NASA Starts Planning For Smaller Mars Mission in 2018

NASA Starts Planning For Smaller Mars Mission in 2018

NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science, John Grunsfeld, announced today that he is creating a Mars Program Planning Group to chart a path forward for robotic Mars exploration with the goal of defining an affordable mission that could be launched in 2018.  Steve Squyres, chair of the recent National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Survey for planetary science, however, indicated that such a mission would conform with the Survey’s recommendations only if it is directly linked to returning a sample of Mars to Earth.

Grunsfeld told a meeting of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) this morning that NASA remains committed to Mars exploration.  His comment comes in the wake of NASA’s withdrawal from a cooperative program with the European Space Agency (ESA) for Mars missions in 2016 and 2018 that were deemed unaffordable by the Obama Administration.

A physicist and former NASA astronaut, Grunsfeld wryly noted that every astronaut class since 1990 has been told they will be the ones to travel to Mars. While expressing his disappointment with the decision to cut spending on robotic planetary exploration, he pointed to the country’s difficult economic situation as forcing tough choices on priorities. Those decisions have been made, he said.

Still, he strongly believes it is important to keep Mars exploration vibrant to retain critical workforce skills as well as public and political interest in exploring the planet both with robots and humans.   The ultimate goal, he says, is having astrobiologists and geologists on the surface of Mars.  The Obama Administration’s goal as expressed in the President’s National Space Policy is to send humans to orbit Mars in the 2030’s, but not to land there until some indefinite time thereafter.   President Obama said in a major speech about the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program on April 15, 2010 that he anticipates humans landing on Mars within his lifetime, but was not more specific.

Grunsfeld was NASA’s Chief Scientist from 2003-2004 before returning to his astronaut duties and flying on a shuttle mission in 2009 to repair the Hubble Space Telescope (his fifth shuttle mission and third as a Hubble repairman).  He later left NASA and joined the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates Hubble and will operate the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  He returned to NASA headquarters at the beginning of this year to head the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), which is struggling to cope with cost overruns on JWST that some space scientists blame for the cuts to the planetary science budget.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced on February 13, 2012, the day the FY2013 budget request was released, that he was establishing a team within NASA to develop an “integrated approach” to Mars exploration that responds to NASA’s goals both for science and human exploration.  Grunsfeld is heading that team.  The other members are Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations; Waleed Abdalati, NASA Chief Scientist; and Mason Peck, NASA Chief Technologist.

What Grunsfeld announced today was another team that will be headed by Orlando Figueroa, a veteran leader of NASA’s robotic Mars missions, who retired in 2010.  Figueroa is tasked to provide a “framework” by the end of March and a final report by late summer on how to “recapture” an opportunity to send a probe to Mars in 2018 or, if necessary, 2020.   Earth and Mars are correctly aligned every 26 months to allow probes to be sent there.   Some of those opportunities are better than others and Grunsfeld describes 2018 as a “sweet spot” in planetary alignments, but 2020 would be acceptable.  It is being promoted primarily as a 2018 mission, however.

One key is how much such a mission would cost.  NASA categorizes planetary science missions as Discovery-class, New Frontiers-class, or flagship.   Discovery-class missions cost about $500 million; New Frontiers-class are about $1 billion; and flagship missions are those more expensive than the others.   The 2016 and 2018 missions planned with ESA were flagship-class missions and Grunsfeld and other NASA officials have firmly made clear that there is no room in the NASA budget for new flagship missions.  The Mars Program Planning Team headed by Figueroa is supposed to come up with creative and innovative ideas for a Mars mission in 2018 that is affordable within NASA’s currently anticipated budget.  It will include representatives of the Office of the Chief Technologist and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).   Grunsfeld indicated that he hopes those parts of NASA will bring additional money to the table to accomplish a 2018 Mars mission.

Grunsfeld’s determination to find a way to launch a Mars probe in 2018 is not sitting well with others in the planetary exploration community who view it as inconsistent with the recommendations of the NRC’s planetary science Decadal Survey.  

Steve Squyres, best known as the top scientist for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, chaired the Decadal Survey and spoke to MEPAG this morning after Grunsfeld.  Sqyures also chairs the NASA Advisory Council (NAC).   He was not optimistic about other parts of NASA, especially HEOMD, providing additional funding for a Mars mission since they have their own budget challenges.   More importantly, he implied that inserting a 2018 Mars mission into the planetary exploration queue does not conform with the Decadal Survey recommendations unless it is connected with the ultimate goal of returning samples to Earth.

The Decadal Survey represents a consensus of the planetary science community on the top scientific questions in planetary exploration overall, not just Mars, and identifies missions to answer them.  It also establishes “decision rules” to guide NASA if budgets are less than envisioned when the Survey was conducted.  It began in 2009 when the budget situation was comparatively robust.  By the time the report was released in early 2011, the situation had changed for the worse and deteriorated thereafter. 

Under the decision rules, if budgets are tight, NASA is “to go after flagships first,” Squyres said, and that is what NASA did, terminating its role in the 2016 and 2018 missions with ESA.  Those missions were the first in a series leading to returning a sample of Mars to Earth.   The Decadal Survey identified Mars sample return as its top priority in the flagship class and set out a number of missions over many years — a “campaign” — to accomplish it.  Early missions would select and set aside (“cache”) samples to be collected and returned to Earth by subsequent missions.   It was this mulit-spacecraft, multi-decade commitment that worried the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and failed to win support.

The Decadal Survey said that that if the Mars sample return campaign did not proceed, NASA should turn to the second priority flagship mission, the Jupiter Europa Orbiter.  The solar system is full of fascinating objects to explore and Squyres stressed that the Decadal Survey was for all of planetary exploration, not just Mars.   He also reminded the audience that the overarching consensus of the community was to protect the smaller missions in the Discovery and New Frontiers programs, along with Research and Analysis (R&A) and technology development.  They have priority over flagship missions if budget constraints are severe, he said, which is the situation NASA finds itself in today.  

His bottom line is that under the Decadal Survey’s decision rules, new missions to Mars “that lead directly to sample return” — a phrase he repeatedly stressed —  have very high priority.  If a proposed Mars mission does not lead directly to sample return, it should be openly competed in the Discovery program.   A Mars mission already is one of three proposals in contention for the Discovery 12 selection this summer.  Thus, although Squyres did not explicitly say so, the implication is that unless the new 2018 Mars mission Grunsfeld is seeking “leads directly to sample return,” it would not be consistent with the Decadal Survey.

NRC Decadal Surveys are often referred to as “bibles” because they are faithfully followed by NASA and Congress since they represent a hard-won consensus of the relevant science community.  The NRC produces Decadal Surveys every ten years (a decade) for each of NASA’s science disciplines — astrophysics, heliophysics (the study of the Sun and the solar-terrestrial relationship), earth science, and planetary exploration.

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