NASA to Reveal Mars Replanning Results Tomorrow

NASA to Reveal Mars Replanning Results Tomorrow

The results of NASA’s Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) will be made public tomorrow.  The effort, led by Orlando Figueroa, was initiated earlier this year after NASA had to withdraw from planned cooperation with Europe on robotic Mars missions because of funding constraints.  The MPPG was tasked to develop options for a new Mars exploration strategy blending robotic and human space missions.

Figueroa is scheduled to brief the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) at 10:15 am PDT (1:15 pm EDT).  He then will participate in a media teleconference at 3:00 pm EDT along with John Grunsfeld, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

The NRC CAPS meeting will be webcast.  Instructions on how to see and hear the webcast (two separate steps) are shown in our calendar of events.    NASA’s media teleconference will be streamed live at NASA’s NewsAudio website.

The CAPS meeting started today and Jim Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said that it had been difficult to schedule Figueroa’s presentation to CAPS because he was briefing staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee today.   Green said other relevant congressional overseers were briefed last week. 

CAPS is comprised of leading members of the planetary science community and is the “keeper” of the NRC’s 2011 Decadal Survey on planetary science that identifies the priorities in that field of space science.  One of its tasks is to ensure that NASA’s planetary exploration program conforms with the Decadal Survey, which itself represents a consensus of the planetary science community on the most important scientific objectives NASA should pursue in planetary exploration.

The need to brief congressional staff before releasing MPPG’s findings to the public is one indication of the importance of the report’s significance.  Mars is a popular destination for robotic exploration both with the public as a whole and with its elected representatives in Congress.  The intense public interest in the successful landing of the Curiosity rover last month is testament to the enduring fascination of the Red Planet.

Nonetheless, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decided to cut funding for robotic Mars exploration in the President’s FY2013 budget request. 

NASA had signed an agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2009 to work together on Mars exploration and the two agencies crafted a program that began with two probes in 2016 and 2018 that would lead to returning a sample of Mars to Earth, the Holy Grail for scientists seeking to discover the secrets of Mars and whether it might have supported life.  These plans were scuttled by the OMB decision, and although Congress indicated it would add money for Mars exploration, it has decided to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) that covers the first six months of FY2013, leaving the Mars program in limbo.   As Green told CAPS today, absent congressional action on the FY2013 budget, it must spend its money in conformance with the President’s budget request, not “promises.”

MPPG was tasked not just with recommending how to reformulate the robotic Mars exploration program, but to come up with a foundation for merging scientists’ goals for Mars exploration with the President’s goal of someday sending humans there.  Its task statement is to “develop foundations for a program-level architecture for robotic exploration of Mars that is consistent with the President’s challenge of sending humans to Mars orbit in the decade of the 2030s, yet remain responsive to the primary scientific goals” of the NRC’s Decadal Survey. 

Figueroa retired from NASA in 2010 after a long career with the agency, including heading NASA’s Mars robotic exploration program.


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