Within NASA and its overall constituency, certain individuals and organizations stand out as Mars advocates. They press to get Mars exploration high on the agency’s agenda. These advocates, inside and outside the agency, constitute a loose coalition of forces, a set of program champions with shared attitudes. They begin as a minority. They are “first movers” and seek to enlist others. They labor to persuade the associate administrator for science, NASA Administrator, and those around these officials to make robotic Mars exploration a priority and convert NASA into an advocate for policy adoption to the White House and Congress. NASA thus becomes the organizational nucleus for the coalition. They work within, around, and sometimes over NASA to get the agency to forward their goals.
If NASA’s political masters convey legitimacy and resources, through policy adoption, NASA becomes an implementer all the way to possible completion of a mission and consideration of successor ventures. NASA thus is critical to decision making at all stages of policy affecting Mars exploration. This does not necessarily mean NASA gets what it wants in the myriad of trade-offs that result in presidential budgets and congressional appropriations. It means that almost always NASA has to be enlisted itself as an institutional advocate in national policymaking for Mars to achieve broader support. NASA is an object of advocacy by internal and external Mars champions, and when they succeed, NASA becomes an entrepreneurial force for Mars exploration as a national and increasingly international endeavor. The aim of advocates is to create an ever – widening gyre of support and mobilize bureaucratic power behind a sustained Mars exploration program.
Mars advocates are not monolithic. Within the Mars community, there is variance. The physical-science-oriented Mars scientists want to understand the atmosphere, geology, seismicity, and other contextual features of Mars. The biological science community wants resources and instrumentation on flight projects to focus primarily on the life question. The human exploration enthusiasts emphasize the need for robotic flights to carry “their” sensors to detect radiation and other concerns relevant to astronauts. Engineers working at NASA, at its field centers, and in industry see Mars exploration as a way to extend their
technological art to innovate machines never before made. They and scientists emphasize optimal performance, often over cost. Policymakers see Mars exploration as a means to advance the high-tech economy (including employment in specific congressional districts), promote national prestige, stimulate young people to go into technical professions, and advance foreign policy goals. The media and public want excitement, drama, and the vicarious adventure of exploration, even if it is with robots. All these constituencies are potentially “pro” Mars. But they view Mars through differing perspectives.
Cohesion among Mars advocates matters. This is because they face opponents. Most participants in policy “support” Mars exploration. Few are “against” Mars. But Mars may get in the way of other worthwhile interests certain participants prefer. Rivals push back. Mars exploration champions compete with adversaries favoring a range of other priorities in planetary and space research. Who wins and who loses in these contests depends on their respective influence. Influence is based on the relative skill with which advocates make their claims, as well as other resources they can bring to bear. They can use a range of arguments, depending on whom they are trying to persuade. Aside from competing scientists, there are opponents in NASA who want to build human spaceflight craft, observe planet Earth, or pursue some other mission. Outside NASA are those in OMB or Congress who oppose Mars spending to save money in general or divert it elsewhere.
Big science, because of its scale, necessitates more than scientific and/or engineering commitment. It requires organization, money, and administrative and political will. For some advocates, NASA moves too slowly; for some critics, it moves too fast, or in the wrong direction. There is a recurring tension among advocates between those who want to travel gradually and look comprehensively (the “incrementalists”) and those who wish to accelerate progress to targeted goals (the “leapers”). Whatever the pace, advocacy is essential at every stage of decision making to overcome opposition or sheer bureaucratic inertia.9 Success in advocacy leads to funds for program execution. Success in execution helps advocates make a case for continuing a program. As closure is reached in one project, birth can occur in another. The stages of policy for various Mars projects intersect. NASA is simultaneously seeking funds for a new mission while implementing an existing project. These parallel and intertwining paths reflect the essence of programmatic big science.
Leadership among Mars advocates has usually been shared and has shifted. There have been individual outside advocates in the Mars community over the years who have led and been famous, notably the astronomer and writer Carl Sagan. Most, however, have been unknown to the public, including scientists and engineers in universities and NASA field centers. Frequently, advocacy is organizational, embodied in a particular entity with a special interest in Mars exploration. NASA has io field centers, one of which, JPL, a federally funded R&D center in Pasadena managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), has been dominant in robotic Mars exploration over much of NASA’s history. It has fought for Mars missions as a matter of organizational ambition, pride, and survival.
JPL is often in conflict with other centers for Mars missions and roles, especially the Ames Research Center in the San Francisco area, which has carved out a niche in astrobiology. In the important case of the Viking project, JPL was secondary to the Langley Research Center in Virginia, but still strongly involved, contributing the orbiter. Similarly, there are a handful of universities that have been consistent performers of Mars research. The same can be said of certain aerospace firms as hardware builders. Advocacy is borne of self-interest, commitment, and expertise. The technical core to Mars advocacy that has persisted over the years has comprised the performers of R&D at NASA centers, especially JPL, and in the academic Mars science community, along with certain key managers in NASA Headquarters. But even with this nucleus of interest and leadership, support has waxed and waned, and opposition by those with other priorities has always been present.
Space policy decisions are made in a context of national policy. Advocates (especially NASA) try to influence national policy. But national policy affects what Mars advocates can do. Every year, NASA contests with OMB over how much is enough. OMB is only one of the contestants in the game of budget politics, but a powerful player. Scientists, industry, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), other executive agencies, the president, Congress, and even foreign nations are involved in Mars politics. When Mars advocates come out on the winning side in budget struggles with rivals and those who seek spending cuts, they are fortunate, especially in hard financial times. Success in specific Mars projects—such as MSL Curiosity—becomes absolutely essential to moving forward. And even then, Mars interests may not prevail. Mars is a program within an agency within a national policy that is interdependent with events around the world which have little to do with space. Big science—par – ticularly the kind distributed over time in programs—is a tempting target for budget cutters. It is somewhat amazing that Mars exploration has done as well as it has.