Category Why Mars

Von Braun and Life to Mars

In the 1950s, a former German rocket engineer, working on missiles for the U. S. Defense Department, began writing about and advocating human spaceflight to Mars. To be sure, there would be gradual steps to Mars, said Wernher von Braun in a series of articles in Colliers, a high-circulation magazine at the time. He painted a sequence of technical developments over years. Between 1952 and 1954, von Braun proclaimed that there would first be a spaceship, then a space station, and then a trip to the Moon. But Mars was the ultimate destiny for human spaceflight, although such a voyage might not come for many decades. Von Braun, an engineer, whose brilliance was matched by his passion for ex­ploration, believed that advances in rocketry would someday make extending human life to Mars possible. Von Braun’s stepping-stone approach to Mars was called by some “the von Braun paradigm.”4

Von Braun subsequently expanded the articles into four books. In his 1956 book (coauthored by Willy Ley) he assumed that plant life would greet visitors from Earth. However, it was not life on Mars that most interested von Braun; it was developing technology to take human beings to Mars that he craved.5 For scientists and engineers who wanted to know if life existed on Mars or humans could get to Mars, there was a barrier before 1957. Technology to escape Earth’s gravity did not exist—or at least had not been demonstrated—prior to Sputnik. The Soviet Union in 1957 opened the space frontier in a move that shocked the United States and the world. All of a sudden, dreams about space exploration came closer to reality.

All the same, the two motivations to explore Mars proved a double-edged sword for Mars advocates. The von Braun approach was pursued initially by engineers who emphasized developing technology to take humanity into space. The intellectual descendants of Lowell were scientists interested in discovering life through robotic means. The scientists were mainly users of space technol­ogy, not developers. The relation between the robotic program and the human spaceflight advocates was problematic from the outset. The engineers behind human spaceflight wanted to go to the Moon. They wanted to go to Mars too, but the Moon came first, since getting there was their immediate interest, and the von Braun stepping-stone approach was a method to which they subscribed. Many scientists did not find the Moon particularly interesting, especially those anxious to discover extraterrestrial life. They looked to explore Mars via robotic means for quicker answers to the question, are we alone? The interests were different, and so were the priorities of the two advocacy communities.

Thus, there was a long dual legacy of fascination with Mars. But to get started in answering this call required going beyond scientists and engineers, to politi­cians. Exploration required a strong additional stimulus, because government

would have to get involved in a substantial way and spend a great deal of money. Just to take an initial step in the Red Planet’s direction would require political will, organization, and the push of a large program. What would get politicians aboard? Which agency in government would take the lead in managing space policy?

The Fall of Mars

The problem was that Carter’s budget, released at the beginning of 1979, had no money for any new planetary missions. Although holding back on Mars—about which there was still division as to what to propose in the near term—NASA had hoped to begin work on a mission to Venus, as well as one to Halley’s Comet. The Halley’s Comet mission was seen as an opportunity to take advantage of Halley’s once-in-a-generation return to Earth’s vicinity. When Carter elimi­nated any new start in planetary science, NASA had to accommodate Venus, Halley’s Comet, and Mars within a budgetary category allowing discretionary spending for exploring possible future work. That category now was taxed to the full and then some. Hinners and Murray had to decide on priorities, and Mars gave way to Venus and Halley’s Comet.33

Abruptly, almost all work was cancelled at JPL on Mars. “We are not cutting back on Mars work because of diminishing interest in Mars or in the follow-up [to the Viking] mission,” said Geoffrey Briggs, who had taken over as acting director of the Office of Space Science and Applications’s Planetary Division. “Although the planning and design of a new Mars mission is being reduced to a fairly low level, we will be maintaining to a much higher level the analysis of Viking Mars data we now have.”34

Steve Squyres, a recent Cornell PhD, who had been inspired by Sagan and other Viking researchers, ran into contrary advice from various senior plan­etary scientists. “Don’t focus on Mars,” he was told. It was a career “risk,” they said.35 The atmosphere at JPL was such that many scientists were discouraged from pursuing Mars work. John Beckman, planetary program manager at JPL, declared, “Our knowledge of Mars now vastly outreaches our knowledge of Venus and other planets, and it’s time to even up our knowledge and balance our approach.” He said he doubted NASA would get back to Mars until the 1990s.36 Daniel McCleese, a young scientist at JPL, recalls that when he talked up Mars, “I ran into a very, very strong pushback from NASA, along the lines of ‘We’ve gone to Mars with Viking. It is a dead planet, no longer very interesting to NASA, and we are headed for the outer planets.’ ”37

At the end of 1979, Carter’s OMB called for no new starts in planetary science for a second year in a row. This was a decision that had implications not only for Mars but extending to other robotic science programs as well. Frosch appealed to Carter, who forced Frosch to choose among various projects that might get a go-ahead. Frosch was not about to sacrifice an astronomy mission, the Gamma Ray Observatory, for a Halley’s Comet project, the priority for Murray and other solar system researchers. The president said he also favored the Gamma Ray Observatory because of his interest in black holes, about which he had been reading of late.38 Planetary exploration was put in a position secondary to astronomy missions aimed at the cosmos. The mission to Halley’s Comet was not going to happen, at least one led by the United States. There was a sharp disconnect between Carter’s avowed personal excitement about space explora­tion and his spending decisions.

Whatever potential NASA had for a Viking follow-on was lost in the transi­tion from Ford to Carter and NASA’s continuing ambivalence about what to do next. The ambivalence arose from the fact that most Mars advocates wanted to

take the next steps beyond Viking—a rover and then MSR. But NASA leaders also knew they could not possibly sell such an ambitious mission in the political environment the agency faced.

Designing a New Program

Age 52, Scott Hubbard was a longtime NASA official. With degrees in physics and astronomy, he had risen through the ranks of NASA-Ames and was associate director of that laboratory at the time he got his call from Goldin. A week after NASA announced Hubbard’s appointment, Stone at JPL reluctantly named Fir – ouz Naderi to be his counterpart as the single point of contact on Mars. Stone had wanted Naderi for a different assignment, but headquarters prevailed. It was made clear by Weiler’s deputy, Earle Huckins, that “Dan Goldin wanted the very best talent applied to fixing the Mars program.”49 Like Hubbard, Naderi was a veteran scientist-manager but had not been directly connected with the two Mars failures. The two men—Hubbard and Naderi—did not know one another, but they “clicked.” Hubbard, however, kept reminding Naderi that he was a “NASA-man,” not a “JPL-man.” Naderi went out of his way to come across in that way in his dealings with Hubbard—and JPL. There was much anxiety on Stone’s part that JPL would be punished for the failures and lose its prized position as lead center for planetary missions.50 He had reason to be worried, as there were severe critics ofJPL in NASA Headquarters. One senior official urged Goldin to replace JPL top management.51

The third key member of the recovery team was James Garvin. Garvin was a scientist at NASA-Goddard who had been a graduate student at Brown under Tim Mutch, the Viking investigator and briefly NASA associate administra­tor for science. Garvin had worked on Mars Observer and had been leading the Decadal Planning Team for Goldin on NASA’s long-term future. Goldin himself asked Garvin to join Hubbard and Naderi. Garvin was to play a major role in developing a strong connection between the team and the broader Mars technical community.52 Hubbard wanted to reach beyond NASA and its vari­ous elite advisors to Mars investigators generally. Garvin was to help assemble a series of workshops with Mars scientists who thereby would provide input to the recovery team’s decisions. These workshops would evolve into a novel mechanism, the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), which would become an ongoing connection between NASA and the broader Mars research community.

Finally, Hubbard asked two Viking veterans, Jim Martin and Gentry Lee, to serve as advisors. They would be the core of Hubbard’s “kitchen cabinet.” Weiler had already set some guidelines for the new program, but it would be up to Hubbard and his team to determine pace and specific missions. The quest for life—past or present—was still the ultimate goal of the robotic program. Getting to it, however, would be through a different strategy.

There were two Mars decisions that came up almost immediately in April for NASA which were important to recovery. One was forced on NASA by the schedule. The other was one Hubbard personally pushed to help free his team to develop a restructured program.53

Weiler took the lead on the first.54 Under the now-suspended Mars Surveyor Program, NASA was to launch an orbiter and lander every two years. The next window was coming up very quickly—2001. JPL and contractor Lockheed Mar­tin were building the spacecraft. What was to be done?

Weiler reasoned that the orbiter had failed in 1999 owing to the bizarre mis­take in communication between contractor and JPL over metric/English navi­gation units. The orbiter had been technically sound as far as anyone knew. On the other hand, the lander, which had crashed, required significant modification.

After getting advice from Hubbard and others, Weiler gave a go-ahead to develop the orbiter and cancelled the lander. The termination decision did not please Lockheed Martin or JPL, but served to send a message Weiler wanted to transmit—that he was taking more authority over the program.55 The days when decision making was largely delegated and headquarters stood back, downsizing as it did so, were over. Weiler was intent on building up a more robust Science Mission Directorate, and he did not intend to be a passive manager. The 2001 orbiter mission was called Odyssey, in honor of Arthur C. Clarke’s book and screenplay for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The next decision was the indefinite postponement of the MSR mission. Weiler had indicated that it was coming, but Hubbard made sure it came right away. An early MSR had driven decision making on Mars since the program reorientation following the meteorite excitement. Hubbard did not want it to drive the recovery effort. When would MSR come? Hubbard believed that MSR was the right goal for the robotic program—but it had to come only when “ready,” and that would probably be beyond the 10-year program he and his associates were designing. Naderi called the proposed accelerated MSR mission “science fiction.”56 Hubbard detected at least four significant technological bar­riers to MSR success. He went to JPL and confronted MSR’s project manager, O’Neil. He pointed out the technical challenges. He asked, “What makes you so sure you can overcome these problems?” In addition, Hubbard challenged the MSR cost estimate. Then at $750 million, it was hopelessly low in his view.57

Hubbard subsequently went to a large workshop of Mars scientists, armed with a new sample return estimate. There may have been 65 to 80 people there, as he recalled. Most of them fervently embraced MSR as a goal as soon as pos­sible. But Hubbard posed this question to the group: “The current estimate we have is that MSR will cost $2 billion plus. Where do I go to get a sample worth that?” No one in the audience had an answer.58

The next step for Hubbard was to go to Weiler, who agreed with his position to put MSR on indefinite hold. Finally, Hubbard and Weiler met with Goldin, who had been the champion of the accelerated MSR mission. Before we go for MSR, Hubbard told the administrator, “you’ve got to have scientific under­standing.” But, he emphasized, the Mars community, including the astrobiolo – gists, did not have that understanding. Moreover, to get scientific answers would take the development of “four missing technologies.” There simply wasn’t the knowledge or time to make an early launch. MSR would have to be deferred for some years, he explained. Typically, Goldin responded to statements about dif­ficulties with “You’re not trying hard enough,” But not this time. Goldin could not have liked what he heard, but he did not object. The message subsequently went to Stone: “You must go along!”59 The MSR project was cancelled.

It fell to Hubbard to break the news about MSR to the French. Goldin had enlisted them in planning for an MSR mission. The French were not happy,

nor were other potential international partners. Hubbard left the door open to possible later participation, but not in the near term.60

Reconstituting MSL

Weiler’s first task was to consider any changes in managing MSL, delayed two years. Naderi, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars director, had been suc­ceeded a few years earlier by Fuk Li. The consensus in NASA was that Li was hamstrung in overseeing MSL by Stern.2 Indeed, JPL and the Mars science community pointed fingers at Stern for many of MSL’s problems. The conse­quence was that the only significant personnel change Weiler made was to move the JPL project manager, Cook, to a deputy slot. Pete Theisinger, the project manager for Spirit and Opportunity, and one of JPL’s most respected managers, was put in charge. The fact that Cook remained attested to the fact that NASA and JPL held him in high regard and believed that his expertise was essential. But NASA leaders also wanted to show Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, and others that it would not tolerate cost overruns.3

Cook soon developed a plan for Theisinger, JPL, and NASA showing how the various technical issues that had led to delay could be mitigated. The plan was approved up the line, and additional organizational and personnel adjust­ments made. Then, JPL got to work in making the technical improvements. Actuators were the prime culprit, but so also were avionics, sampling instru­ments, and other technologies. As Cook reflected in a paper he subsequently wrote, “As the project got bigger and more complex, the problems grew not linearly, but geometrically.”4

It was not long before NASA and JPL began feeling fortunate that the deci­sion to delay was made. But the cost increases in MSL went beyond the $400 million calculated at the time the decision was announced in December 2008. Soon MSL was up to $2.5 billion in total costs. The good news was that some of MSL’s harshest critics, such as Lee at JPL, were seeing MSL as viable for a 2011 launch.5

As Weiler saw the prospects of MSL improve, he put more money into the Mars program. He tried to replenish it after years of cutbacks. But he needed

to plan for the post-MSL future and how to pay for it. He saw a Mars Together strategy as imperative.