Will NASA retreat from Mars after string of successes?
- Spaceflight Now
As I write this, the latest news on the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft is that it remains in orbit, apparently operational, but has not communicated with Earth in the last several days. In the meantime, the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory launched successfully and its flight so far has been boringly good.
My hopes are with the Russian engineers and scientists as they attempt to re-establish control of the spacecraft and find another target, potentially an asteroid, now that that mission's window to begin the flight to Mars apparently has closed.
Looking to future missions, the news is also mixed. The only committed and funded mission to follow Curiosity to Mars currently is MAVEN, which is a Discovery-class orbiter to study the Martian upper atmosphere. (MAVEN was the last mission in the now defunct Mars Scout program which also flew the Phoenix lander.) The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA both have hopes of flying a joint orbiter for 2016 and a joint rover for 2018. Neither has the money currently committed to do the missions alone and neither currently has the committed funding to implement their planned portions.
However, there are encouraging signs of progress.
First a brief recap on the 2016 and 2018 proposals. The 2016 mission would fly an orbiter that would carry instruments to study the Martian atmosphere and continue high resolution imaging of the surface. Most critically, this orbiter would also be in place to act as a communications relay for a proposed 2018 rover. The rover would carry a highly sophisticated ESA instrument suite to examine Mars for signs of life and habitability and NASA equipment to collect and cache samples for eventual return to Earth. The 2016 mission would also carry an ESA demonstration lander that would function for up to four days on the surface.
A new option is on the table now, that could be an exciting enhancement to the joint program. When NASA was unable to commit a launch vehicle for the 2016 orbiter, ESA asked Russia to contribute a launcher in return to having its instruments also fly. The initial reaction reportedly was, nyet!, but recent news sounds more encouraging. Scientists at Russia's Space Research Institute, IKI, have put together proposals for a minimum and maximum level of participation. For the minimum proposal, Russia would contribute unspecified instruments for the orbiter that have previously flown on other Russian Earth and planetary missions. The maximum proposal would add two to four Russian landers to replace the currently planned ESA demonstration lander. At least one version each of two different landers would fly, and if technical issues could be worked out, two copies of each version might fly. The first version would be a penetrator that would carry a weather station, and would be similar to the landers jointly developed with the Finns. The second would be a soft lander that would open up, petal style once on the surface. The proposed instrument is a French seismometer (which I believe is also the seismometer planned for the Mars GEMS lander in the current NASA Discovery competition). Power sources aren't mentioned in the news articles, but the implication is that both landers would be long-lived. Russia reportedly has at least one flight ready copy of each lander left as spares from its Mars-96 mission that experienced a launch failure.
There is no mentioned whether or not the Russian orbiter instruments would be in addition to the currently planned instruments (most supplied by NASA and one supplied by ESA) or would replace one or more of the planned instruments.
Russian scientists are currently in discussions both with ESA and with the Russian political system to secure approval and funding.
On the European front, ESA currently has 850M of the 1B Euros committed from its member nations that it needs to conduct its portion of the currently planned 2016 and 2018 missions. In the meantime, European financial problems are causing ESA to plan to reduce costs and Europe to debate whether to reduce funding for its flagship Earth observation program (GMES). I believe that GMES is a European Union program, rather than an ESA program. Either way, the news speaks to a tightening of budgets for space programs by European governments. Dropping the ESA lander from the 2016 mission would help reduce the gap between committed Euros for the Mars program and what is needed.
Then there is the American side, which is possibly the most confusing. At the moment, the President's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is refusing to allow NASA to commit funds from future budgets to ESA to support the Mars program. At the same same time, Congress has just passed NASA's Fiscal Year 2012 budget with full funding for the Mars program and a rather pointed requirement that NASA implement the recently completed Decadal Survey that included the Mars program as its highest priority planetary Flagship mission. (If this seems crazy, welcome to our system of separate powers in government. Congress can set direction only for the current year's budget; commitments for spending from future budgets (eventually to be ratified or modified by Congress one year at a time) must be approved by OMB.)
The good news is that NASA has funding to support the development of its instruments for the 2016 orbiter and the 2018 mission remains a priority -- for the remainder of FY12. OMB has promised to make clear its position on NASA's ability to make future commitments to enable ESA to continue to count on NASA for 2016 and 2018 in its FY13 budget to be revealed in February. Reportedly, the responsible OMB official has stated that a key concern is that going forward with the 2018 mission is just the down payment on a program of missions to return samples that could cost $8.5B.
Editorial ThoughtsE: The 2016 and 2018 missions are both excellent missions, and I hope to see them fly. Even without NASA's equipment to collect and cache samples, the 2018 rover mission should fly. All of this political maneuvering is frustrating as hell, and my hat is off to the NASA officials who are handling this situation as the professionals that they are.
The addition of Russian instruments and landers would only make the 2016 mission more exciting assuming all the technical and managerial issues can be worked out without unacceptable additions to technical, schedule, or budget risk.
I can understand, however, OMB's position. It is looking at a suite of programs for human spaceflight and the over budget James Webb Space Telescope that it and Congress have agreed are NASA's top priorities and for which the current NASA funding likely is insufficient. The American budget problems are likely to reduce NASA's funding or at very best keep it flat. Commitments made in haste may be undone later.
I have come to wonder whether the American political process will approve the start of a Mars sample return program without the discovery of strong signs of life or at least habitability on Mars. If Curiosity or another mission (such as the 2018 rover) finds complex hydrocarbons consistent with life, for example, I think support for the sample return will be strong. Without it, it has proven difficult over the past twenty years to convince the political process that bringing back "a bunch of rocks" justifies the expense of many billions of dollars.
So, to address the question in the title of this post, I don't yet know if this will be a retreat from Mars. The fact that Congress held a hearing on NASA's Mars program budget impasse and required continued spending on it for this year is an encouraging sign. The scientific community remains committed to supporting the program. In normal times, I would be optimistic that these problems would be worked out. Given the budget problems and politics in the US, Europe, and Russia, I am only hopeful that they will be.
Russia's proposals for the 2016 mission article at Russian Space Web and a shortened version at the BBC website.
Aviation Week article on NASA budget situation regarding its Mars program, U.S., Europe, Russia To Talk Mars Mission