Another view on the problems facing NASA’s Mars Exploration Program

The focus on sample return, of which the Mars 2020 rover (above) is just the first step, may have also contributed to the long-term planning programs the overall Mars Exploration Program is facing. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Jason Callahan and Casey Dreier’s excellent article on the state of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (see “The future (or lack thereof) of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program”, The Space Review, July 17, 2017) very clearly lays out the conundrum facing the program. It is gratifying that The Planetary Society continues its focus and engagement on Mars exploration—surely one of the hallmark achievements of American space exploration, directly responsive to the public interest questions of the origin and evolution of life.

They blame the conundrum on budget cuts, but budget cuts are not just a cause: they are also an effect with many other causes, and the Mars program’s difficulties have other causes. Chief among them is putting all their science eggs in the Mars Sample Return basket. This is precisely analogous to the cause of human spaceflight program mess caused when we put all our eggs in the Space Shuttle basket. The program’s rationale was insufficient to generate its necessary resources. This is not so much the fault of inadequate budget (as space community interests assert) but the fault of inadequate program rationale for the public and political system.

The 2011 Planetary Sciences Decadal Survey referenced by them basically concluded “Mars Sample Return uber alles.” Many of us at the time shrank from the seeming implication that a Mars program without sample return was not worth doing. Yet, at that same time, there was little budget support for a sample return commitment and active opposition to it from the White House Office of Management and Budget. They turned down a NASA plan for a multi-mission Mars sample return program. But NASA went ahead with one anyway, basically taking the approved 2020 mission and making its prime goal the sample collection for a future, unapproved, sample return. The 2020 mission rationale now rests on that plan. They figured if they went ahead one-way, the Congress would fund the return—something like President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 sending the Navy fleet to the Pacific and telling Congress they would stay there if they refused to appropriate funds. In this case, however, Congress may be willing to leave the samples on Mars.

As Callahan and Dreier note, that plan has resulted not just in a lack of commitment for sample return, but also in inadequate resources for basic infrastructure support to the 2020 rover itself. Communications is on a thin reed. Listening to the Mars Exploration Program Assessment Group meeting earlier this month, it seems that they, too, have no strategy except to argue for more budget.

The Planetary Society has separately provided a thoughtful connection between the robotic science program and human exploration of Mars. That connection, though, has also been undermined by the science community: their successful opposition to the Asteroid Redirect Mission undercut NASA’s Journey to Mars and severed the relationship between human and robotic program planning. That relationship is absolutely necessary to making the case for more budget Mars. The administration has cancelled the first step beyond the Moon – they now need to find a replacement. As with “repeal and replace Obamacare,” the political system proves more adept on repealing and flounders on what or how to replace.

The Mars Exploration Program conundrum, and NASA’s now general program confusion, is partly due to budget cuts and political ponderousness, to be sure. But it also in part—and maybe the bigger part—self-inflicted.