Friday, June 24, 2011

Building a Coalition for a Mars Program

Space News has now published its third article this week on the problems that Europe is having creating a coalition behind the revamped Mars program.  To briefly recap, the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA have agreed to combine budgets to enable joint 2016 orbiter and a 2018 rover missions.  (There will also be an ESA-only demonstration lander carried by the 2016 orbiter.)  The orbiter must fly before the rover to ensure that their is a satellite to relay the rover's data to Earth.  Budget pressures for both partners are requiring a major re-planning of the 2018 rover mission.

Originally France and now Britain (which are contributing 15% and 20%, respectively, of the costs for the European contribution to the missions) are asking for delays in proceeding with the 2016 mission until plans for the 2018 rover mission are firmed up.  The governments of these two nations reportedly are concerned that the overall program remains under funded and may seek to descope the 2016 mission to shore up funds for the 2018 mission.  Officials have raised concerns that the 2016 mission may experience cost overruns that would have to be met by taking funds from the 2018 mission.

Editorial Thoughts:  Planetary missions require years to scope, design, build, test, and then finally launch.  The plans for the 2016 mission have come together recently enough that it reportedly has a tight schedule.  Delays now to resolve the 2018 mission apparently could threaten the ability to launch in 2016.

From the Space News articles and other sources, it appears that building a coalition among the European nations and NASA faces three challenges:

Total available funds.  The 2016 orbiter and 2018 rover mission would be highly capable missions that are being combined with a budget (if I add figures together correctly) that is probably similar to the budget for the Mars Science Laboratory that will launch this year.  ESA's demonstration lander also requires funding from the ESA portion of this pot.  By reusing key pieces of NASA's Mars program technology such as the entry, descent, and landing system, there will be some key savings that will help reduce costs.

Merging goals: ESA and NASA came into this partnership with their own set of goals that need to be merged into flyable missions.  Here are the goals that originally came from each agency:

2016 mission
NASA - data relay, comprehensive measurements of trace gases in the atmosphere, continued high resolution surface imaging
ESA - data relay, demonstration lander

2018 mission
NASA - select, collect, and cache samples from the surface for future return to Earth
ESA - collect samples using a drill from below the surface and analyze them with a suite of highly capable instruments

Now that ESA and NASA have merged their Mars programs and agreed that the ultimate goal is a sample return, these goals have started to blur, and scientists on both sides of the Atlantic would like to see the full set of capabilities fly.  If budgets and schedules don't permit this, then the partners will have to find ways to agree on what to cut.

Internal politics: Both ESA and NASA get approval to start mission development and subsequent funding through political processes.  Both systems seem to have pluses and minuses.  ESA requires consent from its member nations that sometimes have conflicting goals based on their own scientific, technical, and industrial priorities.  Once an agreement is reached, future funding appears to be relatively stable.  NASA has a single government to respond to, but its budgets can fluctuate significantly from year to year as political moods at the White House and Congress change.  While ESA's political discussions are being highlighted now, NASA will effectively need to have its contribution to the program ratified through the inclusion of funding for it in next year's budget.  (The administration will propose the budget, but Congress can and probably will modify it.  Right now, budget politics within the U.S. are particularly volatile.)

Politics and planning can be messy, and we may see more articles like the Space News stories.  The nations within the partnership appear committed to a capable joint Mars program, so I expect that only the details that will be in doubt.  In posts next week, I'll provide more information on the current status of plans for these missions.


Follow these links to read the full Space News articles (listed in reverse chronological order):
France, Britain Reluctant To Recommit To Revised but ‘Risky’ ExoMars MissionDespite French Objections, ESA Seeks To Press Ahead on ExoMars French Concerns Throw ExoMars Plan Into Doubt

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