Category Why Mars

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.

Mars in Eclipse

The year 1977 marked a transition for Viking and a punctuation point in the Mars exploration journey. It was a year in which the Viking team gained many accolades, but it was also a year in which the experiments specifically to find life ended and critical Viking participants who had not already left moved on. On April i, “Members of the Viking Team” received the prestigious Goddard Memorial Trophy. President Jimmy Carter, taking over from Ford, wrote his congratulations: “The Viking mission is a striking example of how our opera­tions in deep space have opened up vistas of new worlds. Its success is the finest tribute that can be paid to the dedication and tremendous skills of the men and women who made it possible.”22 Carter’s NASA Administrator was Robert Frosch. He was a 49-year-old physicist with a background in government and industry management. However, he was not particularly associated with space policy. He added his congratulations to Viking participants in writing an intro­duction to a special issue on Viking of the Journal of Geophysical Research and calling for a “continuing, highly productive planetary exploration program.”23

Viking was fading into NASA’s history. In late May, NASA ended all com­munication with the automated biology laboratory. Other components of the Viking equipment functioned for a while, but eventually, one by one, they ex­pired. NASA terminated the project in 1983. NASA provided funds for ongoing data analysis. The debate over life dimmed. Even Sagan muted his position to some extent. Levin strongly held out from the dominant view. He argued that he did detect life. He would stoutly defend that position for years. He said in 1977, “We’re in the unexpected position of explaining away results that we would declare on Earth as unequivocal evidence of life.”24

The fate of Soffen, the Viking chief scientist, symbolized the poignant real­ity of Viking’s aftermath. The failure to find life, he recalled later, “clobbered exobiology. Absolutely laid it to waste.” With planetary work now centered at JPL, he tried to transfer back to Pasadena. He wanted to continue in exobiology, maybe work on exobiology issues beyond Mars. The director of JPL, Murray, said Soffen could come back to JPL, but he couldn’t work on exobiology. “I’m sorry,” said Murray. “You can have a job here, but you’re not going to work on exobiology.” And Soffen could not work on exobiology beyond Mars. Said Murray, “Hey, if there’s nothing on Mars, there’s nothing anywhere.” That, complained Soffen, was a “geologist’s point of view.”25

Soffen decided to stay at Langley for a while and then took an adjunct profes­sorship at Harvard, eventually returning to NASA and settling at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland where he turned to applications of space satel­lites to monitor planet Earth. Lederberg, Sagan, and other academics closely associated with Viking went back to their universities. Lederberg pursued re­search other than exobiology, as did most of the Viking scientists. Sagan, who had lived for two years in Pasadena during Viking’s apex as a project, returned to Cornell. More a celebrity-scientist than ever through his popular writing and a television series he hosted called Cosmos, he tried to maintain his advocacy for Mars exploration and the search for life generally, but he had few allies. The advocacy coalition that had initiated and sustained Viking atrophied.

While dubious of exobiology, Murray remained a Mars champion. He en­couraged JPL to pursue follow-on work, which fell under a classification of top priorities for the lab he called “purple pigeons.”26 These were areas of research with both intrinsic scientific and public interest. The JPL research emphasis for Mars was the concept of a Mars rover, what had once been called Viking 3. The problem for JPL and NASA was that there was minimal discretionary money for exploratory research for prototype development, and there were “purple pigeons” JPL wanted to pursue other than follow-on Mars work, some that Murray put ahead of the rover.

In 1977, a high-visibility project, Voyager, was launched. This mission had nothing to do with the earlier “Voyager” to Mars that was aborted prior to Viking. This project was conceived years before NASA’s budget plummeted to take advantage of a fortuitous alignment of the outer planets. It took on the name “Voyager” because of its extensive journey in the solar system. Voyager consisted of two probes aimed at flybys of Jupiter and Saturn, with trajectories to Uranus and Neptune. Voyagers went up in August and September, carrying golden phonograph records with a message from Earth, just in case, eons in the future, Voyager probes passed into another solar system with intelligent life. President Carter’s words were on this record with a message of peace.27

In 1978, NASA sent a mission to Venus. Like Voyager, this Venus mission had been approved before Viking landed in 1976. To the outside world, this sequence of missions—Viking, Voyager, Venus—made it appear that NASA’s planetary program was healthy and robust. Within NASA, the view was decidedly differ­ent. There were scientific advocates inside NASA who wanted to work on Mars, but they had no approved flight project. In 1977 Hinners went to the Soviet Union. “I asked my Soviet colleagues,” he recalled: “What are you doing about Mars?” He said that Russians replied, “We’ve stopped it! You found no life.”28 The Soviet Union had reoriented its program to other planets, especially Venus.

A main problem for those inside and outside NASA who wanted to elevate Mars on the agency’s agenda was the Space Shuttle and its expense. This proj­ect, begun under Fletcher, continued to have top agency priority in the era of Frosch. Human spaceflight trumped space science. Gentry Lee recalled meeting Fletcher when he came to JPL and demanded support for the shuttle. “Young man,” he said to Lee, “line up behind the shuttle.”29 Then, there were the other space science ventures with claims on NASA funding. Ford had approved both Hubble and Galileo; Carter inherited these projects and maintained them.

But when Hubble and Galileo were considered by Congress in 1977, they ran into a roadblock. The chairman of the House subcommittee considering NASA’s budget, Edward Boland (D-MA), pushed NASA to decide between Hubble and Galileo for funding. To emphasize his point, he tried to kill Hubble and, when opposition from a united astronomy community surfaced, switched to an attack on Galileo. NASA and the scientists favoring Galileo pushed back and, after a legislative struggle, prevailed. But the result of the encounter was to point up the challenges all planetary exploration—and especially Mars—faced in the post-Viking era.30

This legislative battle—which was novel in its intensity over space science— made NASA leaders extremely wary of proposing any highly expensive Mars options. The SSB supported the rover concept, but NASA saw difficulty getting a Viking 3-type project through the Carter White House/ OMB, much less Congress. But if not a rover, then what?

Mars on the Brain

In the remainder of the summer 1992, Goldin divided his time between visits to Congress to lobby for the NASA budget, especially funds for the space sta­tion, and trips to Russia to discuss possible future collaborative efforts with Yuri Koptev, head of the newly created Russian Federal Space Agency (RSA). Goldin also gave speeches, in which he extolled exploration of the Moon and Mars. He knew he could not sell Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative but wanted to keep the idea of human exploration back to the Moon and especially to Mars in the public eye as best he could. He grew extremely close to Sagan as a key advisor. Sagan biographer William Poundstone has written that Sagan’s influence on space policy was at its height when Goldin was Administrator.13 The two men saw eye to eye on Mars as the key destination for NASA and were both passion­ate about the Red Planet.

Goldin reached well beyond Sagan, however, in seeking advice. One scientist he consulted was Michael Carr. Carr vividly remembers a call he received from Goldin shortly after Goldin had become NASA Administrator. He asked him

to come from California to Washington. “Teach me about Mars,” he requested. Carr noted, “I went. We talked a couple of hours. I told him what I know. It was clear he was smart.” As far as Carr could tell, Goldin absorbed everything. He found Goldin fascinating, charming, and volatile.14

On September 25, NASA launched Mars Observer. For the first time since Viking landed in 1976, America had a mission to Mars actually under way. There was enormous elation at the time of the launch. “America is going back to Mars!” Huntress enthused. Goldin used the opportunity to declare that Observer was just the beginning of NASA’s missions to Mars. The Russians joined in the celebration, stressing the long-term, step-by-step nature of Mars exploration, and pointing out that theirs would be the next nation to go to Mars, with a 1994 mission.15

In mid-October, Goldin announced a major reorganization affecting space science. The tensions between Goldin and Fisk had worsened over time. Goldin abruptly split OSSA into two major divisions: Space Science and Mission to Planet Earth. (He later added a third.) He summarily moved Fisk from a power­ful associate administrator role to a staff position with no budget, that of chief scientist. Fisk left NASA not long thereafter.

Goldin called Huntress, then in Europe, and told him, “I just fired Fisk. You’re the Associate Administrator. I’ll see you when you get back!” Huntress was now in charge of space science. Huntress was “appalled” and also “scared.”16 He was sorry to see Fisk go. He was also worried about dealing with his unpre­dictable boss. But he shared Goldin’s view about FBC and had a program ready to show these principles in action via Discovery. Even more importantly, he strongly agreed with Goldin about the importance of Mars, scientifically and politically, and had a project, Mars Pathfinder, that would showcase the Red Planet.

He decided he could work with Goldin. He would not let the NASA Admin­istrator intimidate him, as Goldin did others. Nor would he challenge Goldin directly. “If you know Dan,” he recalled, “You don’t tell Dan, no. That’s what Len [Fisk] did. You don’t last that long.”17 The 51-year-old Huntress was very different from Goldin in manner, but he considered himself a change agent, like Goldin. They agreed on a basic strategy for exploration.

Mars was the centerpiece. Goldin stated in retrospect, “I made it the focus of the planetary program. The beauty of Mars is you have a launch window every 26 months. We needed a product line. If you come up with commonality in [technology], you can contain cost.”18

As the year ended, Huntress wrote an article summing up the Goldin- Huntress strategy as it related to Mars. He proclaimed “the New Era in Mars Exploration.” The long hiatus following Viking was over, he stated. NASA was indeed going back to Mars. He noted that various principles would guide the new era: NASA would go at every opportunity, meaning every 26 months, when the planets were aligned. NASA would go “together” with other nations, if possible. NASA would lead a Mars Sample Return mission to investigate the question of life. MSR, he said, was “the holy grail of planetary science.” And, fi­nally, NASA would use the robotic program to help enable human spaceflight to Mars.19 The robotic Mars program now had a clear, succinct strategy. Whether NASA could get the new Mars strategy off to a strong start, much less sustain it, depended greatly on whether Goldin and Huntress would continue in their present, influential roles.

On January 20, 1993, Bill Clinton became president and Al Gore his vice president. In Gore, Clinton had a vice president with strong interests in science and space. Clinton abandoned Bush’s NSC and assigned the space portfolio to Gore. Clinton retained Goldin, who had impressed Gore because of his em­phasis on cost efficiency in space. Clinton and Gore were going to mount a “re­inventing government campaign,” and NASA under Goldin could be a potential example of what might be possible. However, space and Mars were not a high priority for Clinton, for whom the economy and deficit reduction were most important when he entered office. Clinton terminated Bush’s SEI in one of his first space policy moves when he became president.

As always, Mars policy was influenced by NASA priorities in human space­flight, the dominant spending category of the agency. The space station took most of Goldin’s time and brought NASA considerable White House atten­tion in Clinton’s first year. The Clinton Office of Management and Budget, led by Leon Panetta, recommended at the outset of the new administration that the space station be killed. Goldin sought presidential reprieve, which Clinton granted, provided that he drastically downsize the station and reduce its costs. From February to June, this redesign process and an independent review of that process proceeded at a furious pace.

As it did so, Yuri Koptev, director of the RSA, sought a merger of his coun­try’s space station program with that of the United States. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the space program of Russia was in financial free fall, and Koptev sought help to salvage what he could. Goldin saw a space station merger as aiding NASA. He said it would save money and time because of the experience and expertise Russia would bring to the project. It would also make the space station more important to Clinton from a foreign policy perspective. Like his predecessor, the president was looking for ways to bolster Yeltsin and employ Russian scientists and engineers, so as to avoid proliferation of Russian missile (rocket) technology to U. S. enemies. Clinton wound up accepting a re­design option and forwarding the idea of a U. S.-Russian space station merger. Congress was slower to agree, as were the existing international partners. In June, the House of Representatives came within one vote of killing the space station. Nevertheless, by the end of the year, the space station program was saved and renamed—from Freedom to International Space Station (ISS). The president and congressional leadership met at the White House and agreed to stabilize the U. S. space station budget at $2.1 billion per year through comple­tion of assembly.

This decision kept NASA going with a measure of financial stability through­out the 1990s, in large part because it kept human spaceflight viable. As had been true of the shuttle, the space station was at once a blessing and a curse for robotic science programs. Goldin spent an enormous amount of time lobbying Congress and negotiating with Koptev on the space station.20 It was a constant headache. But ISS was a way to keep the president and vice president involved in space policy, as part of foreign policy. It was a symbol of post-Cold War U. S.-Russian cooperation for the White House. Goldin was thus important to Clinton and Gore, and that was important to his access to power generally.

In dealing with Koptev, Goldin also talked about Mars Together options for the robotic program but left it to Huntress to take the lead in this area with his Russian counterpart. He also recognized the work and contacts the Planetary Society had accomplished in its earlier Mars Together activity. Louis Friedman became involved in trying to make Mars Together work in an informal way, as an unpaid consultant, even going to Russia to facilitate negotiation.21 However, while there was progress, the viability of Mars Together depended on success in the robotic program on the parts of both the United States and Russia.

Taking Action

In mid-March, Young briefed Goldin privately on the panel’s findings. Goldin subsequently told his top managers to prepare themselves for sharp criticism. The Young report, he warned, would be the Rogers Commission of space sci­ence, referring to the devastating critique delivered by a panel headed by Wil­liam Rogers after the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.30

One point Young made that hit home to Goldin was the need for precise lines of communication and authority. It was not clear who was in charge. The Mars program had expanded rapidly, and with many projects in different stages of development at once. There had to be a specific point of contact at the program level both at headquarters and at JPL. After conferring with Weiler, Goldin called Scott Hubbard, who was away from his Ames Research Laboratory base, attending a conference. Hubbard was with Ed Heffernan, Goldin’s chief of staff. As Hubbard recalled, Heffernan’s cell phone went off. “I was told it was the boss.” Hubbard got on the line and Goldin stated, “I’ll be in California, Man­hattan Beach, on Saturday. I want to talk to you about something very impor­tant—can you be there?” Hubbard quickly responded, “Yes, of course.” (It was not a good idea to say “No” to Goldin, Hubbard thought.) It was then Thurs­day.31 Through Heffernan and “back channels,” Hubbard soon ascertained what was going to transpire. That Saturday, Hubbard met with Goldin at a hotel in Manhattan Beach. The administrator explained, “I need someone who is not tainted, who knows a lot about the Mars program but is not part of it, and who knows about science and technology, to fix this mess. It will be a stain on my legacy. It is unacceptable.”32

The two men talked for two hours, mostly Goldin telling Hubbard what he wanted him to do. Hubbard did manage to get the administrator to agree to give Hubbard a free hand in directing the recovery process. Hubbard said he had to talk to his wife and the Ames director first. “Fine,” said Goldin. “Let me know Tuesday.” The next Tuesday, Hubbard showed up in Goldin’s office and asked, “When do I start?” “Right now,” said Goldin. This was days from the rollout of the Young report. Goldin wanted Hubbard to be present when that happened so NASA could announce the appointment, showing that Goldin was already taking action in making repairs to a damaged program.33

President Bill Clinton was informed of the basic thrust of the report prior to its public release. On March 27, he wrote Goldin, in an obvious attempt to bolster the NASA Administrator’s morale in view of the criticism he had already received and would receive when the report was announced. Clinton said he regarded robotic exploration of Mars and search for life “an important national priority.” Further, he said, he “continued” to be committed “to a sustained and incrementally more aggressive program,” as revealed in his proposed NASA budget for FY 2001. The use of the adjective “incrementally” may well have reflected Clinton’s understanding of the report’s basic criticism—that Goldin had pushed the Mars program too fast, too far, too cheaply.

Clinton seemed willing to admit that the White House had asked NASA to do too much for too little. His new budget, announced officially in early February, gave NASA its first increase in seven years. NASA’s budget would go from $13.6 billion to $14.3 billion. Nearly half of the $700 million augmentation would go to science, including Mars research.34 In his March 27 letter, Clinton directed Goldin to move forward and make changes necessary “to conduct a more robust and successful program of sustained robotic exploration of Mars.”35

On March 28, the Young report was released. Weiler and Young announced the results to a packed auditorium at NASA Headquarters, and Weiler outlined the initial NASA response. Young said his team was reasonably certain that MPL failed because the engines were shut off prematurely as it came in for a landing and it crashed onto Mars at 50 miles per hour. The two microprobes that it carried never had an opportunity to demonstrate success, but had in any event not been tested sufficiently and were “not ready for launch.” Weiler and Young both defended the FBC concept as basically sound and said it should not be abandoned. However, Weiler said that clearly NASA had “pushed the envelope too far.” It was now time to reconsider the envelope, pull back, and regroup.

Beyond the technical causes and misuse of FBC, Young said his panel had found organizational issues. There was ineffective communication between NASA Headquarters and JPL and between JPL and Lockheed Martin. More­over, the mission team was asked to do the impossible with what the Young panel felt was a budget 30% less than needed. The failed MPL was provided far fewer funds than Pathfinder. Weiler added that decentralization and headquar­ters downsizing had also been pushed too far. Also, part of the problem was that there were inadequate financial reserves, and that all the program funds had been sent to JPL and other centers. Weiler said he was now going to keep pro­gram reserve funds at headquarters. That would force center program managers to come to headquarters if they felt something was going wrong.

Young said his panel recommended it be clearer as to who was in charge both at headquarters and at JPL. Weiler announced that Scott Hubbard, present and visible for the occasion, was coming to headquarters from Ames Research Cen­ter to be a single point of contact for all NASA Mars exploration. He noted that JPL director Ed Stone would soon be naming Hubbard’s counterpart at that center. Weiler said the ultimate goal of the program remained “the search for past and/or current life on Mars,” but instead of MSR as the immediate driver, NASA would have the interim goal of “follow the water” as a focus. Water was pivotal to life as currently understood. He pointed out that Hubbard would report to him and lead in developing a new program strategy. He said the plan would cover a decade.36 Almost immediately, the media referred to Hubbard as “the Mars Czar.”

Young subsequently told interviewers that people were trying to do too much with too little and not adequately conveying their concerns to others, particu­larly upper management. He said, “No one had a sense of how much trouble they were actually in.” He commented that “JPL managers did not come out as forcefully as appropriate” when discussing their problems with headquarters, and headquarters in turn may have misheard what JPL managers were trying to say.37 Shirley told the media that JPL had tried to inform headquarters that problems were developing and that headquarters said “you have to do it.” JPL then went back and tried, and in doing so took too many risks. She said that if you got to Goldin, you could get him to listen, but people at headquarters and centers feared approaching him. “When you laid out the facts for Dan, he would generally agree,” she said. “But he would push you as hard as he could [and] when he pushed his people, they were afraid to say no.”38

Hinners recalled a telephone exchange with Stone on one occasion which illustrated the issues as he saw them: “I said: ‘We are out of money. We need $30 million more.’ Stone replied: ‘I committed to headquarters to do this project for the amount involved. I’m not going back to ask for more money.’ ” So Hinners accepted the refusal and the company did the best it could for the money it had. “We all fooled ourselves,” he reflected.39 John Casani, a senior manager at JPL, who led investigations of both Mars failures for JPL, put it this way: Goldin “said if you couldn’t do it, he would find somebody who could. He was putting pressure on us, and we probably should have stood up to him, but we all got to believing we could do it.”40

Implementing amidst Conflict

Implementation of the Mars Exploration Program, elevated to a more favored basis, and projected to grow substantially by O’Keefe, ran into an unfavorable environment soon after he left. On March ii, 2005, the White House announced that Michael Griffin would be replacing O’Keefe. Age 56, Griffin was a lifelong space enthusiast who had started his career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and later headed the ill-fated Moon-Mars initiative of George H. W. Bush. He had an engineering PhD and several other degrees and was viewed as arguably the most qualified man in the country to implement Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, from a technical standpoint. Griffin had coauthored a technical book, Space Vehicle Design, and had also written about the policy need for NASA to go beyond the shuttle and space station and get back to its true mission: exploration. He came to NASA from Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Phys­ics Laboratory, where he headed its Space Division. While his orientation was human spaceflight, he was also an advocate of robotic exploration and had, as a young engineer, worked on robotic missions to Mars at JPL.1 One of his reasons for leaving JPL and NASA was the erosion of robotic Mars activity after Viking. Although very different in style—Griffin was shy and taciturn whereas Goldin was outgoing and manic—he shared Goldin’s passion for space. Like Goldin, he returned to NASA to fulfill a life’s dream.

A big difference, however, was that Goldin favored the robotic Mars pro-

gram and looked for savings in human spaceflight, particularly the shuttle. For Griffin, human spaceflight took precedence in his mind, even if science had to suffer as a result. Griffin wanted to focus on getting the shuttle back to flight, completing the International Space Station, and especially implementing Bush’s Moon, Mars, and beyond human spaceflight vision. This required an empha­sis on building an expensive new rocket and other equipment relevant to the Moon. He looked to his Science Mission director to run the robotic science pro­gram, including Mars. The science directors who served under Griffin during his tenure had their own problems with implementing the “follow-the-water” strategy and particularly technical and cost issues with Mars Science Laboratory development. As much as he might have wanted to concentrate on the human program—and felt he had to do so because of national policy decisions—Griffin found that contentious decisions regarding science and Mars kept coming to his desk. A man who savored rationality and disliked politics, he found himself embroiled in the politics of space science.

Delaying MSL’s Launch

Weiler and Griffin deeply wanted to launch MSL in 2009 and follow that up with MAVEN in 2013 and a possible rover capable of testing technology for collecting samples in 2016. Toward that end, they had wanted to hold to the 2009 schedule until the last moment possible for decision in January. JPL told headquarters, “Trust us.” But Weiler said, “Trust and verify.” In November, Weiler established an interim milestone that would have to be met in December. He did not want to take decision making to January—the point Griffin had set as the time to choose to go forward or not to do so.122

At JPL, in November, there was turmoil, as the laboratory struggled mightily to make the deadline. Elachi was like Griffin in deeply wanting to launch MSL in 2009, and he was holding out hope that JPL would come through. Gentry Lee and others had persisted in arguing that JPL could not make the deadline. The laboratory was working double shifts, pursuing technological solutions to various problems in parallel efforts, and spending money accordingly.123

Rob Manning was the chief engineer on MSL and emphasized that the atti­tude at JPL is such that when critics say “can’t do,” you show them “can do!” But Manning saw several problems with MSL in November which remained to be mitigated and probably could not be in the brief time left. Weiler sent Figueroa with a review team to JPL, and Manning was the bearer of bad news. Weiler and his advisors had established certain requirements that had to be met in Decem­ber. JPL would be unable to meet those requirements, it was increasingly clear. “We had hoped we would come up with some tricks to get us through. We ran out of tricks,” Manning recalled.124

The “bad news” went to Elachi and Weiler. Weiler knew what was happening through McCuistion. McCuistion advised Weiler to pull the plug. Telephone calls went back and forth. The principal parties agreed—Elachi, Weiler, and then the associate administrator, Scolese. A consensus view went to Griffin, who concurred.125 In pushing for a decision sooner than later, Weiler made what he regarded in hindsight as his “wisest decision” since returning to head SMD.126 He could have spent a very great deal of money pushing MSL to “the cliff,” and then would almost certainly have retreated to a delay decision, or even worse—pushed ahead. It was better to admit reality sooner than later and use the money for other needs. Ironically, Stern would have made the same decision—to delay—even sooner. But what Weiler did was build a coalition of support for the decision to take to Griffin.

On December 4, Griffin, Weiler, McCuistion, and Elachi held a joint press conference in NASA’s auditorium to announce the final decision. It was to delay MSL to 2011. That delay would add $400 million to MSL’s costs, pushing it to at least as much as $2.3 billion, and causing financial distress to other Mars and Sci­ence Directorate projects. The media reported that the four managers looked “grim-faced” as each spoke to reporters and gave views concerning the decision.127

Griffin said the major issue was with actuators, gears that would move MSL’s wheels on Mars. NASA could have continued to rush to solve the problems, and might even have succeeded on time, “but we’ve determined that trying for ’09 would require us to assume too much risk—more than I think is appropri­ate for a flagship mission like Mars Science Laboratory.” Griffin made it clear he regarded MSL as NASA’s top priority in the science program and one of NASA’s top priorities overall, right after the human spaceflight activities. Asked about the increase in costs, Griffin responded that the rise was a function of the technical challenges of MSL. “We know how to control costs—just build more of what you built the last time.”128

McCuistion commented on the technical issues, saying that NASA could not take a chance with the actuators. If they did not function properly, the $2-billion-plus vehicle would turn into “a metric ton of junk.” Elachi empha­sized how hard JPL had worked to make the deadline and how disappointed he personally was, but he agreed with the decision to delay. Weiler noted there would be “impacts” of the decision that would be negative, such as postponing other missions. However, he also cited a possible silver lining. It would help force NASA to move in a direction that made long-term sense for the next stage of the Mars program. He had met the day before, he said, with his ESA counterpart, David Southwood. Southwood had money and schedule problems with ESA’s top Mars priority, ExoMars, scheduled for 2016. Southwood needed to collaborate to help pay for this expensive rover mission. Thanks in part to the MSL overruns and delay, NASA also needed help with its Mars missions, beginning in 2016. Finding a way to work together on future missions, said Weiler, was a “no brainer.”129

Reframing Strategy

On February 13, 2012, the FY 2013 budget was released. The president provided a budget of $17.71 billion, a slight decrease from the previous year. The plane­tary program was cut 20%, with Mars absorbing most of the decrease. The Mars Together effort with ESA ended. The NASA Administrator, at the rollout of the FY 2013 budget, emphasized that NASA was not walking away from Mars exploration missions. He explained that the issue was lack of money for another big science Mars program. “Flagships are expensive; … we just could not afford to do another one.”1 But Bolden and his new associate administrator for science, John Grunsfeld, who had come aboard in January, made it clear they were not abandoning Mars. However, they also were reframing the program. The way they did it reflected a different scientific and political strategy.

While Bolden and the 54-year-old Grunsfeld were both technically trained (Bolden in engineering, Grunsfeld in physics), what shaped their approach to space policy most distinctly was their astronaut backgrounds. Both had flown in space, with Grunsfeld’s prime experience being in repair of the Hubble Space Telescope. They both saw the divide between the human spaceflight and ro­botic cultures at NASA as hurtful and unnecessary. In speaking with Grunsfeld, Bolden charged him to bring the programs together in terms of Mars explora­tion. If he could do that—and it had been tried before and not succeeded—this would help the Mars program by giving it a dual purpose within NASA and also help Bolden sell it to the White House as enabling the president’s goal of human spaceflight to Mars in the 2030s.

It was not a strategy that Mars program managers at NASA particularly liked, and it was one that Mars scientists feared. But the two programs shared an inter­est in “life” questions—“life on” and “life to.” The environmental conditions on Mars which would make Martian life possible or present risks to human explorers had to be understood. Life research was the bridge between the two programs. Moreover, MSR required new technologies of descent and exit from Mars that astronauts would require. Bolden and the science director agreed on this strategy. Mars Together with ESA might be replaced with Mars Together within NASA.

Thus, in announcing the new FY 2013 budget on February 13, Bolden stated he had put Grunsfeld in charge of a cross-agency team to determine next steps in the Mars program. The team consisted of Grunsfeld; the associate admin­istrator for human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier; the chief scientist, Waleed Abdalati; and the chief technologist, Mason Peck. What Bolden wanted, he said, was an “integrated strategy to ensure that the next steps for Mars exploration will support science as well as human exploration goals, and potentially take ad­vantage of the 2018-2020 exploration window.”2 Grunsfeld reinforced Bolden’s message by stating that Mars missions would track radiation as well as other issues relevant to human exploration.3 An “integrated strategy” was the new mantra for Mars. NASA would participate in modest ways in Europe’s ExoMars program, through certain instruments. But NASA’s prime goal would now be a U. S.-run mission in 2018 or 2020.

Bolden followed up with an op-ed in Space News. He emphasized his “new strategy that takes into account science objectives, human exploration goals and forward-looking developments in our space technology program.” He called for a “synergistic approach” and reminded the space community of his experi­ences. “As a former NASA astronaut who has flown four missions on the space shuttle, including the 1990 flight that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, I’ve learned that scientific discovery and human exploration go hand-in-hand.” Without human repairs in space, Hubble would have failed to be the “amazing success” it has been. He declared that the “next step” in realizing NASA’s vision to explore the unknown was to unravel the questions of “life on Mars.” That could best be done, he vowed, by “coordinating NASA’s scientific and human exploration programs.”4 By putting Grunsfeld in charge, he was making science the driver in this endeavor. Whether this strategy would work remained to be seen. Grunsfeld embodied the unity of science and human spaceflight: he had flown five missions, three as a Hubble repairman, and he had been NASA chief scientist from 2003 to 2004.

Lowell and Life on Mars

In the nineteenth century, Giovanni Schiaparelli, using telescopes of his time, saw features on the Mars surface he called “canali,” or channels, later translated into English as “canals.” Percival Lowell, an American astronomer with consid­erable personal wealth, became intrigued with “Martian canals” and observed them closely with his own telescopes. He hypothesized in a 1906 book, Mars and Its Canals, that these markings were made by Martians. “That Mars is inhabited by beings of some sort or other we may consider as certain,” he wrote.1

In Lowell’s mind, Mars was Earth’s sister planet, but she was dying, drought stricken, arid. He could see through his telescopes that the poles of Mars were white. Did it not make sense that Martian engineers constructed giant engineer­ing systems to transport water from frozen poles to arid regions elsewhere?

These explained the canals to Lowell. What Lowell believed many other scien­tists of his day did not. But Lowell held intensely to his views and proselytized them to willing readers and listeners.

Among those who listened were science fiction writers, who took Lowell’s speculations to greater imaginative lengths. In the first half of the twentieth cen­tury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur Clarke found Mars a fruitful subject of writing. Named for the Roman god of war, Mars was always for some a potential threat to Earth. Orson Welles, in 1938, made that threat amazingly real for many. Taking his cue from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, Orson Welles used the new medium of radio to make an emergency announcement on his evening broadcast that Martians had invaded the United States, with sightings in New Jersey. Terrified, many Americans “bolted their doors and prepared for the worst.”2

Fears of Martians, whether ruthless warriors or benign canal builders, were well at rest by the 1950s. Helped by better telescopes and the observatory Lowell had established in Arizona, scientists in the pre-World War II years learned more and more about the Red Planet. World War II spawned a range of new technologies that proved useful in astronomical research, although not intended initially for this purpose. The Office of Naval Research, in the immediate post­World War II years, supported planetary research at several universities. The U. S. Army and Air Force developed technologies that could be advanced and used potentially in connection with space exploration.

In 1948, Gerald Kuiper of the University of Chicago “used infrared spec­trometry to confirm the presence of carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere” and at the polar caps. American astronomers, as well as those from other coun­tries, created organizations to plan research in planetary astronomy. Mars was a focus of much attention. A “Mars Committee” emerged that enlisted scientists who would “meet annually to share the results of their observations of the red planet.” Growing scientific understanding of Mars, while slow and ambiguous, indicated that Mars was extremely unlikely to have life resembling earthlings. Mars appeared too frigid and too dry for Earth-like beings. But the similarities between Mars and Earth were too intriguing to ignore and rule out possibilities of life in some form.3

Mariner 9 as Catalyst

In May 1971 NASA launched Mariners 8 and 9. Mariner 8 failed at launch, but Mariner 9 succeeded in moving toward Mars. NASA was fortunate to have had two Mariner launches in 1971. When the Mars program was revived after the Voyager demise, Newell, as NASA associate administrator, argued for spending extra money for a second Mariner. Webb had gone along with this view, as had Paine when he became NASA Administrator.38 Shortly after the Mariner launch, the Soviet Union sent two probes, which it called Mars 2 and 3, toward the Red Planet.39 NASA determined that the USSR spacecraft were much heavier than U. S. probes. That could only mean that they not only were orbiters (as were Mariners 8 and 9) but carried landers, and possibly even biological detection equipment. NASA sought to establish contact with the Soviets to see if there could be some cooperation in the respective endeavors, but the Soviet Union

remained secretive about the objectives of its Mars program. The goal of Mari­ner 9 was well known—to orbit Mars and take photos of as much of the planet as possible. The aim was to scout possible landing sites for Viking—places both safe and promising potential habitability. But if the Soviets succeeded in landing with their probes, they would leapfrog Viking by more than four years.

By November, it was clear that the United States would reach Mars first with Mariner 9. There was considerable speculation and debate among scientists about what Mariner 9 would see. A host of scientists associated with the Mariner program gathered at JPL’s mission control center in Pasadena, California, as the probe approached. Sagan, optimistic as ever, was a principal investigator on the project and eagerly awaited.

On November 12, the evening before Mariner was scheduled to go into orbit, a remarkable panel discussion was held at Caltech, entitled “Mars and the Mind of Man.” There were numerous media representatives there to hear the discus­sion and also interview Sagan and other scientists. The panel was chaired by New York Times science editor Walter Sullivan. In addition to Sagan, the key planetary scientist on the panel was Murray of Caltech. Science fiction writers Arthur Clarke and Ray Bradbury also were on the panel. Both had written of life on Mars.

Sagan and Murray had become prominent antagonists on the Mars life issue. Sagan pointed out that scientists (like Murray) had been too quick to reject the possibility of life-forms on Mars. “There have been excesses in both directions,” argued Sagan. “And one direction was the premature conclusion that there isn’t life on Mars.” While data were incomplete, said Sagan, all the necessary ele­ments of photosynthesis—the life process of plants—existed on Mars: water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide. The ice caps, which advanced and receded with the change of seasons, could leave pools of water that could contain life forms.

The science fiction writers were in Sagan’s corner, but Murray dismissed such views. He charged that even good scientists (like Sagan) were deluding themselves. Life on Mars was “wishful thinking.” He attributed such thinking, which made scientists misinterpret data, to a “deep-seated emotional desire” on the part of humanity to find “another Earth” somewhere. Mars was not that Earth.

Privately, Sagan and Murray would debate at length. Andrew Chaikin has written that Sagan’s comments would “make Murray want to roll his eyes.” Sagan was three years Murray’s junior, but they appeared to be on “opposite sides of a generational divide.” They respected one another and would eventu­

ally become friends. But with Mariner 9 in the offing, they simply disagreed strongly. Sagan privately once snapped at Murray, “You at Caltech live on the side of pessimism.” Murray did not respond, but thought, “And you at Cornell, Carl, live on the side of optimism.” Murray, on the panel, told Sagan and the others he accused of “wishful thinking” that Mariner would settle the issue, and he expected it to provide “the observational stick” to force Sagan and his allies to recognize reality.40 For Murray, the absence of evidence proved his point. But Sagan came from a different perspective. As he later wrote, “The absence of evidence is not evidence of evidence.”41

Everyone would have to wait a while, however. The next day, Mariner 9 suc­cessfully moved into Mars orbit. Going into Mars orbit was itself a great first. But a huge dust storm swirled about Mars, obscuring almost totally images of the planet. NASA decided to simply let Mariner 9 go around and around Mars and wait out the storm.

Meanwhile, later in November, the two Soviet probes joined Mariner 9 in circling the Red Planet. The USSR spacecraft did not have the fuel to match that of Mariner 9 and thus wait a lengthy time to see Mars. They soon released their landers. Only one made it successfully to the Mars surface. This landing was indeed a significant first. However, something went wrong and after 20 seconds the probe’s communications ceased. It transmitted no images of Mars.42

The next round of Mars exploration thus depended on Mariner 9, once the waiting was over. In late December 1971 the dust cloud gradually cleared. Sci­entists at JPL saw four dark spots in the northern hemisphere that peered up at them. They thought them to be big craters. But eventually, as views improved, it became obvious that these dark spots were mountains, and in fact gigantic volcanoes. The scientists’ reaction at the time was a collective “Oh, my God!”43 The largest of these volcanoes had to be 15 miles high, three times the height of Mount Everest. The crater at its summit was the size of Rhode Island; its base that ofArizona. Soon they saw an enormous rift valley that extended at the Mars equator region 2,500 miles, as well as a canyon system that was 75 miles wide and 4 miles deep. Moreover, they eventually saw what seemed like channels (the “canals” of Martian lore) that might have been carved by running water.44 Mi­chael Carr, a young scientist on loan from the U. S. Geological Survey, recalled his sheer excitement when he saw the images. Mars “was a wonderland. It had unfolded before us.”45

Humanity’s image of Mars was suddenly transformed. The science fiction writers in the pre-space age had painted a Mars that was like Earth. The Mari-

ners of the 1960s had made Mars into a replica of the Moon. Mariner 9 revealed a unique planet. For the first time, earthlings saw the real Mars, and it was spectacularly different from Earth or the Moon. Murray admitted he was totally surprised. As a geologist as well as planetary scientist, he could detect signs of an extremely active planet in the past. He had himself “been the victim of his own preconceptions about Mars, even as he’d been warning his colleagues and the public not to fall prey to their own.”46 While Murray still did not believe there was evidence of life on Mars, he was now open to the possibility of being yet surprised again. As for Sagan and the exobiology community, they became more convinced that if they looked in the right places in the right way they could find life. For skeptics and optimists alike, the importance of Viking enlarged immensely.

Mariner 9 was a strong catalyst for Viking. But Viking would not succeed if NASA did not survive.