08.05.12

Mission to Mars: Will America Lose the Next Frontier?

A NASA rover is poised to make a historic landing on the Red Planet—but the mission’s runaway budget could derail future expeditions. Taylor Dinerman on how we’re losing the space race.

In spite of its smaller size, its thin atmosphere, its lack of a protective radiation belt, and it s extreme hostility to human life, Mars is the closest thing to an Earth-like planet any human is ever likely to set foot on (unless someone finds a way to break Professor Einstein’s laws.) The Red Planet has long fascinated writers, poets, artists, engineers, and scientists alike.

Since the beginning of the Space Age, Russia and the U.S. have been sending probes to study Mars and to pave the way for future human exploration. Already there are more active spacecraft orbiting Mars than any other planet except Earth. Europe’s Mars Express and America’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are all busy gathering data and sending it down to Earth, and both China and India have announced that they will soon be launching their own Martian missions.

So far, however, the only successful missions to the Martian surface have been NASAs. The 1976 Viking landers; the 1997 Pathfinder/Sojourner mission; the amazing twin Mars exploration rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, which landed in 2004; and the 2008 Phoenix lander were all American accomplishments.

But today, thanks to a combination of budgetary stress, regulatory overkill, and an unfortunate lack of political skill at the highest levels of NASA, the Mars exploration program is in deep trouble. It may be a very long time before the U.S. space agency launches another significant Mars mission.

If NASA’s new Mars rover, Curiosity, successfully touches down on Mars on Aug. 6, it will be the result of 16 years of hard work, inspired engineering, huge cost overruns, and a three-year delay. In 2006, when Congress agreed to fully fund the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) program with the Curiosity rover as its centerpiece, it was supposed to cost $1.63 billion. The latest estimate of MSL’s price tag is $2.5 billion. MSL’s out-of-control costs have already led to the cancelation of NASA’s 2016 Mars mission. Other solar-system exploration programs, such as the next mission to the outer planets, are being slashed to pay for MSL.

Once a major NASA program has begun and once it acquires powerful political support, it becomes difficult—perhaps impossible—to cancel. MSL is only one example of NASA’s difficulty in dealing with political reality. In 2008, Alan Stern, a brilliant scientist, resigned as head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) out of frustration with the way MSL was being managed. Later he said, “I quit when my boss effectively told me he was taking over SMD in order to fund MSL no matter how much damage it did to the rest of SMD.”

MSL is the result of the dramatic 1996 revision of NASA’s Mars exploration program. That year a meteorite found in Antarctica supposedly showed that life might once have existed on Mars, and the U.S. government suddenly became very interested in Earth’s next-door neighbor. As Donna Shirley of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., who ran the successful, low-cost Pathfinder/Sojourner mission, wrote, “… we had re-planned the whole Mars Exploration Program to focus more on life and less on climate and resources.”

At the time, some scientists, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, doubted that the meteorite really showed evidence of Martian life. Since the new program would be well funded and would provide the planetary-science community with a whole new source of employment, however, few scientists were willing to look the gift horse in the mouth.

The MSL mission, with the Curiosity rover as its centerpiece, was supposed to be a major step toward the ultimate objective of the Mars science community: land on Mars, collect samples of Martian soil and rocks, and send them back to Earth. Thanks in part to MSL’s ever-growing price tag, the sample-return mission is now in limbo. No one knows when or even if the sample-return mission will ever be launched.

A human mission to Mars is at least a decade and a half away. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin has been promoting the idea that the first humans to Mars should not try to land on the surface of the planet, but should instead land on the tiny Martian moon Phobos. From there they can explore Mars using robots they control directly. This would eliminate the time-lag problem that occurs when people in Pasadena try to control Martian robots that can be anywhere from 36 to 250 million miles away. “It’s quite crucial that MSL succeed—the Mars scientists at JPL need a psychological boost,” said Aldrin. He added that the next administration, no matter which party wins, needs to focus on Mars as a national goal, while the U.S. assists in an international effort to send humans back to the Moon.

NASA’s budget is roughly one half of one percent of total federal spending. Science is a fraction of NASA’s overall budget. For example, in 2010 the total NASA budget as enacted by Congress was $18.7 billion. The NASA Science Directorate got $4.47 billion, and out of that sum planetary science got $1.325 billion, which funded not only all the ongoing Mars missions, but the missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, and even one to Pluto, whose status as a planet is still being debated. So one can see why large cost overruns in one program tend to hurt the prospects for all of NASA’s science programs.

Both China and India have announced that they will soon be launching their own Martian missions.

American politicians and the public have shown little or no tolerance for NASA’s failures. If NASA loses a $100 million mission, the impact of the media criticism is the same as if it lost a $2.5 billion one. So NASA’s engineers and scientists strive for safety and reliability above all else. When they fail, as they did with the twin space-shuttle disasters, the whole space agency suffers.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is subject to the same cost overruns that plagued the MSL. It has survived several of the GOP-controlled House’s attempts to kill the project. JWST is managed by the Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and is protected by Maryland’s powerful senior senator, Barbara Milkulski. If the space telescope survives it will be a fantastic research tool, but it’s high price insures that it will be at least a decade before NASA can build another major astrophysics instrument.

Top-quality science and engineering do not always fit comfortably with politics and bureaucracy. NASA tries hard to perform the tasks set by its political masters who want jobs and money for their constituents and some measure of reflected glory for themselves and for the nation. Space exploration is not easy or cheap, and it’s harder when the White House and Congress refuse to listen to each other. But exploration is a part of America’s self image. It is an essential aspect of who we think we are. As Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it, “The day we stop exploring is the day we commit ourselves to live in a stagnant world, devoid of intellectual curiosity, empty of dreams.”