Category Why Mars

The Call of Mars

At the most general level, Mars exploration is about understanding Earth’s ar­guably most interesting neighbor. Mars is both like and unlike Earth. It is the one planet people on Earth can see in some detail. Its rich, red color was al­ways a source of speculation prior to the space age. The ancient Romans named the planet Mars after their red god of war. The fourth planet from the Sun, it travels an elliptical orbit. At its closest approach to Earth, it is 48,700,000 miles (78,390,000 kilometers) away. Mars’s diameter is about 4,200 miles (6,790 kilometers), which is a little over half the diameter of Earth. Mars takes about 687 Earth days to go around the Sun. While the length of a Mars year is much longer than that of Earth, the Mars day is remarkably similar. Mars rotates on its axis once every 24 hours and 37 minutes. Mars also, like Earth, has seasons. During the Martian winter, observers see polar caps that are relatively large, and which then shrink during the Martian summers. Mars has an atmosphere, but the atmosphere is much thinner than that of Earth. It consists chiefly of carbon dioxide, with small amounts of nitrogen and other gases. The atmosphere of Earth, in contrast, is heavy on nitrogen and oxygen. Because of its distance from the sun, Mars is extremely cold. The temperature ranges from -iphF to -24°F (-i24°C to -3i°C). It has two moons, Phobos and Deimos.4

The similarities and differences are striking. They have contributed to the human desire to know more about Mars. Beyond these factors, there are at least three reasons that Mars has long been a special magnet for scientists and public alike. First, there is the question of life on Mars. For many years prior to NASA’s establishment, and even for some time afterward, there was a belief in many circles that there was life on the surface. When it became clear that such life would have difficulty surviving, various scientists suggested there were still possibilities in sheltered places on Mars, what they termed oases. Even scientists who today believe no life exists on the surface admit possibilities under the surface, in permafrost. No one expects that such life is highly developed. Most likely it is bacterial. But even if no life at all exists now, it may have once existed when Mars apparently had a very different climate and substantial water flowed. So the question of life on Mars, now or in the past, has always been a compel­ling driver for the Mars exploration program, in many ways the most significant one in terms of NASA history. For when optimism about life on Mars reigned, the program did well in obtaining resources. When pessimism took hold, the program languished.

There is a holy grail for the Mars robotics program: it is called Mars Sample Return (MSR), the retrieval of soil and rock from Mars. Samples would be brought back to Earth for examination in laboratories around the world to de­tect signs that will answer the big question of life. The challenge is to bring back “the right stuff,” and do so in a way protective of possible Martian life as well as human life from contamination. MSR is a monumental test, perhaps the single most complex and important mission for NASA since Apollo. It lies ahead and probably will require international collaboration owing to projected cost. But it has enormous value as a goal, on which there is widespread consensus. It gives direction and sequence to missions leading to it.

The second driver is the desire to send human life to Mars. The robotic pro­gram thus becomes a precursor to human missions, much as robotic Ranger and Surveyor missions were scouts for the Apollo voyage to the Moon. This makes the human spaceflight program a potential ally of the robotic program. NASA leaders can envision useful connections between robotic activity and human Mars journeys. When President George H. W. Bush proclaimed in 1989 that America should return humans to the Moon and then go on to Mars, his declara­tion also carried an understanding that robotic missions and human flight were partners in exploration. The same understanding applied to his son George W. Bush’s similar declaration in his 2004 “Vision for Space Exploration.” President Barack Obama in 2010 decided to bypass the Moon and emphasize Mars as the ultimate destination for humanity, sometime in the 2030s. An asteroid landing would be the interim step. Again, robotic flight would pave the way.

Robots may be partners with human spaceflight over the long haul, but in the short run they often compete for limited funds and represent different cultures. The robotic science program of NASA sees the human space effort as embody­ing an engineering and astronaut culture that wants to go to Mars “because it is there.” This is indeed a motivation, a “frontier” attitude, sometimes with manifest destiny overtones, to extend the human presence to outer space. “We go because we must.” “It is in our genes,” goes the refrain. There are those human spaceflight advocates who see Mars as not only a mountain to be climbed but a territory to be “terraformed” and settled. NASA’s “can do” engineers see exceptional technological challenge in human Mars exploration. Astronauts see romance and adventure. In contrast, robotic-oriented scientists seek basic understanding in comparative planetology, with emphasis on Martian life issues.

The field centers that report to the human spaceflight directorate in NASA’s Washington headquarters are different from those that report to the robotic science office. The human spaceflight program, as noted, has astronauts, and they are more than just another set of employees within NASA; they are in many ways the agency’s public face and source of inspiration to young people. Mars is the only planet where human missions are likely in the twenty-first century. The human spaceflight institutions and their cadre recognize the precursory importance to them of the robotics program. The interests of robotic science and human exploration potentially connect in the MSR mission. NASA needs to know what environmental hazards astronauts would face on Mars and also if they can convert the Red Planet’s physical resources into assets for long-term stays. Also, if NASA cannot bring rocks and soil back to Earth, it may not be able to bring human beings home. The technologies of MSR have direct rele­vance to human spaceflight. The short-term budget competition nevertheless can interfere with cooperation concerning Mars across NASA divisions.

The third driver is political. Space has always engendered rationales con­cerned with national leadership, prestige, pride, inspiration, and competition with other nations. It has been used by governmental officials to enhance co­operation also. Mars in the 1960s was a destination both the United States and the Soviet Union sought to reach first during the Cold War. It was a target of Cold War rivalry. During and after the Cold War, advocates of both human and robotic programs also called for using Mars as a political symbol for a joint enterprise uniting the rival superpowers. More recently, Mars has been seen as a vehicle for global cooperation. While much “Mars Together” rhetoric has been about human expeditions, it includes the robotic program in its collaborative embrace. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have sought in par­ticular to work together on robotic missions, but relations have been turbulent.

Finding life on Mars, sending life to Mars, and using Mars for political ends have been the key drivers behind Mars exploration for decades. At different points in history one or another of these rationales has dominated. Sometimes more than one has influenced Mars exploration. Which one has resonated has depended on innumerable factors, including the strategies of Mars advocates. The most consistent theme affecting the direction and pace, as well as ups and downs, of the robotic program has been the prospect of finding evidence of Martian life. The connection with life has made Mars special among planets in the solar system.

Substituting Viking

Webb moved immediately to counter the threat and save the Mars program and planetary science along with it. He decoupled the Saturn 5 rocket from the space­craft, and von Braun from any semblance of leadership of the program. He also sent a strong message of dissatisfaction with OSSA to NASA and the scientific community by making changes in OSSA leadership. He moved Newell to NASA associate administrator and Newell’s deputy, Cortright, to a senior position in the OMSF. He appointed John Naugle, a 46-year-old physicist and experienced manager in OSSA, to take Newell’s place. He told him that all existing plans

for Mars were ended and to replan the robotic program for an austere environ­ment. Specifically, Webb directed OSSA to come up with a smaller Mars project costing much less than Voyager and using an intermediate-scale rocket.13 While Naugle led the intense scientific reorientation, Webb went to Johnson and con­gressional leaders and lobbied the political front.

Working furiously, NASA came up with an alternative Mars program in two weeks in early November, in time to get it inserted into the next budget John­son was submitting to Congress.14 In forwarding that budget at the beginning of 1968, the president declared, “We will not abandon the field of planetary exploration. I am recommending development of a new spacecraft for launch in 1973 to orbit and land on Mars. This new Mars mission will cost much less than half the Voyager program included in last year’s budget. Although the scientific result of this new mission will be less than that of Voyager, it will still provide extremely valuable data and serve as a building block for planetary exploration systems of the future.”15

NASA’s overall budget, already falling, went down again in 1968, but the Mars planetary program was saved. The Mariner 1969 flyby would be followed by a reinstated Mariner orbiter mission in 1971. Then, the replacement for Voy­ager, which would include both an orbiter and a lander, would come in 1973. The search for life would be its rationale, along with the continuing Soviet competition on the robotic Mars front. No one at NASA dared to say anything about a possible connection to human spaceflight. Voyager was dead. In its place was a new flight to Mars which later came to be called Viking.

Webb spent most of his energy and remaining political capital in 1968 giving a final push to the Apollo Moon landing. However, he was genuinely interested in science and wanted his legacy in that area to be positive, especially in regard to Mars. Webb, Johnson, and Congress all knew that the Soviet Union was pursuing robotic flight to Mars. Naugle, the new associate administrator for the OSSA, found in one of his first meetings with Webb that the NASA leader listened attentively to his recommendations, although Naugle might have to argue at length to defend them. Webb was cool toward Pickering and JPL, but he granted Naugle’s request to provide additional funds to JPL to avoid layoffs of personnel Naugle believed critical to planetary science. However, Webb, supersensitive to appearances in the wake of the Voyager debacle, told Naugle not to apply these technical people to the new Mars mission at this point, as he was still building congressional support for its approval.16

Naugle was responsible for reshaping Voyager’s replacement. He knew that scientists had testified against Voyager, and that he had to turn them around— or at least get them to keep quiet—for the new venture to move forward. He worked closely with Harry Hess, chairman of the SSB, to form a Lunar and Planetary Missions Board. They made sure to include critics of Voyager. Their aim was to get space scientists to sort out their priorities behind closed doors rather than in public statements to the media or Congress which NASA critics could use. Moreover, while Mars was the priority now, they wanted to assure the planetary community that other missions could take their turn later. What Naugle and Hess sought was consensus on a io-year plan, starting with Mars. Webb generally did not like science advisory committees, as he wished maxi­mum leeway for himself in NASA policymaking. But he wanted Naugle to move ahead in forging a relatively united scientific constituency.17

Naugle also took the lead in deciding which center would run the new proj­ect, a dispute that went back to Voyager. Like Voyager, the replacement was seen to encompass an orbiter, lander, and automated biological laboratory. This combination was unprecedented. JPL, eager for challenging assignments at the frontier of science and technology, especially in planetary exploration, lobbied to be in charge of the whole project now that the Saturn 5 issue was gone. So did Langley. The two centers battled within NASA in the early months of 1968, with Langely’s supporters pointing out that Langley was a “real” (i. e., civil service) center while JPL was a “contractor” center.18

Gradually, Naugle and his colleagues at OSSA settled on a recommendation to Webb, who made the final decision on the intercenter dispute. The recom­mendation was that JPL develop the orbiter—a spacecraft that would be based in part on its designs for Mariner—while Langley would develop the lander and be in charge of the project generally, including the biological laboratory. This decision riled Pickering, who did not give up easily. But Naugle argued that Langley had done a good job with a particular mission for Apollo (the Lunar Orbiter Program) and had stronger management capability. The latter consideration was crucial for Naugle: “Nobody felt JPL had the [management] horsepower to run a big lander-orbiter project,” he recalled. There was also an issue of headquarters control, and JPL was not easy to control.

NASA wanted strong oversight of the Mars venture. This was made crys­tal clear in May 1968 when NASA Headquarters sent Cortright to be director of Langley. “I was comfortable with Cortright,” Naugle said. “Everybody was comfortable with him. We knew he would do a good job. He would bring the resources of Langley to bear on the project.” Once Cortright took the reins of Langley, Pickering backed off.19

Webb left NASA in October, thereby giving his deputy, Tom Paine, a chance to show his mettle in the remainder of 1968. Webb believed if Paine did so, the next president probably would retain Paine at least through the Apollo 11 launch to the Moon in July 1969.20 Paine was seen as apolitical, a technocrat in the best sense. Age 46, Paine had come from industry and was extremely compe­tent and imaginative. He combined zeal for space with engineering competence and vision. However, he was in a “downsizing” period of NASA’s history, and he was not a downsizing kind of person.

Did Viking Find Life?

Klein’s task as head of the biology group was exceedingly difficult. There were three chief experimenters: Gil Levin, Norm Horowitz, and Vance Oyama. Levin was a private-sector researcher, a PhD in sanitary engineering, whose experiment was called “Labeled Release.” Oyama was a NASA Ames biochem­ist, and his experiment was called “Gas Exchange.” Horowitz was a Caltech geneticist, and his experiment was known as “Pyrolytic Release.” The three men—especially Levin and Horowitz—disliked one another intensely. Horow­itz was openly contemptuous of Levin’s and Oyama’s experiments and called them “irrelevant.” Klein got the nickname “Rabbi,” for his efforts to keep peace among the researchers.69

Once Viking had settled on the ground a few days, the experimenters’ work commenced. The activity was slow and painstaking but gradually produced re­sults that some of the biologists found extremely provocative. NASA policy was that the scientists announce results quickly, as they became available, along with statements about confidence and uncertainty. The first promising results gained conspicuous headlines. But then, after a few more days, results from Viking looked less promising, and this fact was also reported by the media, but with lesser prominence. The problem was that some of the findings were compatible with life, but they could also be interpreted as reflecting evidence of a “strange and unexpected Martian surface chemistry.” Klein declared, “We have at least very preliminary evidence for a very active surface material. … [It looks] very much like a biological signal.” On the other hand, it could be chemical data that “may mimic biological activity.”70

Levin thought that his experiment was credible as to identifying life. It had been his test that had provided initial enthusiasm. “The cork literally popped,” recalled Soffen. But then the scientists took a closer look. At this point, Soffen recalled, “No one wanted to say [publicly] ‘We found it,’ and then say ‘sorry’— the whole credibility of science is shot to hell! So there was a lot of resistance to getting up and saying there was life.”71 What Klein did say was that “Mars is really talking to us and telling us something. The question is whether Mars is talking with a forked tongue or giving us the straight dope.”72 Was it life or bizarre chemistry that Mars was communicating? Then, on August 12, came results from the GCMS. It could not find any life-indicating organic molecules. This came as a profound shock to many Viking participants. For Soffen, the GCMS findings—no positive findings—were “a real wipe out.” Informed of these results, Soffen said to himself, “That’s the ball game. No organics on Mars, no life on Mars.”73

Not everyone shared Soffen’s gloom, but the results were surprising and dis­appointing. It was subsequently surmised that Mars’s ultraviolet sunlight pro­duced highly reactive compounds that broke down the organic molecules.74 But who knew for sure what was going on?

On September 2, Fletcher wrote President Ford that Viking was providing significant information about Mars’s geology, atmosphere, and planetary evolu­tion. However, “the search for forms of life remains inconclusive.”75

A lot now depended on Viking 2, the enhanced significance of which the media reported. The second Viking had been circling Mars for some time and was set to land September 3. As with Viking 1, there had been issues with where to land, and alternatives searched, but those questions had now been resolved. It would set down at a place called Utopia Plain, hundreds of miles to the north and halfway around the planet from the Viking 1 site. Whereas the first Viking landed at a Mars latitude equivalent to that on Earth of Mexico City, Viking 2 would land at the Mars latitude analogous to that of Montreal.76

The landing was successful, and again the president congratulated NASA. There was renewed hope. Soffen said that the discovery of even the simplest organic compound—inextricably associated with life as we know it—“would do it for us.”77 Once again, the biology experiments found indications compat­ible with life. But that was not strong enough proof for most Viking scientists. Hopes were pinned on the GCMS instrument once more in the quest for or – ganics.78 By the end of September, NASA had many enticing findings, but hard and convincing evidence for life was still not there. As Klein had feared, the promising results could have resulted from “a bizarre chemical system beyond immediate explanation.”79 The GCMS data were again negative. On October 1, the New York Times reported that Viking 2 had found “no organic matter,” and while results were “preliminary,” Viking scientists conceded that the findings “did not bode well for life-on-Mars theories.”80 Levin did not go along with the consensus. He told his fellow researchers, “We agreed at the outset that if the results came out a certain way, we’d say ‘yes’ to life. My experiment came out this way. I discovered life.”81 But Horowitz “overpowered Levin,” and he persuaded the others that Levin had not done so.82

Using Bush’s Moon-Mars Initiative

As President Bush took office in January 1989, he was well aware of NASA’s troubles, as well as ambitions. He wanted to aid the agency’s recovery from Challenger and chart a space policy that would make the United States clearly the unquestioned global leader in space. He also smarted over criticism from opponents that he was lacking in “vision.” He soon signaled that he intended to give a higher priority to space, reestablishing the National Space Council (NSC). This was a top-level interagency body concerned with both military and civil space affairs which had existed under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. It had been abolished by Nixon. He put his vice president, Dan Quayle, in charge. They agreed they had to give stronger direction to NASA, an agency that seemed directionless. At the same time, the Cold War was con­tinuing to thaw, and Gorbachev kept talking about joint activity in space, the disappointment of Phobos notwithstanding.

In April, Bush chose Richard Truly to be NASA Administrator. Truly, age 52, was a retired admiral with substantial experience as a naval aviator and NASA astronaut. He had distinguished himself as a NASA associate administrator who guided the shuttle back to flight status in 1988. Truly’s overriding interest was the Space Shuttle. He wanted not only to replace Challenger, as Reagan had authorized, but to enlarge the fleet from four to five. He also wanted to use the shuttle to build the space station. He regarded these tasks as his prime job.

The initiative for what became the president’s Moon-Mars decision came not from Truly but from the NSC, which was looking for ways to rejuvenate NASA and help the president. On July 20, Bush went to the National Air and Space Museum and called for “a long-range, continuing commitment. First, for the coming decade, for the 1990s: Space Station Freedom, our critical next step in all our space endeavors. And next, for the new century: back to the Moon, back to the future. And this time, back to stay. And then a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet: a manned mission to Mars.”

The decision, which launched what Bush called his Space Exploration Initia­tive (SEI), did not get the reception Bush and NSC anticipated. It seemed to come out of the blue. Very little political spadework had been done to prepare Congress, the media, or the American people. The consequence was that the decision was met by puzzlement, indifference, and, in the case of some influ­ential Democrats in Congress, opposition. Given budget deficits and NASA’s problems with the shuttle and space station, even proponents of Mars explora­tion, whether human or robotic, failed to take it seriously. Many in NASA were skeptical.44 The skeptics included Fisk.45

The question of “how” to get to the Moon and then Mars was left to be worked out. NSC executive director Mark Albrecht asked NASA to address the “how” question and provide various options. NASA took the next three months on what was called the “90-Day Study.” The result, which became known in November, was a 30-year program costing between $400 and $500 billion. When that estimate leaked, it shocked policymakers and dampened whatever enthusiasm that had been mustered. Albrecht and Vice President Quayle were furious. They had wanted options, and NASA came up with only one—the most expensive possibility in their view.

Aaron Cohen, of the JSC, who chaired the study, had a different point of view. He did not recall being asked by Albrecht, in a conversation they had, to provide different options with radically different costs. He determined that NASA’s job was to devise an aggressive program that would do what the presi­dent wanted with costs that were realistic, as had been the case with Apollo.46

For advocates of Mars robotic programs, the 90-Day Study provided a large menu of projects, including several rover missions and two MSR missions. There would also be observers and communication satellites on Mars. The study proposed a rich network of robotic technology for Mars.47 Hence, the Moon-

Mars decision of Bush seemed to give quite a boost to the Mars robotic science program’s viability, even though few took the 90-Day Study seriously once they contemplated the costs. As far as Albrecht and Quayle were concerned, Truly had, directly or indirectly, sabotaged the president’s decision. The relationship between NSC and NASA Administrator started badly and deteriorated further as time went on.

Whatever critics thought of SEI, the fact of presidential interest in space and Mars was important, especially with the Office of Management and Budget. In fact, the director of OMB, Richard Darman, was personally supportive of the space program. In early February 1990, Bush announced the budget that he was submitting to Congress. In contrast to cuts he was imposing on various other agencies, Bush asked for substantial increases for NASA. NASA would go from $12.3 billion to $15.1 billion.48 The increase would provide enhanced funds for NASA, virtually across the board. Mars Observer was now linked, in planning at least, with the human Moon-Mars Program. It already was connected to U. S.-USSR robotic relations. At the end of March, Bush announced that he would be looking for ways the United States could cooperate with other nations, especially the Soviet Union, in SEI. The Soviet Union reacted positively.

A lot had happened since the original U. S.-Soviet efforts in space coopera­tion led by Sagan and Sagdeev. The Phobos mission had failed, casting doubt once again on Soviet capability to follow through on plans. Politically, the Soviet Empire was under siege. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall had been breached and the Cold War, to all intents and purposes, ended. Bush wanted to support Gorbachev, if only to prevent less reform-minded Soviet hard-liners from gain­ing power. Sagan was one space scientist who had steadfastly encouraged U. S.- USSR space cooperation, in spite of the Phobos debacle and Soviet political turmoil. However, many other U. S. scientists were wary of Soviet connections.49

They could see robotic Mars exploration rejuvenating, independent of So­viet collaboration. A National Academy of Sciences National Research Council (NRC) panel that had been evaluating the SEI plan under the 90-Day Study took it upon itself to warn publicly that the U. S.-USSR alliance could have negative results for the robotic science program. In particular, the NRC scientists looked ahead to MSR and admonished NASA and the United States to be careful in planning a joint mission of this complexity. A highly interdependent undertak­ing could make planetary science “a potential hostage to political events.”50

If scientists were critical of SEI and wary of Soviet connections to the U. S. robotic exploration program, many in Congress were downright hostile and increasingly opposed to SEI, especially on financial grounds. In hearings by the House appropriations subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget, questions were asked aimed at distinguishing SEI money from Mars Observer and other ongoing space science projects. Congress wanted to move forward with Mars Observer—even though it was experiencing significant cost increases—but not human Mars ventures.51

Encouraged by possible increases in funding for space science, in spite of the SEI controversy, NASA officials and scientists were thinking more positively and creatively about post-Mars Observer options. Scott Hubbard, a scientist and division chief at Ames, spotted a request for proposals for precursory mis­sions to Mars issued by NASA’s Office of Exploration, responsible for SEI plan­ning. He developed concepts for a program called Mars Environmental Survey (MESUR). The mission would place 16 robotic stations on Mars that would take various kinds of physical measurements. The first of these stations might be called “Pathfinder,” Hubbard suggested.52

Hubbard went to Washington in April 1990 and met with Briggs and Jim Martin, the former Viking project director, serving as an advisor to NASA. “Martin gave me a hard time—tough questions,” Hubbard recalled. But “after­ward, he came up to me and said: ‘It might work!’”53 Some time later, Briggs noted his interest in the Hubbard project to his OSSA associate, Joseph Boyce. What if the station carried a rover vehicle? he asked. “A little car could drive out,” Briggs continued. For years, since Viking, NASA had wanted to send a rover to explore. But “we’ve got to get to Mars’ surface cheaply,” Briggs added.

Briggs then called a close friend at JPL and broached the general idea, as well as his thought that it would save money if the Mars probe used a “hard landing” technique, such as airbags, instead of a “soft lander” approach, as had Viking, with retro-rockets. The JPL contact said JPL probably would not go for a hard lander. When Briggs asked JPL more formally, he got a response that did not give him what he wanted, particularly in regard to landing. “This is crap,” he told Boyce. He then went back to Ames to study the overall idea.54 Soon, JPL and Ames both were exploring the MESUR concept. In late May Briggs surfaced MESUR publicly to see if it would attract wider support.55 Meanwhile, JPL got to work on rover concepts.

Donna Shirley, the manager at the center in charge of the research on rover concepts, recalled the period as one where scientists and engineers at JPL were “excited.” She herself saw rovers as “scouts” for later human missions. The Bush decision of 1989 had encouraged JPL to work with JSC in planning for Mars

Rover Sample Return, which she called a “perfect precursor to a human mis­sion.” Also, “The scent of money in the air permeated the atmosphere,” wrote Shirley.56

At the beginning of February 1991, Bush proposed a NASA budget of $15.7 billion, a figure that would have been over 13% higher than that which Congress appropriated the year before. Space science in particular would rise 21%, to $2.1 billion.57 NASA would surely need the money to take care of all the programs under way and anticipated. Fisk presided over a science program that had been rapidly expanding. It included a Mars Observer that was rising in budget, along with a line of telescopes complementing Hubble. The new program scheduled for the sharpest rise in the future was the Earth Observing System (EOS), a suite of environmental satellites aimed at deciphering global change. This was the hardware embodiment of NASA’s MTPE activity. It was the program many scientists believed Fisk to be pursuing most avidly.58

EOS had not been his initial priority for a new start. But once he realized that the Bush administration was anxious to show support for researching global cli­mate change, he pushed EOS “with vigor.”59 All of Fisk’s programs were sched­uled to ramp up in funding in the future. New Mars precursory missions were part of the projected mix, led by MESUR, but just how was not clear.

Congress balked at Bush’s NASA request. In 1990, Bush and Congress had agreed to reduce the federal deficit by cutting expenditures and raising taxes. Bush earlier had said “read my lips” about no new taxes, but he had been forced to change his mind. Now, in 1991, the results of that White House-Congress agreement began to hit NASA. By July, the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees considering space told NASA it could not get the money it ex­pected. The Senate in particular directed NASA to think in terms of a 3% to 5% raise a year, at best. To underline that point, it cut the request of Bush substantially and told NASA to prioritize. A Senate report said NASA should “not envision any new starts” unless it could explain how it could make them “sustainable” within the agency’s “limited funding profile.”60

One way to expand possibilities was international collaboration, and the So­viet Union indicated eagerness to collaborate on Mars. But the Soviet Union was tottering politically and had huge internal schisms. In July, Bush and Gor­bachev met at a summit and sought to move cooperation in space forward. But just two weeks later, Soviet hard-liners staged a coup d’etat and briefly held Gorbachev captive. Gorbachev survived the coup attempt, but his days as So­viet leader were numbered, as were those of the Soviet Union. In December 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated, replaced by a confederacy of independent states. It would take a while for Russia and other states emerging from the for­mer Soviet Empire to reconstitute stable governments. Collaboration on Mars was now on hold.

Designing Mars Sample Return

Wesley Huntress was now with the Carnegie Institution of Washington, a re­search organization. He remained a strong Mars advocate. Space Times, an aero­space trade journal, published in its May/June issue an article in which Huntress highlighted the importance of MSR. For him, as well as many space scientists, the search for life was indeed a prime motive for the space program. The Mars rock was provocative, but not persuasive enough evidence. Only a properly designed MSR would provide the evidence NASA needed. NASA believed that MSR would provide a “smoking gun” that would boost public support for space exploration.6

The Huntress article came at approximately the same time that Charles Elachi and Louis Friedman discussed their views about MSR in a magazine published by the Planetary Society. If Huntress explained “why” MSR was criti­cal to NASA, Elachi and Friedman commented on the “how” question. They elaborated on the technical strategy Elachi had developed at JPL by which MSR could be accomplished.7 There were various ideas about how to carry out MSR. There were obviously prodigious technical challenges, even if implemented in stages. As Kathy Sawyer wrote, for MSR to succeed, NASA would have to pro­duce a “robotic package that was:

a. Lightweight enough to be practical;

b. Smart enough to do the job (make a sophisticated selection of desirable rocks and soils, for example);

c. Able to land safely on the rugged Martian landscapes designed as most promising for biological clues;

d. Able to take off again; and

e. Able to deposit the treasure safely and cleanly back on Earth.”8

Then there was the issue of Earth contamination. The problem of contami­nating the life prospect on Mars was always there, but the MSR mission raised the potentially emotional issue of contaminating Earth with Martian organ­isms. The science fiction book and movie Andromeda Strain depicted death on Earth from extraterrestrial microbes and would no doubt be used by opponents of MSR. Articles appeared stressing the dangers. NASA had its top planetary protection official, John Rummel, involved in MSR planning. It also asked its scientific advisory bodies to study the problems of contamination intensively.9

Finally, there was the question of costs. Goldin moved NASA ahead on MSR, with costs being calculated and recalculated as the agency learned more of the technical challenges. While faster, better, cheaper principles would be used as much as possible, the expense could be considerable, with $2 billion being one figure mentioned. However, NASA also used a $750 million and even $500 million cost estimate.10 Exactly what would be the expense was left unclear as NASA charged ahead. The mood was akin to that preceding Viking, in that the “leapers” rather than the “gradualists” were in control. Goldin was in the Sagan camp, rather than that of Murray.

Goldin looked for ways to pay for MSR. He saw it in NASA-wide terms, an agency priority. MSR could be useful to human space planning, as well as the Science Directorate’s search for microbiological life. Human spaceflight man­agers wanted to know about Martian soil in terms of possible hazards and re­sources available for astronauts.11 Costs could therefore be shared within NASA. Also, Goldin sought international help. The long-standing herald of “Mars To­gether” was renewed and broadened. Italy, the European Space Agency, Russia, Japan, and France all expressed interest. In June, Goldin concluded an agree­ment with the French space agency under which the two nations would work together on MSR.12 Other nations might follow. There was consensus about the goal which spread across spacefaring nations.

Goldin believed that NASA had to adapt organizationally and in personnel to the new vision of search for life. He went out of his way to hire life scientists. In addition to Blumberg, his Nobel Prize winner for the Astrobiology Institute, he hired another life scientist, Kathie Olson, to be NASA chief scientist.13 And he spoke out frequently on the subject as opportunity arose: life—the search for microbiological life, as well as the eventual extension of human life beyond Earth. Goldin worked indefatigably to evangelize for space. Mars provided the chief focus of this effort. Robotic flights would come first, then humans, maybe in 20 years, he predicted. The media never quite knew when to take Goldin seri­ously. Goldin was an able salesman, and he was persuasive because he believed his own rhetoric. The media found him both perplexing and captivating. So did many in the Clinton administration and Congress.

In June, he spoke to a meeting of astrophysicists and accused them of rep­resenting the past, while biologists presaged the future in space science.14 He spoke to a group of physicists at Fermilab in Illinois, a Department of Energy facility. The physicists were still smarting over the cancellation by Congress of their flagship project, the superconducting super collider, in 1993. How could that have happened? The reason, Goldin admonished them, was that they had failed to connect their machine to a vision the public could grasp. NASA had done that with its search for life, and that was why NASA was rapidly moving forward with its Mars program.15

The Bush Decision

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush came to the NASA auditorium to announce his “Vision for Space Exploration.” NASA, he said, was going back to the Moon by 2020. It would eventually go on to Mars and beyond. It would go first with robots, then humans. NASA would retire the Space Shuttle in 2010 and bring on a successor in 2014. “The vision I outline today,” Bush said, “is a journey, not a race.”36 He indicated that NASA would get a significant increase in funding to jump-start the initiative. The Bush “Vision” appeared to augur well for the robotic Mars program.

The immediate reaction to Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration was gener­ally positive, mixed with concerns about funding. The political mood favored getting out of near-Earth orbit and back to exploration as NASA’s central role in human spaceflight. If America was going to risk lives, it had to be about a goal worth the risk. That was the message of CAIB and subsequent media and congressional importuning. It was also the message of the National Academy of Sciences’ Space Studies Board. Len Fisk, one-time NASA science associate administrator, was now chair of this body. He strongly believed that it was im­perative for NASA to get human spaceflight out of Earth orbit, while also fully supporting space science and applications. Under his leadership, the NAS SSB produced a report that was released on the same day as Bush’s address. There was “synergy” between the report and Bush’s vision, said Fisk.37

O’Keefe had carefully crafted a budget strategy that avoided the sticker shock that had killed the Moon-Mars program of George H. W. Bush in 1989. The strategy was to emphasize the Moon first, as a stepping stone, and the lunar goal seemed manageable the way O’Keefe explained it. Mars—and its prodi­gious expense—was downplayed and pushed for future discussion in regard to human exploration. Conversely, robotic Mars exploration was emphasized for precursory missions. The term “exploration” was inclusive insofar as rhetoric was concerned.

But not everybody believed the NASA rhetoric or budget numbers for the first five years, certainly not everybody in Congress (or at NASA). And even if the numbers were “right,” they required NASA to reprogram money to make resources available for a new mission. There was worry on the part of scientists who did not do lunar or Mars research that they would be losers as NASA re­focused. Weiler tried to calm such fears. “This is not a flags-and-footprint pro­gram,” he said. “NASA intended the Moon as a stepping stone, and scientists are excited about going to Mars,” Weiler declared. So was the president, he added.

What Weiler understood, as did Fisk, was that the vision could be good for NASA as a whole if the necessary resources were forthcoming. Also, it was critical that the scientific community support the vision for it to have a chance to succeed.38 What sent a shock wave through the scientific community, and seemed to belie the reassuring words of the vision rhetoric, was the news on January 15, the day after the Bush announcement, that O’Keefe was killing a planned shuttle servicing mission to Hubble. The information came via an in­advertent leak and appeared in a Washington Post story about the Bush vision.

The decision was about safety, not budget, as far as O’Keefe was concerned, but was interpreted by many astronomers as a trade-off with Moon-Mars. “This is a kick in the teeth,” said one. Hubble became a major distraction as O’Keefe tried to promote the new mission to NASA’s various constituencies in 2004.39 While the selling of the new human space program got off to a rocky start, the robotic Mars program continued to shine amidst the uncertainty and scientific controversy. Moreover, O’Keefe gave it a priority as he dealt with the NASA budget, too much so in the view of O’Keefe critics—Mars’s rivals for space funding.

On January 24, at 9 p. m. (PST), the second Mars rover, Opportunity, en­tered the Red Planet’s atmosphere, beginning the complicated set of procedures that would enable it to land safely. Opportunity aimed at a Martian plain called Meridiani. Once again, O’Keefe and other top NASA officials were present at JPL. So also were former vice president Al Gore and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver. Mission controllers ate traditional “lucky peanuts” as they intensely watched the telemetry. Six min­

utes after starting its descent at 12,000 miles per hour, Opportunity reached the surface. When the signal was returned to Earth that Opportunity had come to rest at a final place, safely, the landing chief at JPL announced, “We’re on Mars, everybody!” Everyone in the room erupted in applause, backslaps, and hugs. As before, O’Keefe got out the champagne. He lauded the Mars science team as “the best in the world.” NASA and its partners had known that the stakes were high. They had put in an “extraordinary effort,” and it had paid off.40

The Stern Strategy

Stern wanted bold projects in spite of the budget constraints. As the principal investigator of the Pluto mission, he was an outer planets advocate. He wanted an outer planets flagship mission to go forward under his watch, to either Jupiter or Saturn. He also, as he had made clear, wanted to depart from Mars incre­mentalism to a truly great leap forward—MSR. He thought big, envisioning a sequence of flagship missions: MSL, outer planets, MSR. How to pay for these larger missions was the question.

The NASA budget and its longer-term projection that appeared in February 2008 revealed his solution to the problem. Rather than continue the inherited strategy of missions every 26-month opportunity leading gradually to MSR at some indefinite future date, he decided that money for Mars would be drasti­cally curtailed after MSL in 2009, thereby enabling other non-Mars initiatives to take place. The budget would then rise significantly later in the decade to finance an MSR mission in 2020. This was indeed a daring move, and Stern, confident and fast-moving in style, did not necessarily consult widely either in NASA or externally. He also riled Mars advocates by being quoted within NASA as saying “Mars is just another planet.”87

The White House budget office had been sufficiently surprised by the radi­cal change in approach that it asked a group of scientists independent of NASA to take a look at Stern’s new program strategy. It was a marked departure from the steady “follow-the-water” sequential approach up to now. OMB acquiesced to the Stern strategy, as did Stern’s superiors at NASA. When the projected Mars spending in the NASA budget became public, however, most Mars sci­entists were shocked. Many charged that Stern was hollowing out the Mars budget to get resources for his outer planets flagship. Robert Braun, professor of space technology at Georgia Tech, wrote that Stern was “gutting” the Mars program. With no missions slated for 2011 and 2018, and only tentative mis­sions in 2016 and 2020, the budget “puts the future Mars program on a path toward irrelevance,” he charged. He called on the Mars community to grill Stern vigorously at the next Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group meet­ing, on February 20.88

MEPAG was an outgrowth of the ad hoc meetings of Mars scientists which Hubbard and his associates sponsored to receive broad input from Mars scien­tists generally when they were designing the new program in the year 2000. It had been subsequently institutionalized as a two-way communications mecha­nism between NASA and the scientific community. MEPAG now met two times a year.

Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, chair of the White House – established panel, came to the MEPAG meeting, held at Monrovia, California, to give his panel’s assessment. As Stern sat in the front row, he heard Chris­tensen blast the new strategy. “The phasing [of missions] is just wrong,” said Christensen. “Our assessment is that it just won’t work,” he said, pointing out that it would take substantial funding early in the next decade to develop the technology for MSR in 2020. MSR entailed “launch vehicles, a Mars landing system, an Earth return vehicle, a Mars lander, a Mars ascent vehicle, a rover, an Earth-reentry system, and a sample-receiving and curation facility on Earth.”89

Indeed, Christensen said, to prepare and fly in 2020, NASA would have to cancel everything after MSL, including 2013 and 2016 missions, to do what Stern wanted to do. “You have to come clean,” Christensen pointedly told the NASA associate administrator. “Either you fund the [Mars] program or you ac­cept the fact that it will be significantly reduced for the next decade.”

Stern defended himself and his strategy, stating, “No missions have been cancelled—none, zero, zip, nada.” “The Mars program is really healthy,” he told Science magazine, which reported on the meeting. But various Mars scientists countered him. “I don’t think many people accept his budget,” which went pre­cipitously down and then abruptly up, said Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado Boulder. “We just don’t see how you connect the dots,” declared John Mustard of Brown University, who chaired NASA’s Mars Advisory Committee as well as the MEPAG meeting. Moreover, Mustard criticized Stern’s decision to add a $2 million cache to MSL. He said he did not believe it would be able at this early date to pick up enough scientifically interesting material to be worth the expense.90

Stern had few vocal supporters in the Mars community. McKay did stand up at the MEPAG meeting and defend what Stern was trying to do. He believed that the Mars program was “in a rut” and needed to “turn heads.”91 But Stern also turned heads with his money decisions. Just the year before, McCuistion had said there would be stability in Mars spending at the annual $600 million level. That number itself had reflected a substantial cut from a previous projec­tion. Now it was falling to $300 million under the Stern strategy.

Where Stern had support was in the outer planets community, which was pro­jected to receive $3 billion for a Jupiter or Saturn mission. As Frances Bagenal, of the University of Colorado Boulder, chair of the Outer Planets Advisory Group and co-principal investigator with Stern on the Pluto project, explained, “Alan is trying to do the right thing by offering something to keep everyone happy. But it’s impossible.” In any event, said Bagenal, “it’s time to take a break from Mars and work on other things.” Stern said he was trying to have a “bal­anced” program. Stephen Mackwell, of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, commented that there would be “winners and losers” given the bud­get constraints. Most Mars scientists definitely thought themselves “losers” under Stern’s new approach.92

Barriers to Bilateralism

In succeeding months and into the fall, the funding prospects on both sides of the Atlantic worsened. Weiler argued with White House budget officials over a NASA Mars budget they were determined to lower. The year before, he had had to endure the paring of the joint missions with ESA from two to one. Now even that one was in jeopardy. As pressure on Weiler and his budget “racheted up,” he proposed more modest cuts across the board in NASA science to protect Mars. White House budget officials did not relent. They saw in the bilateral program another multimission big science effort that could become a standing commitment through international connections.58

OMB was correct. NASA wanted to move ahead on a program, not a single mission. The fact that the program was bilateral held down costs. But the U. S. expense still would be great, in view of the endeavor’s bold goal. Utterly frus­trated, Weiler wrote Bolden he had reached the end of the line in his nego­tiations.59 On September 30, Weiler retired, thereby concluding an admirable 33-year government career. For Mars supporters inside and outside NASA, he would be greatly missed. It would now be up to others to try to carry on what he and Southwood had begun. That task would be daunting.

The letter from Bolden affirming NASA’s intent to support the 2018 Mars mission, which was supposed to come in mid-September, did not arrive. A frus­trated Scott Hubbard spoke out against the delay, which was due not to Bolden, but to the White House and OMB. He pointed out that ESA was pledging 1 billion euros to the combined missions; how could the United States not do its part?60 But the United States was making further decisions to cause angst in Europe. It stated that it could not provide the Atlas V rocket to launch the 2016 mission. That had been part of the original bargain between NASA and ESA. Dordain once more scrambled to find additional money within ESA to keep contractors working until the end of the year. He managed to do so. He earnestly sought to keep open options to maintain the 2016 opportunity. But he now knew he would have to find an alternative rocket, from either Europe or Russia, and additional money from ESA to make up for the U. S. withdrawal. The options for Dordain were narrowing, and there was a distinct possibility ESA would have to abort the 2016 ExoMars launch.

But what about 2018? This was the priority for the United States and also ESA. The 2016 mission was supposed to facilitate it. In the first week of Octo­ber, Bolden and Dordain met during the International Astronautical Congress in Cape Town, South Africa.61 Bolden told Dordain that NASA wanted to keep the partnership going, but its budget situation was still too uncertain for him to make commitments.62

NASA was living with a continuing resolution most of the year as the presi­dent and Congress staggered toward compromises in late 2011. Moreover, Con­gress had established a “Super Committee” to hammer out extensive budget cuts to reduce the deficit on a long-term basis. The Super Committee failed, however, and draconian cuts across the board would kick in in 2013, unless Congress acted to avert them before then. No one could predict what would ensue. Congress did provide NASA with a budget in November, as well as lan­guage that backed “flagship-class missions” that could be implemented with “international partners.” However, the Obama administration was silent on a commitment to such a mission. Desperate, Dordain asked Russia to join the U. S.-European alliance to keep the 2016 mission alive. The 2018 mission was still planned, and Bolden was hoping all would be well eventually, but Dordain confessed he was becoming a “doubting Thomas.”63

The Journey Ahead

Caltech’s Grotzinger has called the recent period of Mars exploration a “golden era.” He has marveled how missions have built systematically on one another. The coordination and integration of missions have, he wrote, “brought us ever closer to fathoming the broad range of environmental processes that have trans­formed the surface of Mars, beginning over four billion years ago.” Mars ex­ploration is going from following the water to searching for the building blocks of life.11 Beyond that is the investigation of Mars samples for past and present life itself. Optimism among scientists about Martian life has returned as a prime motivator of national and international planning.

The achievements in science and technology would not have been possible without organization and politics. NASA has pulled the components of a dis­tributed multimission big science program together and obtained resources for implementation. Orbiters and landers have been linked, and they pointed the way for the best places for rovers to go to search for traces of life. The pro­gram has not gone as consistently or smoothly as Mars advocates would have liked. The journey has been anything but steady. Science may provide a “guid­ing light,” but politics influences how fast and how well government and the researchers it supports can follow it.12 The political process can result in a pause in activity, as well as acceleration.

The history of robotic Mars exploration has been one of progress, setback, and renewed dedicated effort.13 It is filled with human drama that is at times heroic and at other times tragic. The future of Mars exploration will likely emu­late the rhythm of the past. It will advance, hit barriers, and then advance again. Over the long haul, Mars exploration moves forward. What gives the robotic program direction is that it has relative consensus on a clear technical goal akin to the Apollo lunar landing. For scientists, engineers, and NASA Administra­tors, it is called MSR.

That goal ties together individual missions distributed over time. It is a siren call for most Mars specialists. It has been the compelling goal for decades—and many of the most important conflicts around Mars policy have entailed issues of when and how to reach the MSR objective. For virtually everyone, specialists and general public alike, the goal is also a means to answer deeper and broader questions about life which underlie Mars. A culmination for the robotic pro­gram, it is seen by NASA and its Mars constituency also as a potentially big step toward human spaceflight.

The Policy Process

Mars exploration has evolved through a series of programs, projects, and strug­gles over the years. There have been five periods in policymaking for Mars to date, with a sixth debated at the time of writing. The first, characterized by fly­bys and orbiters, was that of Mariner. It extended from 1958 to the early 1970s, when the aborted Voyager and Viking initiated a second era that culminated in twin landings in 1976. Viking turned out to be a single mission, rather than the start of a program of sequential missions. The third era was one of hiatus and agitation to regain momentum. It started in the wake of Viking and did not end until 1992, when Mars Observer went up. Mars Observer failed, giving rise to a fourth era that extended through the 1990s.

Mars missions were now part of programs called Discovery and Mars Sur­veyor. This fourth era, begun in the early 1990s, was characterized by the FBC mantra and saw a number of great successes, such as Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor. It also featured an abrupt shift in orientation due to the discovery of a Mars meteorite that was said to have fossils of microbiological Martian life. NASA sought to speed the pace toward MSR. This had been an ultimate goal of the Mars Surveyor Program but did not have a firm deadline. The shift in the mid-1990s established a harder deadline to force action. However, the failure of two Mars missions in 1999 ended this period and gave rise to a fifth era of Mars discovery. Called Mars Exploration Program, this era emphasized an incremen­tal “follow-the-water” strategy aimed at finding habitable places. It downplayed FBC in favor of “mission success.” The climax of this program came in 2012, with the landing of the MSL rover, Curiosity.

MSL is the most challenging and costly Mars mission since Viking—in some ways it is a much more sophisticated version of the Viking follow-on that was proposed but aborted in the late 1970s. It “follows the water,” but also transitions to looking for carbon and other building blocks of life.5 A smaller, specialized orbiter project, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mis­sion (MAVEN), was launched in November 2013, ending the follow-the-water programmatic era as conceived.

Finally, a sixth era is on the NASA agenda and in planning. It initially had been characterized by major international missions, starting jointly with Eu­rope, in 2016 and in 2018. Its ultimate goal was the return of a sample of Martian soil and rock to Earth for examination in the 2020s. However, White House cuts to NASA’s budget precluded the planned 2016 and 2018 missions with Europe. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in response, pledged to continue Mars missions, with the path ahead to be determined.6 He stated that he wanted the new program—called Mars Next Decade—to be more integrated with human spaceflight goals.7

Meanwhile, to help maintain momentum, NASA proposed a mission for 2016, called InSight. This would be a relatively modestly priced venture to use seismic instruments to study Mars’s interior forces. NASA also indicated that it would contribute to the European missions via certain instruments. Most im­portantly, NASA, in late 2012, received approval for a $1.5 billion rover for 2020 which would build on MSL’s Curiosity. How this 2020 rover mission related to MSR and Mars Next Decade was not clear at the time of writing. However, it did seem to augur that there would be a sixth era of Mars exploration, arguably beginning in 2016.8

Each of the programs and missions passed and proposed goes through vari­

ous decision stages. In theory, these stages are straightforward. In an ideal situa­tion, the policy process for each program or mission begins with an awareness of need or opportunity that is sufficiently compelling to get this potential program on the agenda of NASA decision makers. Planning for action follows along with formulation of proposals. Then comes formal adoption of the new program or specific mission by authoritative political decision makers. Once adopted and funded, the program moves into an implementation stage that can last for years. At some point during execution, there is an evaluation stage that can lead to reorientation. The last stage is completion. Completion of the program or mission can prelude a follow-on effort.

The sequence of decisions noted above is obviously an abstraction. Reality is not so linear and is often messy. Stages overlap. Policy proposals are rejected. A program or specific project can be terminated prior to its planned end. One set of stages can recycle and lead to the beginning of another sequence. In Mars explo­ration, new programs can be planned before an existing one is completed. There can also be a gap between programs, especially following failure. The process can move swiftly or slowly—or stagnate. There are technical, administrative, and political barriers every step of the way. The journey is torturous. Indeed, it has its casualties in terms of careers of scientists, engineers, and administrators. Overall, however, there is progress. Mars exploration takes place, through a “program of programs.”