NASA

Mars 2020 or bust

When NASA announced last month that it had selected a rover similar to Curiosity for a mission slated for launch in 2020, it raised some concerns among planetary scientists that exploration of the rest of the solar system was getting shortchanged in favor of what they perceived as an overemphasis on Mars. The head of the agency’s planetary science division is now making the rounds in the community explaining that the money planned for the Mars mission was not available for any other mission.

Jim Green, head of the Planetary Science Division within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told attendees of the NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) meeting in Washington on Monday that money in the outyears projections of the FY2013 budget proposal for what was at the time an undefined Mars mission had to be used for Mars. “We were given the opportunity—the challenge, if you will—to define strategically what that mission was to be, or we would potentially lose the money,” he said. NASA was given about a year to develop a mission that would take the place of NASA’s previously-planned participation in ESA’s ExoMars program. “If we were not able to come up with a major match in this particular area, we would lose the funding.”

NASA, of course, was able to develop a proposed mission based on the Curiosity rover, and got approval for from NASA leadership, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by early December, Green said, when NASA publicly announced it at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

The funding for the 2020 Mars mission, Green said, is not coming at the expense of other programs, or research and analysis (R&A) funding used to support scientists working on data from various missions. “The concept that we were robbing R&A money in this fiscal year for a rover in 2020, that’s not the case at all,” he said. “We’re working hard to clarify any misconceptions.”

Green acknowledged, though, that there are problems with the NASA planetary sciences budget that make it not compliant with the recommendations of the planetary sciences decadal survey report released nearly two years ago. At the time the FY13 budget proposal was released, he said, there were three main issues: no long-term Mars program, a decreased cadence of smaller Discovery-class missions from every two years to every five years, and no long-term outer planets flagship mission.

The first program has been solved, he said, with decision on the 2020 rover mission, but the other two problems remain. “The only way we’re going to be able to solve that is with an influx of funding,” he said. It didn’t appear that he expected such an influx any time soon, but said he would continue to advocate for those programs. “We all know that we’re in tough budget times, we all know that we’re going to have to make some sacrifices,” he said. “But we’re on a track for ten years that’s well delineated in the planetary decadal, and we’re going to everything from my perspective possible to make that a reality. That means there’s going to be a lot of work involved.”

18 comments to Mars 2020 or bust

  • E. P. Grondine

    “The funding for the 2020 Mars mission, Green said, is not coming at the expense of other programs, or research and analysis (R&A) funding used to support scientists working on data from various missions.”

    Hold on right there.

    If anything is needed to show the validity of Albrecht’s analysis, its this round on Mar.

    When asked about the justification for the expenditure, Green points to the Decadal Planning Report, and not to any cost/benefit analysis of space research priorities.

    In other words, NASA management got NASA’s scientific clients to tell them what was important to them, and this was their own research and paychecks, and not the safety and security of the nation.

    If the mechanisms of government had been working earlier, there would be today a different mechanism for setting the nation’s scientific research goals.

    But they were not, which is why you have this government bureaucracy promoting the fantasy of an Earth-like Mars some 50 years after Mariner and 40 years after Viking.

    What is even more outrageous is that even within that Mars budget, the probes of Mars are dedicated to propping up this absurdity.

    One wonders if these Mars scientists are not promoting their work as reconnaissance to make sure that Martians do not attack, as was suggested by H.G. Wells.

    That said, when considering the back contamination hurdle to manned flight to Mars, one would do well to remember the fate of to Wells’ invaders.

  • E. P. Grondine

    Hi DCSCA –

    “The immediate core question must be answered: why send Americans into space?”

    Yes it does.

    And the answer now is not manned flight to Mars, just as it has been for the last 40 years. The costs and technical hurdles are still too great.

    I already gave you the immediate answer multiple times: to build CAPS. But as THE correct answer does not sink in, ever, it seems that it is not the answer you and some other “space enthusiastas” so deperately want to hear.

    While I am here watching the confusion, I will repeat the correct answer again: NASA’s comet impact hazard estimates have been an order of magnitude too low; a significant immediate (2022) hazard exists; the technical solution to dealing with that hazard is CAPS. The only question is how to see that the CAPS detectors get built.

    • amightywind

      Special interests like yours are a big part of the problem. Unfortunately the asteroid and comet folks have been taking lessons from the climate folks in generating hysteria and standing in the way of needed reform.

      • E. P. Grondine

        Hi AW –

        While I have my own views on our nations proper response to AGW, I need to point out to you that the leading voice in AGW scepticism has been and is Benny Peiser, who for years ran the Cambridge Conference, which focused on the impact hazard, and its effect on climate.

        Now that that’s done with, the blunt fact is that NASA’s cometary impact estimates appear to be about 2 orders of magnitude too low. By your logic, then, since AGW scepticism is correct, the higher cometary impact hazard estimate is correct as well.

        I myself view the two issues as related only by the fact that both of them concern the climate. And I agree with our host Jeff’s decision in that regard.

  • James

    NASA HQ SMD Division Chiefs don’t make any decisions unless they can be supported by language in the Decadal Reports. Increasingly these reports are steering money, what’s left of the money, to competed mission venues as a way to ‘get their fair share’ of NASA’s budget, thus wresting control of these dollars from the Space Flight Center’s

    With the drop in the cadence of all science missions, a trend that appears to be getting worse, and with more of the limited funds flowing to outside scientific interests, it appears that the Centers will have a hard time justifying both the size of their respective workforces and physical infrastructures – all of which were designed for a larger budget with a higher cadence of missions.

    I’m sure senior NASA leadership see’s these trends.

    • E. P. Grondine

      Hi James –

      You need to ask yourself, who wrote those Decadal Planning reports? And who decided they would be the ones to write them?

  • amightywind

    The only decent outer solar system proposal I have seen lately was the TALISE mission to land on a Titan Lake. The few pictures of Titan’s surface returned by Huygens were insanely interesting. The Europa proposals have been huge and absurd. The US should try to keep permanent orbiters around Jupiter and Saturn. Juno is a good start. New Horizons will hopefully drop a US flag on Pluto during its fast flyby. Triton clearly needs closer investigation. I would gut ISS and fund them all. But NASA is going to have to set priorities and move some money around, i.e. let go lots of people, close centers.

  • DCSCA

    “it raised some concerns among planetary scientists that exploration of the rest of the solar system was getting shortchanged in favor of what they perceived as an overemphasis on Mars.”

    Short-changed is hardly an apt term. New Horizons was lofted in 2006 and finally reaches Pluto by July, 2015. The fact that Mars can be reached faster shouldn’t be a detrement. Only cost should be a factor and the problem w/gold-plated throwaway probes like Curiosity was its ballooning price tag. They should be getting cheaper, not more costly given the dropping costs of throw-away electronics today.

    The more Mars is peppered w/research rovers, the further away a rationale for sending crews there on an expedition becomes in this era as well. It again flushes out the need for the United States to establish a rationale for HSF. But the reactive, competitive mind set of the Americans has shown to be reluctant to embrace it as part of the national character, unlike other nations developing HSF ops.

    Distance, economics and the current state of the technology swings Luna back into focus as the logical place to establish a human outpost before pressing on to Mars- if it even is worth the trip. Luna is the place to develop and refine general purpose spacecraft, long-stay, off planet habitation techniques, hardware and procedures for ‘routine’ cis-lunar ops before launching out on a human expedition to Mars late in this century- if analysis of the data from the robots report back it is even worth the voyage.
    But barring soem miricale discovery in the Martian dust, as far as Americans are concerned, to go ‘because it is there’ in this fiscal climate won’t sell. But then, we don’t have to worry about that. Master Musk tell us all about it as he will be retiring there… won’t he.

    • Neil Shipley

      2016 tick tock!

    • There IS indeed WAY too much emphasis on the Red Planet. Most people in the space interest community totally ignore the fact that the vast caboodle of technological systems needed, do NOT exist and/or remain unproven. Whatever NASA has been able to work with, on board the ISS, would be completely inadequate for any deep space crewed expedition. The ISS also, gets resupplied from Earth regularly, hence its life support systems would never need to go on, in an independent-from-earth mode, for any considerable span of time. Things like dust-management, have been routinely ignored by the space media. The Commercial Crew people love to brag about how it’ll be they, & not the government, who’ll emplant a manned landing craft on Mars, yet they totally ignore the Moon as an intermediate goal: which is a terrible mistake. If you can’t acheive the much easier task of putting a manned surface craft upon the Moon, what gives you the credibility that you’ll be able to do the far more daunting, vastly more complex task of a Mars expedition??! If you can’t reach the Moon, then you won’t be able to reach Mars.

      • Coastal Ron

        Chris Castro moaned:

        Most people in the space interest community totally ignore the fact that the vast caboodle of technological systems needed, do NOT exist and/or remain unproven.

        Uh, Chris? The same could be said for going back to the Moon. Don’t you remember the $100B Constellation program that was cancelled because it was going to cost way more than $100B?

        Whatever NASA has been able to work with, on board the ISS, would be completely inadequate for any deep space crewed expedition.

        Well duh. Part of that is because the ISS hasn’t been up long enough to help develop and prove some of those systems that we need. The other part is that the ISS was never intended to develop everything for going to Mars, since the ISS is in LEO and can’t prove out fuel depots, radiation mitigation techniques, and other such stuff.

        Things like dust-management, have been routinely ignored by the space media.

        Yes, let’s blame the space media for not enough money to worry about dust management… ;-)

        …yet they totally ignore the Moon as an intermediate goal: which is a terrible mistake.

        And what are you doing about it beside moaning and groaning? Huh? Musk is staking a large part of time and money to reach Mars, so if you have a beef with what he is doing, and suggest you do the same. Put your money where you mouth (and keyboard) is. No Whining!

        • Neil Shipley

          CR Chris only believes in large scale government mandated programs. He can’t envisage a world where private companies are doing it therefore can’t understand how it can be done so much more efficiently and effectively.
          He still hasn’t realised that ISS cargo has actually been delivered and returned by a privately built and run space launch system. It’s just too shocking for words. Poor Chris. Time to get out the white jacket. LOL.

          • That’s funny. Very funny. Just wait till the next decade begins, at 2020, and all NASA has going on are ISS station stays for its astronauts, to do. I can fully empathize with the large number of astronauts who have quit NASA, and with the big difficulty the agency has been having with recruiting in new ones. I mean, what’s the point to being an astronaut, nowadays? You’re never really going to get the chance to fly, [and if you do, it'll be a dull & tedious assignment of spending five months on board the ISS]. There’ll be no grand deep space voyages of discovery, ever, under Obamaspace. Remember?—we can’t go back to anyplace that we have been to before. EXCEPT Low Earth Orbit!

        • wodun

          “Put your money where you mouth (and keyboard) is. No Whining!”

          That’s a ridiculous argument. Very few people have the money to start a space based company. The challenges in starting a successful one are far greater than the quality of an idea.

          It hard enough to write a business plan and get a loan or put up your own cash ranging from a couple thousand to a million dollars for a business. And it is magnitudes harder to write a business plan and seek billions in funding and not being able to show a return for decades.

          Someday, maybe it wont take FU money to get something done and anyone with a good idea can work to implement it.

          • Coastal Ron

            wodun said:

            Very few people have the money to start a space based company. The challenges in starting a successful one are far greater than the quality of an idea.

            There are lots of ideas. Chris has plenty of them, along with opinions for how the U.S. Taxpayer should fully fund them.

            My point is that waiting for the government to do something that the government really has no interest in doing is fruitless. Instead, people like Musk actually put their money where their mouth is. And yes, they could fail – SpaceX was going to fold if their 4th Falcon 1 flight didn’t work (but it did).

            The Apollo program has screwed up our perceptions of how we’re going to do things in space. Unless there is an identified “National Imperative”, the U.S. Taxpayer is really only willing to let space be a small investment, not a big one. We are talking decades to create a presence in space that is able to be sustainable and growing, since until we find a revenue stream for living in space, there is just not enough money from NASA do keep too many people in space.

  • wodun

    “NASA was given about a year to develop a mission that would take the place of NASA’s previously-planned participation in ESA’s ExoMars program. “If we were not able to come up with a major match in this particular area, we would lose the funding.””

    This is sad on so many levels.

  • It IS indeed sad. Flexible Path was a horrendous idea, on how we should approach human spaceflight! It abhors our ever having to deal with a surface-landing module. Hence, it precludes our ever dealing with the nitty-gritty of planetary expeditioneering, issues like: (a.) the development of newer surface-going space suits; (b.) the creation of systems to control & manage surface-environment dust & regolith powder; (c.) the working of a radiation storm shelter cabin, for the crewmen to go to, in the event of a solar flare occuring; plus the regular-times needs of some cosmic ray sheilding on the landing craft’s hull; (d.) and life support & maintainance equipment, that could withstand long, multi-month spans of time, without big repair servicings or replacements; such as air supplies & water supplies, and the purifications of those elements. In brief, if we avoid the construction of new landing crafts & surface habitat modules, we are seriously short-changing ourselves, in terms of preparing for bigger, far-deep space goals.

  • vulture4

    I agree that Flexible Path is unfocused and unproductive. But at current prices lunar human flight is nonsustainable. We were on the correct path when the Shuttle program started, to find ways to radically reduce cost and thus make human spaceflight practical. There were serious difficulties with the design of the Shuttle, but not with its goals. Unfortunately the Constellation program, with its return to cost-insensitive national prestige missions in an era when even its supporters demand tax cuts set us off on a path to nowhere. The Commercial Crew program, while incremental in its cost improvements, represents the closest current alternative. When we can reach LEO for $1M/seat (still many times the actual energy cost) it will be a reasonable investment of tax dollars to go further.

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