecal processing, nuclear power and more. These tech are currently on the slow road to Mars due to budget restrictions that would go away with a $3B infusion. At least a portion of this should be to try out Moonshots that may fail but if they succeed are 10X leap forward to Mars.
Step 6: at the shipyard build two reusable transit vehicles
First is cargo delivery for all the preposition of assets for upcoming human missions. We can use an opposition class mission since it is unmanned and 30 day stay in Mars orbit should be enough time for precision placement of the necessary hardware. This robotic hauler will deploy early EDL and isru test beds while testing out larger class SEP, navigation and autonomy.
Second is crew transit vehicle the culmination of tech investment and precursor testbeds. Allows for longer conjunction class missions for a crew to spend 500 days on the surface.
If we as an agency, country, world really want to move up the gravity well to exploring Mars then let's take a hard look at where we are and pivot to get there.