NASA Mars Program Under Scrutiny

NASA's Mars program could undergo major alternation, drivenby budgetary and technical issues, as well as science goals.

"We've been getting inputs, advice, actions items...from the roadmapping teams," said Doug McCuistion, MarsExploration Program Director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C."Nothing is finalized at this point. There have been no final decisions madeor, frankly, any interim decisions made as yet."

A scenario now under active discussion is slipping the mobileMars Science Laboratory from 2009 to 2011 - a move that could see the buildingof two rovers to double-up the science that can be gleaned from the red planet,as well as reduce program risk.

NASA is engaged in an extensive campaign of "roadmaps" - away to flesh out the details of a multi-year Mars effort that could lead to a humans-to-Marseffort by 2030, as listed on some NASA planning charts.

McCuistionsaid the potential to slip the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to 2011 is on thetable, but it is not confirmed.

"The MSL discussions are swirling around a couple ofthings," McCuistion said. "One of them is robustness of the science and thetechnology."

Bigger than either of the now on-duty Mars ExplorationRovers - Spirit and Opportunity - the MSL is a "huge leap forward" from thosesmaller machines, McCuistion noted, being larger in mass and able to carry 10times the payload mass.

Riskybusiness: science eggs in one basket

Getting a much larger MSL safely down onto Mars means use ofnew technology, not air bags as utilized in the last three successful NASA Marslander missions. "So there's technology risk trying to get to the surface ofanother planet," McCuistion added.

Another issue flagged by Mars road mapping officials regardingMSL is science risk. Plopping down in an uninteresting area of martian real estate is one concern. So too is the potentialfor a failure. Putting all the science eggs in one basket - in one large andcostly lander - is risky business.

McCuistion said discussion is ongoing regarding doing morethan one Mars Science Laboratory. "If we do two, we can't do two in 2009.There's no way," he explained, underscoring both technology and budgetconstraints.

"If one of the decisions is to go to two, and again, thatdecision has not been made, I can't do it in 2009," McCuistion said. "Theseguys [two MSL rovers] are expensive."


What role international collaboration might play in thistime frame, "to keep the level of science up," is also being explored,McCuistion pointed out.

The potential for working with an international partner ispossible, he said, depending on funding availability. Collaboration with aninternational capability, McCuistion deemed as "something that we all wanted expand our international cooperation."

"The Europeans, as one example, are very anxious to get backto Mars after their trouble with Beagle," McCuistion said. The British-built Beaglelander was ejected by the now-orbiting European Space Agency Mars Express, butwas lost to the planet in late December 2003.

Other potentials are "in the mill" for 2009 if MSL has to bemoved, McCuistion stated.

Mars decision making and roadmap development are headed toNASA's Advanced Planning and Integration Office, to be tied together with otherroadmaps underway, and then sent onward to the National Academies - committeesof experts that review national issues and give advice to the federalgovernment and the public.

Samplereturn trial run

In other Mars matters, a 2009 launch slot is targeted forNASA's Mars Telecommunications Orbiter (MTO). It is the first piece ofcommunications infrastructure at the planet for all future Mars missions.

MTO will also carry a still to be picked science package,including an evaluation of laser optical communications gear to increase dataflow between Mars and Earth. In addition, a key demonstration of tracking, rendezvousand maneuvering with an ejected football-sized canister is planned.

That experiment will not involve MTO capturing the canister.But the test will help hone future robotic Mars return sample procedures,McCuistion said.

A NASA-released announcement of opportunity (AO) focused oncompetitive selection of an MTO science package is forthcoming, McCuistioncontinued. That AO would only identify the dollar value and mass available forthe science experiment.

"So there will be a science opportunity in 2009, which isvery important for the science community to keep in mind," McCuistion said.

There is an overriding message from McCuistion regarding themajor look at Mars exploration plans now in progress: "Science is still thedriving priority. As soon as we have concrete information on what the missionportfolio looks like, we will be communicating that broadly and widely as soonas we are able to do that."

Budgetissue: Spirit and Opportunity

An action item coming up shortly is the extension of thelong-lived Spirit and Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover mission. A proposal issoon to land on McCuistion's desk to extend rover operations for another sixmonths. But it's clear that money is tight.

"They are now funded through the end of March. I continuallychallenge them [the Mars Exploration Rover team] to try to reduce the cost ofoperations. But we are pretty close to the bottom of what it cost to operatethese [two rovers]," McCuistion noted. "They are very labor-intensive from anoperations perspective...they are an expensive system to operate. I think theywill always be that way."

The money request that's forthcoming - with the price tagstill to be determined - would give Spirit and Opportunitya new lease on life from April 1 to the end of September, McCuistion said.

Humansto Mars: safety checklist

Charts being floated about NASA point to a projectedhumans-to-Mars mission by 2030.

But to prepare for such a sojourn, a wide-ranging Mars humanprecursor checklist has been drawn up.

Deemed in some quarters as a "Safe on Mars" research agenda,there is a lengthy list of things to be done from a mission, technology, andscience perspective before dispatching a crew to the red planet.

"It's amazing as you go through this," McCuistion concluded,"there are a lot of things that, as we dig deeper, a lot of us have not thoughtof. We need to do some very serious studies internally and externally tounderstand all the pieces...because it's a dangerous thing to be going that faraway from home."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.