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I've seen the term "reference mission" used in connection with proposed missions to the Moon, Mars, etc..

What exactly is "reference" about a "reference" mission, as opposed to a proposal, plan, or whatever else? What is the objective behind the preparation of a "reference" mission? How does one shape the development of any actual missions? When does a "reference" mission evolve into something else?

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You will often see "Design Reference Mission" or "Design Reference Architecture". It is a plan done to a sufficient level of detail (one hopes) to elucidate the content, risks, difficulties, technologies, scale, and (sometimes) cost of a possible future endeavor. They are most often used to guide technology development efforts. I count 46 design reference missions in a document used recently to guide NASA technology planning. They are also used to guide early developments along a path to the endeavor, such as determining the size and capability of new large launch vehicles.

Generally the effort put into them is well short of what would be required to have a real plan that an agency could commit to. But it is enough to get order-of-magnitude or maybe half-order-of-magnitude estimates, and to define the capabilities of required systems and the benefits of potential new technologies.

When the time is ripe, technologies are ready or promise to be ready, and funding appears to be on the horizon, then such concepts may turn into a funded endeavor. However they will rarely look like what was originally conceived. Even the basic objectives may have changed notably.

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Well...you have to start somewhere. Reference Missions (often, and more familiarly to me, Design Reference Missions) are (hopefully) representative mission profiles which allow the initiation of studies and big picture designs. They are not as formal as requirements although they may serve as the basis for requirements. It is unlikely that any actual mission would exactly follow a Design Reference Mission profile, but they would probably be at least recognizable.

Here's a description from the intro to the Lunar Surface Reference Missions:

It should be noted that the Lunar Surface Reference Mission is a tool, not a prescription for a program. The selection of tasks to be accomplished will vary according to the emphases placed on the major themes of lunar exploration and development and the capabilities of specific missions. The technology for accomplishing the tasks will change with time, offering opportunities to improve the concepts presented here or replace them with other tasks. The Lunar Surface Reference Mission is intended as a tool for mission planners, to determine the general level of transportation and surface infrastructure support that must be provided. It can also be used by scientists and engineers who have ideas about what should be, or may be, accomplished on the lunar surface, to examine their ideas in the context of the resources expected to be available.

I couldn't find a full copy of JSC-07896 "Space Shuttle Baseline Reference Missions" online, but Jim Oberg has an extract posted here. It concerns the very interesting mission where the USAF would launch a shuttle out of Vandenberg on a one-orbit mission to grab a satellite and land.

Mission 3B is defined as a payload retrieval and quick return mission. The total mission duration is one revolution, or approximately 2 hours....The space shuttle, with no payload on board, is launched from WTR on a launch azimuth of 198.6....

Note that this document is from 1973, pretty early in the shuttle design process.

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    $\begingroup$ Beat me to it. Mission 3B played a big role in making the Shuttle so expensive. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Mar 23 '15 at 3:44
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    $\begingroup$ Definitely! We actually got far enough to make a simulator mission for 62-A. It was a definite kick to fly downrange aborts into Easter Island! $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Mar 23 '15 at 3:46

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