Category Why Mars

Mars Politics

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.

Budget Pressure on Viking

Paine brought von Braun to Washington to help him promote a large post – Apollo program to Nixon. The charismatic von Braun won some converts on the body Nixon had established to advise him, the Space Task Group (STG). On September 15, STG met with Nixon in the Oval Office and presented three post-Apollo options. The options entailed a shuttle, space station, lunar base, and a human Mars mission. They varied in the aggressiveness by which to pur­sue these goals, especially Mars. The most aggressive would set a date, 1983, for human Mars flight at a cost of $8 billion to $10 billion a year. The least aggres­sive would cost $4 billion to $6.7 billion a year and would put an astronaut on Mars by the end of the century. Nixon listened to the presentation of the three options, thanked the team for its work, but made no decision.31

While waiting for Nixon to say something definite about NASA’s future, the annual budgetary process continued, with Paine battling the BOB. Viking, like all NASA activities, awaited determinations about how much NASA would have to spend, overall, as well as on it in particular. By Christmas 1969, NASA’s prospective budget for the next fiscal year was down to $3.6 billion, a sharp drop from the previous year. The issue became not whether NASA could begin a post-Apollo buildup, but whether it could even implement existing programs, including Viking. Then, just days later, the budget director, Robert Mayo, re­quired NASA to find additional cuts owing to a last-minute decision to close a government-wide gap in funding.

The budget director went over various options with Paine, including two options involving Viking: cancellation, or delay of launch from 1973 to 1975. Mayo said BOB favored delay and so did Nixon. Paine had little choice. He called Naugle, who was at home, and asked him to come in. It was December 31, New Year’s Eve. To save Viking, Paine told Naugle, they would have to set the launch back to 1975. Naugle left the meeting feeling quite depressed, as though “two years of careful planning for Viking” had been wiped out almost in the blink of an eye.32

In January 1970, Paine announced that NASA would have $3.5 billion in the president’s budget. This was a figure Paine had earlier told Mayo was “unaccept­able.” It entailed not only delay in Viking but ending Saturn 5 production and reducing the number of Apollo Moon landings. Those landings were destined now to end in late 1972, and there still was no new major program to keep NASA going to prevent the agency’s continuing decline.33

George Low, Paine’s deputy, tried to soften the blow to Naugle and the Vi­king team, declaring in a memo to Naugle in early February, “Viking holds the highest priority of any project or program in NASA’s Planetary Program. Viking holds a high priority among all of NASA’s programs.”34

That was an important statement about Viking’s priority from Low, because it indicated that NASA leaders would protect Viking, even if they let other projects go. It was not only a science priority but a NASA priority. In March, Nixon issued his first policy pronouncement on space. His message was that NASA would have to live at a far different level than it had in the 1960s. He announced that “space activities will be a part of our lives for the rest of time,” and thus there was no need to plan them “as a series of separate leaps, each re­quiring a massive concentration of energy and will and accomplished on a crash timetable.” Indeed, he said, “space expenditures must take their place within a rigorous system of national priorities.”35

What this meant, beyond the rhetoric, was that he was not endorsing any of the STG options. There was no decision to build a shuttle, no space station, and certainly no human Mars mission. As a consequence, NASA drifted, its future clouded. Low’s memo notwithstanding, the survival of Viking was uncertain. What was absolutely clear was that Viking could not be justified as a precursor to human flight to Mars, since there would not be anything resembling such a project. Indeed, the whole human spaceflight effort was withering away.

In July, Paine announced he was resigning, effective September. In August, von Braun, who would leave NASA in 1972, complained that NASA was “wait­ing for a miracle, just waiting for another man on a white horse to come and offer us another planet, like President Kennedy.” It was not going to happen.36

Decision to Wait

The policy debates continued within NASA and among NASA, its scientific ad­visors, OMB, and others. There were doubts that a Viking 3 could be developed in time for a 1981 launch and maybe not even a 1984 launch window. NASA kept looking for a “compelling reason” to propose Viking 3 to Ford. The Cold War competition argument no longer worked since the United States had “won” the Mars race. Media reports described NASA as being in a “pressure cooker” on Mars decision making in early December.18 Hinners recalls his feeling at the time that he did not want to put Hubble and Galileo—which OMB had ap­proved for new starts—at risk. He also remembered “a sense that other missions had waited on Mars, and now it was their turn.” Without question, advocates for Hubble and Galileo lobbied hard, and the Mars advocacy coalition was com­paratively splintered and exhausted. In the end, Hinners said, “We decided to wait and digest the knowledge coming out of Viking.”19

The president’s science advisor announced the decision on December 16 in discussing Ford’s last budget (FY 1978). H. Guyford Stever said there was money for “a large, orbiting telescope and a mission to place a photographic satellite in orbit around Jupiter.” But Stever stated that NASA’s budget would not include additional money to begin work on another Viking that would be launched in 1981 and land on Mars. He noted, however, that a launch could be accomplished in 1984, or later, depending on future decisions to be made.20 These would have to be made by a new president, along with a new NASA Administrator.

With the decision to pass up the 1981 opportunity, the bulk of the Viking team disbanded, starting with Martin. With no Viking 3 immediately ahead, and Langley no longer the lead center, Martin decided to leave NASA for a job as vice president for Martin Marietta, the Viking contractor. There would be an “extended mission” to analyze data from Viking, NASA said. That would keep a modest portion of the Viking team busy for a while. But Martin was going, and in a bittersweet farewell visit to Langley in mid-December he stated that Viking would be the highlight of his career. “A lot of people haven’t had this experience and never will,” Martin said. “It would be selfish of us to want more than one. Viking has been tough.” As for the question of life: “We haven’t found ‘life’ on Mars, but we also haven’t found ‘no life’ on Mars. Maybe it’s not like Earth—to me that is possible too.” As for whether Viking was worth $1 billion, Martin was emphatic: “Absolutely.”21

Dan Goldin

Age 51 at the time, Goldin was vice president and general manager of TRW’s Space and Technology Group. Born in New York City, he had received a BS in mechanical engineering from City College of New York in 1962. Fascinated with space since boyhood, he immediately came to work for NASA at its Lewis Research Center in Cleveland. NASA was going to the Moon at the time, and Goldin wanted to pursue research helping the agency take the next step, to go to Mars. When it became clear later in the 1960s that NASA would not be going to Mars any time soon and started retrenching, he grew restless and frustrated, leaving NASA for the aerospace company TRW. Based in California, Goldin advanced in the corporation over the years, spending most of his time on classi­fied military and intelligence space programs. Coming out of this “black” world, Goldin was not well known in civil space circles, but in the classified field, he was considered a significant figure.2

The National Space Council, which presided over both national security and civil space endeavors, saw the Strategic Defense Initiative, known as “Star Wars,” introduce innovative efficiency approaches to robotic space, which NSC called “faster, better, cheaper.”3 NASA, in contrast, seemed to NSC to be mired in the past, a bloated bureaucracy with big, expensive technical systems. Goldin was an exemplar of this new approach. He made maximum use of the latest mi­croelectronic technology to bring down the size of space satellites. Goldin was known as a demanding, tough manager who could reshape an organization. He also was the opposite of Truly in one important respect: he was something of a visionary. Moreover, as Truly focused on the shuttle and space station, Goldin looked beyond to exploration and was passionate about Mars. It was his compel­ling ambition to lead NASA to the Red Planet. The opportunity to implement the Bush policy targeting Mars as a long-range goal was a significant reason that he left TRW and came to NASA, even though his tenure might be short, owing to the upcoming presidential election.

Goldin sailed easily through the confirmation process, becoming NASA Ad­ministrator on April і. In those hearings, he indicated he would maintain all existing programs but manage them with greater efficiency. Once in office, he told his managers that large raises for NASA were not possible in the near-term future and they would have to get NASA out of the “vicious cycle” so exempli­fied by Mars Observer. He described the cycle as follows: “Because NASA flies relatively few missions, program officers overload each one with instruments. This makes each spacecraft expensive. Because they’re expensive, they must be carefully tested before flight. This takes time and costs more money, raising the ante. In the end, so much is riding on each flight that NASA can’t afford to have them fail—leading to more caution, delay, and expense.”

“We’ve got to cut the Gordian Knot,” he declared, by making spacecraft smaller, lighter, and cheaper, so that NASA can take risks and not fear making mistakes.4 Soon aware that he could not pursue Bush’s Moon-Mars program, as he would have wished, because of congressional opposition, he set his sights on remaking NASA so that it would be more capable of maintaining the programs it had and be readier for Mars if and when circumstances changed. He looked at the space station and science programs with an eye to technological innovation and management reform. He focused on the robotic program as a step toward human spaceflight to Mars.

Goldin saw himself as seeking “revolutionary” change and characterized himself as a change agent. He knew he faced opposition and spoke of his adver­saries as erecting barricades to his FBC policies.5 Among his adversaries, in his opinion, Fisk, the head of NASA’s Science Directorate, stood out.

Fisk was accustomed to ample autonomy, and Goldin was not about to grant that discretion. Fisk was receptive to the notions of FBC as they applied to robotic programs, as exemplified by his support for the Discovery activity. How­ever, he was pursuing a number of large projects at the time which he defended. He and Goldin had crossed swords earlier when Goldin had been in industry. Fisk was laboring to protect the Earth Observation System from substantial

downsizing, and Goldin was seeking to sell NASA on a smaller-scale version of the system. Goldin was told by the Office of Space Science and Applications not to press his case publicly if he wanted TRW to get work with NASA, and Goldin had not forgotten what he regarded as a threat. As Administrator, he and Fisk had a tense relationship.6

Fisk’s deputy, Huntress, the planetary division director, told Goldin that Discovery was an FBC program and was already being considered positively by Congress, and thus he won favor with the NASA Administrator at an early meeting. Goldin was looking for allies to help him with his “revolution.” He saw Huntress in that category.7

Ironically, Huntress encountered resistance to FBC notions from the sci­entific community—not to Discovery in general or the MESUR effort, still in planning, but to the Pathfinder mission in particular. Huntress held that two values had to guide the planetary program: scientific worth and public interest. It was not enough to have one without the other. Pathfinder would meet his criteria and as a by-product help NASA politically as an institution.

Huntress had appointed a Science Definition Team for MESUR chaired by Cornell planetary scientist Steve Squyres, a Sagan protege. Various scientists on the team had concerns, and Squyres passed those on to Carl Pilcher, Hunt­ress’s Advanced Studies Branch chief. On April 20, Michael Carr, a distinguished planetary geologist at the U. S. Geological Survey, whose long work on Mars included experience on Viking, wrote Huntress also detailing scientists’ worries about starting a critical program (Discovery or MESUR) with so risky a project as Pathfinder. He pointed out that with Pathfinder NASA was now propos­ing to successfully land on the Mars surface, a feat achieved only by Viking at a much greater cost; deploy a rover, something never done before; launch in 1996 (about half the time usually taken for development); and keep costs below $150 million. He saw the likelihood of failure quite high. The chairman of the Solar System Exploration Committee, Huntress’s planetary advisory body, also cautioned Huntress on Pathfinder.8

Huntress told Pilcher to compose a reply, because NASA had to have notable scientists like Carr aboard. The basic argument Huntress and Pilcher made to Carr and other skeptics was that the rewards made the risks worth taking. They held that it was important to demonstrate that NASA could land scientific instruments on the surface and also rove. Pathfinder was more than an engi­neering demonstration, they stressed. It was an enabler of science, and a way of showing “that NASA can do a quick, inexpensive, exciting, challenging project

involving major departures from the way most previous planetary missions have been conducted. The positive repercussions of success could be beneficial to all NASA planetary missions including MESUR.”9 The institutional and public relations values thus were important along with the scientific and technological gains.

Huntress was very much in harmony with Goldin’s reformist approach. With Goldin’s active support, Congress approved Discovery, providing funding for it to begin officially in 1993. Huntress selected Tony Spear of the Jet Propul­sion Laboratory to lead the Pathfinder project. Huntress regarded Spear as the kind of “out-of-the-box” manager who could make Pathfinder work. Huntress scheduled Pathfinder to launch in 1996.

Huntress wanted Pathfinder to carry a rover to Mars. Donna Shirley, JPL’s rover manager, and Spear did not get along particularly well, but they were willing to cooperate to make the overall project succeed.10 Huntress, who came from JPL, saw the NASA center as having an “old guard” that would expect Pathfinder to fail. He wanted to show them they were wrong about FBC mis­sions, and Spear in particular was the manager to do it.11 There were individuals at JPL who questioned whether JPL should even perform such a mission, but a senior manager at the lab, Norm Haynes, told his peers that JPL had better take it on: “If we don’t do this, somebody else will.”12

The Investigation

The twin failures in 1999 resulted in much soul-searching at NASA, Goldin included. Immediately after the lander failure, Hinners called Goldin on behalf of Lockheed Martin. He “apologized,” saying, “Sorry. We screwed up!” He fully expected to be “chewed out.” But Goldin instead said, “Look, I don’t want finger pointing. This is a management failure, not a technical failure.” It was obvious to Hinners that Goldin was already seeing himself and FBC as part of the problem. But Hinners felt he had himself been blinded by a false sense of optimism.24

Goldin quickly launched a number of investigations. The most comprehen­sive inquiry was by A. Thomas Young, a retired aerospace business executive and former NASA official whose Mars experience went back to Viking. Known as the Young panel, the official name was Mars Program Independent Assessment Team (MPIAT). It was a blue-ribbon team with 16 members. After meeting with Goldin on the panel’s mandate, Young on January 14, 2000, indicated that the word “independent” was serious: “Everything is on the table. There are no limits to what we can do.”25 Young said the panel’s inquiry would take two months. The panel then got to work.

Meanwhile, Goldin worked inside NASA with Weiler. The associate admin­istrator remembered one particular moment after the second disaster which helped define the recovery strategy. Weiler was at a basketball game with his son. He wore a pager. He received a message that Goldin was trying to reach

him. “I went outside the building to return the call. It was a cold January eve­ning, 9 p. m.” When he reached Goldin, the administrator barked: “You’ve got one minute to tell me how to fix this.” Weiler wasted little time in responding.

“I think we may have been too aggressive,” he said. “We need a step-wise process. In addition to large missions, we may need a small mission or two. We could also have competitive missions proposed by the scientific commu­nity.” Goldin listened and commented, “Good. Let’s get together and think this through.” Subsequently, Weiler noted, “Dan and I were arm-in-arm on Mars decision-making.”26

As Weiler and Goldin assessed the damage and what might be done, various individuals were speaking out. In late January, Donna Shirley, a former JPL manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, now an assistant dean of engi­neering at the University of Oklahoma, laid the blame on Goldin and his push for MSR at the earliest possible moment. After the Mars meteorite excitement, she said, Goldin “urged a switch from gradual understanding of Mars to a rush to look for life. And the key to that was the sample return mission. Dan has al­ways wanted a sample return mission because he believes it would attract public interest.”27

David Page, a UCLA planetary scientist, also blamed Goldin, as well as his top NASA managers. He said the Mars program needed to get away from the process by which “leaders would propose lofty space exploration goals without consideration for the technical difficulties, hard deadlines, and funding. What was needed,” he said, “was a grassroots process in which the goals, the schedule, the funding, and the risks are defined by the scientists, engineers, and managers who will be carrying out these projects. … In this model, ambitious goals such as a Mars Sample Return would eventually be accomplished, but only after the required technologies are in place and not at the expense of the much broader goal of studying Mars in all its diversity.”28

The accusations continued in February, with some critics, including scien­tists, going beyond Goldin to Clinton and Gore for not giving NASA enough money. Others blamed JPL for poor management. Others targeted Lockheed Martin, the contractor, for underbidding and problems on the factory floor. Weiler retorted that “everyone was to blame,” including the scientific commu­nity, for overconfidence. In 1998, the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council had called NASA’s Mars exploration effort a “well-thought – out and rational approach to achieving NASA’s programmatic goals.”29

O’Keefe Departs

One of O’Keefe’s last acts as NASA Administrator in early February was to an­nounce Bush’s proposed budget for NASA for FY 2006. It was $16.5 billon. This was a raise of $400 million from the congressional appropriation. Ominously, it was only half the amount Bush had promised when he made the Moon-Mars

decision. The president’s desire to trim the budget deficit and put more money into the war on terrorism (especially in Iraq) and defense generally trumped virtually all other federal programs. In addition, Clay Johnson, the deputy direc­tor of OMB, was personally close to Bush and a harsh critic of the Moon-Mars vision. He persuaded Bush not to put his political capital behind space in his second term.54 It was more O’Keefe’s influence than Bush’s support which al­lowed NASA to fare better than most domestic agencies in the budget process. Speaking of the raise NASA got, O’Keefe commented, “It’s rather remarkable under the circumstance.”55

O’Keefe had continued to prioritize sharply. He put the money he had be­hind the new mission, and this policy worked to the advantage of the robotic Mars program. Overall, the NASA science budget was slightly down from the previous presidential budget, from $5.5 billion to $5.4 billion. The lunar sci­ence program, which had been suffering benign neglect for a long time, tripled in size. Mars projects also gained, jumping from $681 million to $723 million. O’Keefe was creating a budget wedge intended to raise the robotic Mars pro­gram to the $1 billion level in 2010.56

But what was good for Moon-Mars science was bad for every other field. The outer planets and Earth observation satellites were suffering, and Hubble on the way out altogether. If NAS said that robots could not fix Hubble, then Hubble would not be fixed, at least under the O’Keefe policy.57

Prioritizing meant winners and losers. There was little question that non – Mars scientists envied the money going to Mars, and not just money—glory! The successes of Spirit and Opportunity on Mars were high profile, giving the scientists associated with the rovers, especially Steve Squyres, what a Science magazine editorial called “the astronomical equivalent of rock star status.”58

Weiler Takes Control

Griffin quickly asked Ed Weiler to leave the Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was director, to return to his former position of associate administrator for science. Weiler took the job initially on an acting basis, but soon was ap­pointed permanent associate administrator. Weiler knew he faced a controver­sial situation and a program in disarray. His professional background had been with space telescopes, and hence he was viewed as having neither an “outer” nor “inner” planets bias. Moreover, JPL and the Mars scientists knew that Weiler had played a strong role in building up the Mars program under Goldin and O’Keefe.

Weiler appreciated the public’s fascination with Mars. He shared the view that MSR was the long-term goal of the robotic program. He did not agree with Stern about the need to go there sooner at the cost of interim missions. He was conscious that MSL was a project in trouble, and that another decision to delay or not delay was likely to arise. Unlike Stern, he knew he had to have influential allies on a possible delay decision, if that in fact was required. A delay would indeed cost additional money, and MSL was already consuming much of SMD’s planetary budget. A delay decision could also have cascading effects on other missions. A delay decision would not come easily. JPL was still pushing for a 2009 launch, and so was the NASA Administrator.

A seasoned bureaucrat who was politically astute, Weiler announced he would revisit the 2009 Mars budget plan, given “all the criticism.” “When I left the SMD,” Weiler stated, “we had a program in place of taking advantage of every [Mars launch] opportunity and someday, when we have the data we needed and all the science we needed, we’d spend the billions of dollars for a Mars Sample Return.”104

What we need to know, Weiler said, is this: “What is the real cost of Mars Sample Return? Does the community want to pay that cost in terms of missions that could be done in the interim or not done?” Aware that Stern had taken an especially strong stand on the issue of cost control, Weiler promised he would watch costs very carefully and would cancel projects if necessary. “On the other hand, I’m also going to make sure that programs aren’t nickel and dimed to save a few cents, because I have direct personal experience where cost was the only concern. And that was Mars ’98 [the two Mars missions launched in 1998 that failed in 1999]. Do you remember that little baby? And what I got for good cost control on that program was two craters on Mars.”105

He also commented on some other lessons learned from experience: “There are three things you don’t do at NASA. That is cancel Spirit, Opportunity, or Hubble.”106 Finally, Weiler made it clear organizationally that he understood the status of Mars as “first among equals” in the planetary program. He inher­ited the organizational structure that placed the Mars director under another individual, James Green, who was in charge of planetary programs. Weiler dealt with this individual for planets other than Mars. Weiler wanted an integrated planetary program. But when it came to Mars, McCuistion could work with Weiler directly.107 The perception—as important as reality in government—was that Weiler intended to restore Mars’s status to where it had been during his first tour as associate administrator for science, organizationally and in funding.

While controversy abounded in Washington and the planetary science com­munity over the future of the Mars program, Weiler found that the existing operations on Mars were going extremely well. Indeed, the Phoenix mission illustrated how a sequence of missions, coming every 26 months, each building on the one before, could succeed.

In 2002, the Odyssey orbiter had detected substantial amounts of water ice lying just beneath the Martian surface. It was Phoenix’s task to follow up and dig for ice in this northern polar region. The principal scientist of Phoenix, Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, had written his Scout proposal as a clear follow-up to Odyssey.

On May 25, Phoenix descended. When it landed successfully, after several nerve-wracking minutes, the celebration began. “It was hugs, cheers, and high – fives all around.” Griffin was there in the control room at JPL. He pointed out that Phoenix marked the first successful landing without airbags since Viking in 1976.108

In June, Phoenix was put to work, its robotic arm extending to shovel soil and ice to its lander instruments. “This is an incredibly science-rich location,” exclaimed Smith. In short order, Phoenix “found proof” of water-ice on Mars which was away from the polar caps. Then, later in the month, Phoenix discov­ered evidence of mineral nutrients in Martian surface material which would be essential to life. Rather than being hostile, the soil results were “friendly” to life. In July, Phoenix detected water vapor coming off a scoop of Martian soil. A tiny oven on the lander heated the dirt until ice mixed with it and evaporated. For the first time, instruments touched water and did more. “We have tasted the water and it tastes good,” said William Boynton of the University of Arizona. “It’s something we’ve been waiting quite a while for.”109

August began, and rumors flew that Phoenix had made discoveries that pre­cluded life, and then that it had found something so profound about life that NASA had contacted the White House. The reality, as NASA and Phoenix leaders explained at a hastily called teleconference with reporters on August 5, was that Phoenix had indeed made an important discovery, although not one that was necessarily worthy of presidential notification. It was the presence of perchlorate, a chemical compound commonly found in the Atacama Desert of Chile, one of the driest places on Earth. Atacama was often used as an analogue for conditions found on Mars. Researchers had found “extremophiles” at Ata­cama. Some of them survived on perchlorate. The Phoenix team held that the finding was highly favorable to the possibility of microbial life on Mars.110

As Phoenix fascinated scientists and received considerable media attention, Weiler took increasing control of the science program. He confirmed Stern’s plan to launch a flagship outer planets mission to either Saturn or Jupiter as soon as possible, but perhaps not as quickly as would Stern. He dropped the ap­proach that would spend relatively little on Mars in the early and middle years of the second decade and maximize spending as 2020 approached. Weiler wanted missions at regular opportunities throughout the decade, although it remained to be seen what they would be. Like Stern, Weiler saw MSR as the goal of the robotic science program, but he was willing to let it recede beyond 2020 to allow for adequate funding of missions at periodic, nearer-term launch opportunities.

Meanwhile, he firmed up plans for the first flight beyond MSL. Because of the conflict of interest that obviated the 2011 mission, this Scout project would go up in 2013. It would be called MAVEN, for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution. An orbiter, MAVEN’s task was to study Mars’s atmosphere and in­quire how it had dissipated. With so little atmosphere, there would be no water on Mars’s surface. The cost would be $485 million.111

MAVEN might be followed in 2016 with a rover potentially costing $1.4 billion. This rover could test equipment useful for an eventual MSR mission.112 An international planning group now estimated the actual MSR mission to cost up to $8 billion or more—an expense that would require international sponsor­ship.113 Stern had said he would try to get partners to supplement U. S. expen­ditures for his 2020 MSR mission. Weiler stated that he would have to do the same for a post-2020 mission.

While the goal of MSR was clear, Weiler’s date for this mission was not, and the projects leading up to it still had to be clarified. Weiler understood that the follow-the-water decade established when he was formerly associate

administrator was ending and a new strategy had to take its place. If Stern’s ap­proach was not acceptable—and the Mars scientist, Mustard, called it “smoke and mirrors”114—Weiler had to develop a substitute long-term strategy, even as he helped make exceedingly difficult decisions about the immediate challenges facing the program.

On October io, Weiler, Griffin, and others connected with the Mars pro­gram met to determine MSL’s fate. JPL reported that it was still having technical problems that would cost perhaps another $ioo million to resolve. Moreover, making the 2009 launch window would be quite difficult, but still possible, JPL said. The cost of MSL was now pushing close to $2 billion. If NASA had to delay the mission to the next launch window, two years off, NASA would have to spend even more. Cancellation was a possible option, but Griffin did not con­sider it seriously. Once again, he decided to retain the October 2009 launch date.

However, Griffin said he would meet again with Weiler and others in January 2009 for a final decision, based on program progress between October and then. Afterward, Weiler explained the rationale for the approach to the decision: “It’s easy to say, ‘Let’s cancel it and move on,’ but we’ve poured over a billion and a half dollars into this. This science is critical. It’s a flagship mission in the Mars program and as long as we think we have a good chance to make it, we are going to do what we have to do.”115

Stern, outside NASA but assertive in his views, told the media he would raise two questions about the decision: First, “How much new damage will this do to other parts of the Mars planetary and wider SMD program to continue on this path; and secondly, will the time for testing before the launch in ’09 really be sufficient to guarantee that this [more than] $2 billion investment will work?”116

On October 31, Stern wrote the editor of Science that a 2020 MSR launch could have been possible had NASA supported his cost-control policies, espe­cially early in 2008, in regard to MSL. But “higher levels” at NASA rejected his proposed options for addressing MSL and other problems.117

While JPL worked overtime, and NASA Headquarters pondered what to do about MSL, the national elections took place. On November 4, Barack Obama was elected president and given a Congress with a strong Democratic majority. During the campaign, he had said he was a strong supporter of space and would increase the NASA budget. However, his specific space policy priorities were unknown, and advocates of various positions were eager to influence him to favor their claims.

Stern looked to the new president to address the ills of NASA. He published an op-ed in the New York Times on November 24, lamenting NASA’s “Black Hole Budgets.” He asked Obama to extirpate the “cancer [that] is overtaking our space agency.” The cardinal example of the overrun issue was the “poorly – managed, now over-$2 billion Mars Science Laboratory.” He again pointed out that when he fought the cost increases, “I found myself eventually admonished and then neutered by still higher ups, precipitating my resignation earlier this year.”118

Garvin, who had fought Stern inside NASA, countered Stern’s outside cam­paign against MSL in a letter to the editor of Science, November 28. He pointed out that MSL was less costly in current dollars than Viking and would have far more capability. The cost had grown, he said, because of technical problems not foreseen. Nevertheless, thanks to MSL, he argued, NASA was “ready to assault the Martian frontier.”119

That assault on Mars would not now include the $2 million sample cache Stern had added to MSL. In a decision widely viewed as a rebuke to Stern, NASA removed this device. A NASA spokesman said it was done after “exten­sive interaction with the science community” had indicated its low science value. A science advisory group told NASA that the cache, coming late in MSL’s devel­opment, “was likely to complicate MSL operations, leading to interruptions in the activities related to the prime mission.”120 Deleting the cache, NASA stated, would also save money on MSL.121

Landing on Mars and Looking Ahead

As 2оі2 got under way, the Mars program was in limbo. The ambitious joint program with ESA was dead, and the National Research Council scientists’ goal of Mars Sample Return apparently gone with it. The Mars Science Laboratory landing was scheduled for August, and that mission had stakes not only for the Mars programs but for NASA generally. To have a positive future, Mars advocates had to work hard for recovery on the policy front in Washington. They hoped that the MSL mission, through its Curiosity rover, would give the program a political stimulus it desperately needed, within both the space policy sector and the broader national policy arena. The budget deficit was the overriding priority in Washington. Policy decisions at NASA and between the White House and Congress had put other space programs, including human spaceflight and the James Webb Space Telescope, above Mars exploration in priority. What if MSL, with its never-before-tried sky crane landing system, crashed on Mars? Mars advocates in NASA, the scientific community, and inter­est groups had only questions and no answers as the year began—an election year that magnified all issues, especially failure in government programs. The NASA Administrator spoke of “Mars Next Decade.” What NASA needed were policy decisions assuring there would be a Mars program next decade.

By the end of the year, with MSL successfully landing the Curiosity rover on Mars and Obama’s reelection, there was hope among many Mars proponents

for moving the Mars program forward. New missions were placed on NASA’s agenda. Advocates regrouped and pushed once again for their long-sought MSR.

Toward Mars

NASA’s long-term direction is toward Mars. Mars exploration advances best as advocates move it to a NASA priority, and as NASA leaders themselves become champions in national policymaking. For better or worse, NASA is the power locus within the U. S. government behind Mars exploration. To move Mars ex­ploration forward, NASA integrates often conflicting scientific, technological, and political pressures to forge a program. The advantage Mars advocates have in comparison with rivals is the long-standing public interest in Mars. Among planets, Mars has the broadest public constituency. The interest of that con­stituency may not be deep, but it is abiding. That reality has helped keep Mars on NASA’s agenda since its founding, sometimes at the forefront, sometimes on the back burner, but always there.

To continue the journey from past to present to future, external advocates and NASA must combine science, technology, organization, politics, and faith. Science provides ends, technology and organization means, and politics funding to keep going in the face of adversity. There is also a faith on the part of many that at the end of the journey will be a prize worth all the sacrifice. Without all these factors, a multigenerational quest cannot be sustained. The task of leadership in advocacy and decision making in government is to unite the many stakeholders who might want to go to the Red Planet, neutralize or conciliate those who do not, and keep the agency moving forward, “in motion, in a desired direction.”10

The political and policy history of Mars exploration is traced in succeeding chapters, from Mariner to MSL and beyond. It has been a long and winding process. Borrowing from evolutionary theory in the natural sciences, many ana­lysts use the concept “punctuated equilibrium” to explain stability and change in long-term decision making.11 In times of stability, Mars policy is forged largely by a limited number of actors in a subsystem (i. e., space sector) of the larger national policy setting. Specialists in the scientific community, NASA, congres­sional committees, and other groups reach agreement on a course of action which sustains a program over time. Change is incremental. The agency imple­ments within a policy consensus.

But events or particularly influential people can upset the consensus, jar the

subsystem loose, and foment significant change. These triggers for change can come from sources within, such as a NASA Administrator; they can emanate from outside the space sector, such as a president; and they can arise from Mars advocates or opponents. These forces produce important shifts in the evolution of Mars exploration, creating decision points in Mars policy.

The various conflicts within the space sector or between that subsystem and macropolicy issues drive a program forward or hold it back. Dan Goldin, NASA Administrator, told a group of scientific advisors in 1996, amidst excitement about the Mars meteorite, that scientists can set the direction for a program, but politics determines its pace.12 Mars exploration is not a dash, in the manner of Apollo; it is a marathon, and the pace can vary, with zigs and zags along the way. The consensus has to be worked and reworked as the advocacy coalition enlarges or contracts. That is why there is not one fixed program, but a sequence of programs separated by reformulations of policy.

These reformulations are significant. They represent changes in scientific and political strategy, give rise to alterations in approach, and constitute big decisions. One shifted Mars exploration from an individual or “one-up” design to an integrated sequence of FBC missions in the 1990s. Another moved Mars exploration into a follow-the-water mode for the early twenty-first century, building on the program that had gone before. Their coherence and narratives communicated purpose to the outside world. They won political support that undergirded Mars exploration for two decades, enabling the MSL Curiosity’s landing and discoveries and setting the stage for what can follow.

Paradoxically, these program reformulations were triggered by failures. As failure revealed miscalculation, so responses showed rethinking and resolve. There are lessons to be drawn from the Mars exploration experience for the leadership of long-term technical programs in American democracy in general.

The saga of Mars exploration illuminates the frustrations, failures, joys, and triumphs that surround all attempts to advance on a new frontier. Mars calls, and human beings respond as best they can. They discover through sci­ence, build “exploring machines” through technology, and organize programs through agencies like NASA.13 In doing so, they strive to turn dreams into real­ity. They seek answers to age-old questions, such as, are we alone? Robots have gone first to the Red Planet. Someday, human beings will follow. What ensues in succeeding chapters is a political and policy history of NASA’s robotic effort, a government program whose purpose is to pioneer.

Fletcher Becomes Administrator

Low maintained NASA as best he could awaiting Nixon’s appointee. The budget continued to fall, and more programs were cancelled, delayed, or significantly downsized. As promised, Low preserved Viking. It was not until April 1971 that James Fletcher joined NASA as its leader.

Fletcher was 51, a PhD physicist, and president of the University of Utah. He had made a fortune in industry and was comfortable with leadership. However, he was quiet and almost dull in manner in comparison with the forceful Webb and enthusiastic Paine. But he was persistent and thoroughly convinced that the nation needed a strong space program. He decided that his first important task was to persuade Nixon to adopt the Space Shuttle as NASA’s next major program. He accepted—as Paine could not—the reality of a smaller NASA. But he believed that unless he could sell the shuttle, he would not be able to sustain NASA’s identity as a large, independent science and technology agency focused on human spaceflight. Along with bringing the Apollo Moon program to a safe and successful conclusion, the promotion of the Space Shuttle became his cen­tral objective. He had a big problem, however. He was not well connected with the Nixon White House and was inexperienced in the ways of Washington.

While necessarily focused on the human endeavor, increasingly on the shuttle as a top priority, Fletcher was personally interested in Viking. There were institutional reasons to concentrate on Viking as well, to be sure. It was

NASA’s largest planetary project. But the personal reasons were special for him. Fletcher brought a philosophical grounding in the Mormon tradition to his role as NASA Administrator. That tradition accepted the view that God cre­ated many worlds with many inhabitants. Fletcher had himself calculated that the universe had five billion worlds capable of sustaining life. While he did not believe there was intelligent life on Mars, he held to the possibility of some form of life on the Red Planet.37

Fletcher therefore gave Viking as much support and attention as he could muster—an important factor in sustaining the effort and helping the spirit of those directly involved in the project. Viking’s budget was now estimated to rise beyond the $750 million Naugle had cited to $800 million. OMB noticed the increase, as would Congress. Fletcher had to persuade critics that the additional money was worthwhile. The scientific community’s support was also flagging, with many scientists arguing for more “balance” between Mars and other sci­ence missions.

Fletcher was a consistent and relatively effective persuader. He was careful in what he said. The argument that Viking was a precursor for human flights was off the table for Fletcher. He surely considered it as such, but he muted those views. He emphasized a different rationale in which he strongly believed: that Viking was important because of the immense significance of the search for life. He also reminded others that there was still a space race with the Soviet Union under way. NASA had won the Moon race, but the contest to land and find life on Mars was still open.