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Would there be any interest in a manned mission to Mars without landing? This could consists of none (just a flyby) to many revolution(s) around the planet. Would it cut a consequent part of the cost compared to a landing and return mission?

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  • $\begingroup$ What would be the point to such a mission? Humans on Mars can do useful science - prospecting for samples, lab analysis, etc.. In orbit, about the only benefit I could see is shorter delay time for teleoperation of a robotic surface vehicle. Given the hazards and risks to the crew after going that far, they really ought to be present where the science is going to be performed - on the surface. $\endgroup$ – Anthony X Apr 30 '16 at 22:58
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Do you know the names of the first humans who landed on the Moon? Yes! Armstrong and Aldrin, of course. (and if you scratch your head a little, you remember Collins in orbit too). Do you know the names of the first who orbited the the Moon? (Borman, Lovell and Anders). Less likely. My point is: If you later land on Mars, people forget about the first mission. And if you do not follow up with a landing, people feel like you have cheated.

From a technical point of view, such a mission is just a long stay on a single use space station, without the possibility of a return in case of an emergency. On the other side, the technology is pretty much off-the-shelf. The much lower $\Delta v$ requirements and lower complexity are undoubtely cutting a large part of the cost too.

In short, a moderate risk, high cost voyage, with only a small reward.

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    $\begingroup$ Yet if they land on Mars, they can only touch it through their gloves, and see it through their visor. What if the gloves and the visor were on the surface, but they were in Mars orbit? The gloves have tactile feedback to their hands, and the visor has even better vision than they would. Now they can explore Mars from Mars orbit much more cheaply, and cover far more ground, exploring many more places on Mars than they would be able to by landing. Due to light time delays, they can't do this from Earth. Only from Mars orbit. Now is it worthwhile? $\endgroup$ – Mark Adler Apr 30 '16 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkAdler I see your point :) But this is perhaps not the best place for a discussion about what the purpose of human spacetravel is anyway. $\endgroup$ – Hohmannfan Apr 30 '16 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ Isn't that the original question? $\endgroup$ – Mark Adler Apr 30 '16 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ @MarkAdler No, not human spaceflight in general. I made "there is no point in that" answer, which, as you state, has some pitfalls regarding the "why the monkeys?" aspect of spaceflight. $\endgroup$ – Hohmannfan Apr 30 '16 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ Personally I'm not convinced that the notability of whoever does the mission is really relevant to the question. Of course your answer shows that this opinion is not universal. Meanwhile I reckon that the technological gap between the two missions (the non landing one and the landing one) is so wide that it is more likely that we remember the names of the crew members of the non landing mission than the names of the first people who flew around the Moon. Maybe not enough to be as memorable as Gagarin or Armstrong & Aldrin though. $\endgroup$ – TT Farreo Jun 4 '16 at 20:58
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Yes, there is interest, at least from some quarters. The Planetary Society proposes an orbit-first strategy for humans at Mars as part of an affordable plan to make progress and build capability. Yes, putting humans into orbit around Mars and returning from there would be much, much cheaper than landing them and getting them back off the surface.

While there, the crew could teleoperate rovers on Mars far, far more capably than we can do from Earth due to the light-time difference. The rovers themselves would be much more advanced than what we have today, and would be able to explore wider ranging, diverse terrains across the planet, more than the humans on a single landed mission could. The crew can also land on the moons of Mars and explore more directly there, both for science and for resource prospecting.

I see here heartfelt concerns for the astronauts taking all that risk without sufficient reward. You can set your concerns aside. I am confident that you will find many extremely highly qualified candidates who are willing to go on a Mars orbit and Mars moon rendezvous mission.

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I think if a mission was to be sent to Mars without the intention of landing, there could be a great deal of science and hardware development that could be done by landing on Phobos (escape velocity ~41km/hr).

According to one NASA proposal:

Precursor missions to the surface of Phobos prior to undertaking human Martian surface operations would allow for a continuation in the phased approach of development, implementation, and in-situ testing/experience of the necessary hardware for an eventual Mars surface mission.

This plan calls for development of surface habitat/landing vehicle and a rover vehicle which could later be used on future missions to the Martian surface.

Also, the Caltech Space Challenge in 2013 did some interesting development work on a Phobos mission. They devised a plan using 11 Spacex launches to assemble the mission hardware in LEO, with a total mission duration of ~450 days. However this plan does involve a "nuclear propulsion unit" which may need a bit of development work first.

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