Category Why Mars

Keeping the Dream Alive

While NASA pondered options and postponed advocacy to the White House and Congress, a diminished but persistent band of supporters inside and outside government struggled to keep the dream of Mars exploration alive. Rather than being depressed by the consensus view of Viking’s failure to find life, a cluster of planetary science graduate students at the University of Colorado Boulder were electrified by what Viking did discover. Carol Stoker, one of their leaders, read everything she could about Viking and concluded that there had been a “rush to judgment” about the absence of life on Mars.39 Also, if life perhaps was not on Mars, then human life should be brought to Mars, she and her peers believed. Another of the leaders of the group—one who, like Stoker, would later work for NASA—was Chris McKay.40 Meeting in halls, over meals, and eventually organizing a course, this group in the late 1970s began studying what it would take to revive robotic and human Mars exploration in the post-Viking period.

The students were given legitimacy by Charles Barth, the director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder. However, they acted largely on their own. Another person who ener­gized them was Ben Clark, a former Viking team member from Martin-Marietta, the prime contractor for Viking. Clark was based in Denver and had written a paper titled “The Viking Project—the Case for Men on Mars.” He extolled the possibilities and communicated with the students. The students were enthused and let their imaginations soar, considering the potential of “terraforming” Mars, engineering the planet so as to make it habitable.

As the group reached out, they gained new members, developed their “Mars Study Project,” and took on a catchy and enticing name, the “Mars Under­ground.”41 Members wore red buttons they concealed and could flash to nonbe­lievers and others. The buttons conveyed the impression that the group consti­tuted a secret society. Members discovered many other “closet Martians” willing to join their cause. Stoker recalled that the group seemed to be filling a need, attracting adherents in the manner of a “social movement.” A journalist the stu­dents met suggested they hold a national workshop on Mars. He thought there would be considerable interest. The students, even as many looked to graduate, began planning such a conference for 1981. It took place, and 100 scientists, engineers, and others came. Those from NASA were primarily from JPL and Ames. Participants gave papers and networked. This ranged from serious Mars researchers to what McKay called “the lunatic fringe” of the Mars community. In contrast to the majority view that there were no intelligent Martians, this group, known as the “Face on Mars” advocates, believed that Viking had re­vealed a structure on Mars that resembled a face. Moreover, they charged that NASA had conspired to hide this reality from the public. They were a distinct minority at the “Case for Mars” conference, as it was called, but they were wel­come. The Mars Underground was open to all Mars adherents.42

What the Boulder meeting did for those who attended went well beyond technical matters that consumed most of the formal presentations. “The first conference was magic,” Stoker said. “People walked out of there feeling like they’d been freed from prison… we broke the taboo.” It was possible to think about Mars and all its possibilities for those who came.43 By the time this meet­ing took place, there was another advocacy group also asserting its claims. The Mars Underground was ad hoc, calling itself a “closely knit but loosely woven network of individuals, representing government, private industry, and indi – viduals.”44 In contrast to the Mars Underground, this other body was organized, well funded, and led by established and influential scientists.

The dynamo was Carl Sagan, who refused to give up on his quest. Sagan was convinced that Mars needed grassroots advocacy. Perhaps more than any other scientist of his time, Sagan sensed the public pulse and what it would take to mobilize opinion behind space exploration. He also was frustrated with NASA and various fellow Mars scientists. He sensed a “disreputability about looking for life on another planet.”45 He wanted to take his case more forcefully to the public and political establishment. The Mars Underground and like-minded interests in the public, he felt, needed an organized interest group working on their behalf to persuade politicians to spend more money on space exploration. He passionately wanted NASA to go back to Mars and search for life.

His former nemesis, Murray, the JPL director, felt similarly about the need to generate support to study Mars and other planets. Once adversaries and still disagreeing on the life issue, Sagan and Murray nevertheless sought common ground in organized advocacy lest the nation lose sight of a noble dream. Ener­gized by what they perceived as NASA indecision and the budget travails of the Carter years, they discussed the concept of an organized interest group with a third individual, Louis Friedman.

Friedman was an advanced-program manager at JPL with an activist tem­perament, broad perspective, and enthusiasm for Mars. In 1979, he was just back from a year as a staff member on a congressional science committee. He recalled how Murray had summoned him “to his office on the top floor of the administration building at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.” Murray explained that he and Sagan believed that planetary exploration was “threatened” and to save it they had “to form an organization with tens of thousands of members to demonstrate that people wanted space exploration to continue.” “Would you lead it?” Murray asked. Friedman readily agreed.46

The next year, 1980, Sagan and Murray established an entity, the Planetary Society, with Friedman as its executive director; Sagan, president; and Murray, vice president. They gathered a board of prominent individuals. The Planetary Society was announced to be “dedicated to planetary exploration and the search for life.” With Sagan actively publicizing the organization, it would eventually grow to 125,000 members, publish a newsletter, get support from foundations and wealthy individuals, and become a force in influencing federal space policy.47 From the beginning, the Planetary Society “focused much of its activity on the exploration of Mars.”48 Sagan announced the formation of the Planetary Society in 1980 during one of his many appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

The Mars Underground, the Planetary Society, and a few other external in­terest groups gave evidence that public support for Mars exploration remained in the wake of Viking. They were complemented to some extent by certain advocates within NASA, particularly in the field centers. One field center espe­cially nurtured exobiology.

Perhaps the greatest casualty of Viking disappointment had been exobiology. Detractors had derided the field as being a discipline without a known subject to study. They now said, “We told you so!” Most Mars scientists were down on exobiology, as was NASA in general. What helped keep the field going, albeit with fewer researchers, was the maintenance of an institutional base at the re­search center, Ames. There, Harold Klein refused to give up after Viking, and he encouraged other researchers to persist, especially Sherwood Chang. They were able to mine Viking images and data. Even at Ames there were occasions when Klein “went to the mat” to protect exobiology from being shut down by an Ames center director.49

It helped enormously, in the view of David Des Marais, an Ames veteran, that Ames was a civil service laboratory.50 The researchers had more leeway and security in what they did than scientists and engineers at JPL, who had to seek contracts on more fashionable and/or fundable topics. Many JPL employees

had to work for agencies other than NASA, especially the Department of De­fense, to survive in the post-Viking years.

There was precious little money for exobiology research at Ames. What there was came from intrepid program officers committed to the field. Des Marais estimated that the funds Ames had averaged $6 million a year.51 Don DeVincenzi ran a modest exobiology program at NASA Headquarters and pro­vided funds to Ames. John Rummel, NASA’s planetary protection officer, also funneled some money to Ames for exobiology. Beginning with Apollo and other lunar journeys, NASA had been attentive to contamination risks from Earth and also back to Earth. Lederberg and Sagan had helped get planetary protection inserted into NASA policy. Sterilization procedures for Viking were “so vigor­ous that the mission’s launches may have had fewer terrestrial microbes aboard than any other craft yet launched,” according to Michael Meltzer, whose book on planetary protection was published in 2011.52

At a time when exobiology was decidedly unpopular in the Mars scientific community, the low funding levels may have been helpful in its survival. Des Marais remembered that it was “too small a budget item to attract much atten­tion,” but there was a payoff. Over time, researchers at Ames played an impor­tant role in helping to reframe exobiology from a direct search for life to a search for “habitable environments.” A habitable environment could be a subject of study.53 Moreover, it brought exobiology closer to nonlife scientists, who had been arguing for more attention to the physical setting of Mars.

Goldin’s Surprise Decision

The Hubbard team now had the full flexibility it sought to plan a new program, with no specific MSR goal with a hard or even soft deadline forcing an arbitrary pace. Weiler made it abundantly clear that the FBC approach was no longer gospel. Success was foremost, although costs were also important. He declared that the Mars Surveyor Program, as previously constructed, had ended.61 Hub­bard was to design a new program. As Hubbard saw it, he had a Mars fund­ing line “without a workable strategic content.”62 It was up to him to give that content. In early conversations with Weiler and others, Hubbard decided that NASA would use the following expression to convey their overall new approach: “follow the water.” Weiler had already used that expression publicly. Now it became “official rhetoric.” Specific missions would connect through following the water and lead, hopefully, in the direction of life.63

The time for another big decision was looming. With MSR out as a short­term driver, what were Hubbard and his associates to do about 2003? That mission, Hubbard knew, had to fit into the new strategic approach. The basic strategy he and his team formulated was to alternate orbiters and landers over the decade—one mission for each launch opportunity. (Mars Surveyor Program had featured two missions every opportunity.) Hubbard spoke of them as a “lad­der to Mars.”64 Since NASA was sending Odyssey, an orbiter, up in 2001, the strategy would seem to call for a lander in 2003. However, there were those at NASA who worried about advancing too far beyond what the agency had done, as the previous lander had been a failure.

Hubbard saw NASA’s options for 2003 as (1) do not fly at all, (2) fly an or­biter, or (3) fly a lander. The lander mission was increasingly seen as carrying a rover, with the rover playing the dominant role in the mission. Such a mission would be more challenging than Pathfinder, with its tiny and short-lived rover, Sojourner. This rover would last longer and go farther. A meeting took place to discuss these options, attended by various Viking “graybeards,” including Martin, Lee, and Mike Carr. There were also representatives from the “new generation,” such as Steve Squyres. Sixteen people attended this meeting. Ad­vocates of different approaches spoke.65 At the end of the discussion, Hubbard called for a vote on the orbiter/lander options. The vote turned out to be split, virtually even. Hubbard announced the result. Someone shouted, “Well, then, you can do what you want.”66

While Hubbard and his associates considered the 2003 mission in the context of a long-term strategic approach, rumors circulated that Mars Global Surveyor had made a tantalizing discovery. It may have spotted “evidence of liquid water” on Mars. NASA hastily called a press conference to report that MGS had not “seen” water but had detected images that appeared to look like springs or seep­age from underground sources.67 This information bolstered the strategy for the new program of “follow the water.” It also strengthened the argument for a 2003 option that could follow up on this orbiter-based report with surface study.

By late July, Weiler had the benefit of Hubbard’s counsel (which favored the lander/rover option), JPL and Lockheed Martin studies, and other sources of information about what to do in 2003. He also had the intriguing MGS findings. It was obvious that another orbiter following Odyssey would not carry as much public interest as a lander that released a plucky rover that could go a consider­able distance and last longer than Sojourner. There was something about a rover that seemed to capture the public imagination. The question was, would JPL be up to the challenge of building one? Doubts were raised by JPL critics. Naderi told Stone that JPL would “have to prove our merit.”68

Weiler, Hubbard, and Garvin now went to see Goldin. Weiler advised the NASA Administrator that the 2003 mission should be a repeat of Pathfinder, but with a larger rover that could have greater range and survive longer. Goldin was highly receptive. Then, Goldin asked, “What about two rovers?” He meant two lander/rovers. The suggestion came as a complete surprise to his three sub­ordinates.69 As Goldin saw it, this mission had to succeed, and adding another lander/rover lowered the risk of failure. That was the “old” NASA way, not the FBC way. Goldin asked Hubbard to check on the cost issue. “You study this,” he ordered Hubbard. “Tell me the pros and cons of such a mission.”70

Hubbard called Naderi. It was 9:30 a. m. in Washington and 6:30 a. m. at JPL in Pasadena, and Naderi was in his office. “Could you let me know in three hours how much an additional lander will cost?” Hubbard asked. Naderi immediately sought out Pete Theisinger, an engineer and highly regarded proj­ect manager, who also was in his office. Together, they estimated a one-third increase over the cost of one lander/rover combination. Their estimate was a total of $600 million.71

Hubbard had some additional studies undertaken, while Goldin traveled abroad. Garvin added more justification for sending two spacecraft: the rov­ers could go to two different places, making it more likely to find something scientifically important. Hubbard kept Goldin informed, sending him faxes of pro and con arguments. It was obvious Goldin was eager to move forward and do what was necessary to succeed. Weiler was also fully engaged in the decision­making process. He grilled Hubbard. Weiler worried about how he would come up with more money.72

On July 27, Weiler announced publicly that NASA had decided to go with the lander/rover option for the 2003 launch. He said the rover would be larger than Sojourner and far more capable of going great distances. He also revealed that NASA was considering a second lander/rover possibility, but that no final decision had been made on that front. He noted that NASA would decide in a few weeks.73

When Goldin returned from his trip, he met with Hubbard, who had gotten estimates for a second lander/rover from various sources.74 Hubbard recalled that the number he used was $700 million, an inflated figure from the origi­nal $600 million estimate.75 Hubbard noted, “Goldin got right up in my face, pointed his long finger at my nose, and questioned, ‘are you absolutely sure that we can do this for the amount of money you quoted?’ ” Hubbard responded “yes” or “I am absolutely sure.” Hubbard really wasn’t certain, but later wrote that “sometimes you just have to play to win.”76

Goldin subsequently decided he could not ask Weiler to pay for the entire increase out of a science budget already overextended. He checked with the White House, but got no financial help from that source.77 He then gathered his senior managers together, including the various associate administrators responsible for all NASA programs. He said that it was critical for NASA to recover its reputation fully from the two Mars failures. He stated that Mars was a NASA priority, not just a Science Directorate priority. “Do you not agree?” he asked. The senior managers concurred. That being the case, he asked them if they also agreed with the idea of sending two rovers to narrow the risk of failure. They replied, “Yes.” “If you agree,” continued Goldin, “will you put up some money to help support the dual mission? You said it was a good idea!” Most of the managers went along.78

That was that. On August 10 NASA announced the decision. The agency would send twin rovers to Mars in 2003. The first mission would go up in May; the second, in June. The journey of each to Mars would take seven and a half months. They would land in different places. The $600 million figure was stated as the estimated cost of the duel mission. Goldin called the mission an “agency priority,” a designation NASA made public.79

If the dual mission was an agency priority, it was even more critical for JPL. In August, Stone retired as director ofJPL. Before doing so, he committed JPL to the two-rover mission, but defined success as having at least one rover make it to Mars.80 Charles Elachi, 53, succeeded him. Elachi was closely connected to Mars research, especially MSR planning, but had not been blamed for the 1999 failures. He was a hard-driving space enthusiast who had spent his career at JPL. He initially questioned the wisdom of the two-rover approach. There were issues of time, risk, and money. He told Goldin of his reservations. Upon further thought, however, and his sense that headquarters would provide suf­ficient resources to enable JPL to succeed, he called Goldin and said he agreed.81 Elachi’s assent was critical in view of his new position as chief implementer of the decision.

When Elachi sat down with Naderi to discuss what needed to be done to make the two rovers effective, Naderi had a message for his JPL director. Naderi told Elachi that the lab would have to put its full force behind this mission. “What do you want?” Elachi asked. Naderi said JPL had to put its best technical personnel on the project, and Naderi told him who he thought they were. Elachi concurred.82 The reputation and role of JPL in NASA were at stake.

Hubbard and his associates worked furiously to finish the new Mars archi­tecture by October, the deadline Goldin had set, and the month when plans had to start getting into the next year’s budget. As October approached, Hubbard found Goldin constantly intervening in his deliberations with his team. Goldin would call frequently and ask Hubbard about this or that fact or option. He even called him at 2 a. m. Weiler tried to buffer Hubbard, but to no avail. Hub­bard developed different tactics to avoid Goldin so the administrator would not know he was around when he was at NASA. He did not want to meet him on the elevator. “I took to going up and down the fire escape steps and using the freight elevator in the back of the building,” Hubbard admitted.83 Finally, the architecture was completed and vetted by Weiler and Goldin.84

On October 6, Hubbard and Garvin discussed the new program with the Of­fice of Management and Budget. Given positive signals from Clinton and Gore, OMB was helpful. Hubbard had kept the political side of the White House informed, via Leon Feurth, Gore’s science advisor.85 OMB’s criticisms were constructive. It was clear that the White House wanted NASA to recover and get the new 10-year Mars strategy off to a good start. It shared Hubbard’s view

that it was best to start slow, move incrementally, and postpone MSR. There was no fixed date for MSR, but OMB wanted to make sure the missions in the new design moved systematically in the MSR direction. The OMB discussions were led by Steve Isakowitz, OMB’s chief budget examiner for NASA. Isakowitz had an aerospace engineering degree from MIT and was personally interested in the Mars program.

Mars Together with ESA

Weiler and Southwood were old friends who had been talking about collabora­tion for years. They saw eye to eye on the importance of Mars in planetary science and public support for space generally. Both had Mars programs with large ambitions and money shortages. From the time that Weiler had returned to head the Science Mission Directorate, the two men had speculated, with increased intensity, about linking their programs to a degree never before at­tempted. Both shared MSR as the goal of the two programs. In December 2008, when announcing the MSL delay, Weiler felt his discussions with Southwood had reached a point such that he could speak of them publicly. Indeed, South – wood had already informed his superiors in Europe of the Weiler interactions and received a go-ahead to keep talking.

Now, in early 2009, Weiler and Southwood agreed to go forward with a long-term program that would be jointly planned from the start, with one space agency taking the lead at one Mars opportunity and the other at the following opportunity. Every 26-month window would be used. Some characterized the approach as a “tag-team” strategy. Southwood termed the NASA-ESA conver­sations as a “courtship.”6

Whatever the case, Weiler did not at first see much support for this collabo­ration strategy within NASA. The new Administrator, Bolden, would not take office until July 17. In the meantime, Weiler did what he thought made sense. “I may be the only person in NASA who believes that this is the right thing to do. My toughest job is to get my view understood at all levels below me and especially at certain NASA centers.” He meant JPL in particular. He said that JPL would eventually conclude that it was better to lead one mission every four years than having control of a bankrupt program every two. Weiler felt he was fighting “psychology and nationalism.” But if scientists really wanted a strong Mars program, they would have to realize that the “flag” on the mission did not matter.7 It was more than psychology and nationalism for JPL; the Pasadena center needed major projects to maintain its workforce.

To help identify what those missions would be, while also gaining scientific support, Weiler looked to the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council, which was mounting the next Decadal Survey for the planetary pro­gram. The NRC panel was headed by Steve Squyres, the chief scientist behind

Spirit and Opportunity.8 The study got under way in March. In April, Weiler asked Hubbard to chair an MEP Analysis and Review Team. The Hubbard group, as the name implied, would focus on Mars.9 Weiler wanted both advi­sory bodies to think about priorities within a constrained budget. As he noted, “There is no greater thing than starting a sexy new mission. We all love it. The thing that prevents me is I’ve got new, sexy missions started five years ago that are costing more than they were supposed to.”10 MSL was one of his particular cases in point, the biggest project at JPL, and one undergoing technical and managerial change.11

Hubbard echoed many of Weiler’s concerns. “The [Mars] program is now at a crossroads,” he said, “with an indeterminate future for the next decade.”12 Friedman of the Planetary Society emphasized in his society’s publication that the crossroads for Mars extended to human spaceflight as well as the robotic program. “Are we to take the road to Mars all the way to an MSR mission and then on to a human destination?” he asked. He complained that Mars planning had been eliminated from the Moon-Mars human mission and that the Mars robotic program had had cuts of more than half a billion dollars in the past several years.13 For Friedman and other Mars enthusiasts, the hope was that the Obama administration would forge a national policy favoring Mars as a top priority. Under Bush, the Moon had become the overriding focus, as Griffin, with inadequate funding, had increasingly cut back to his immediate goal of narrowing the gap between a shuttle retirement and successor relevant to lunar exploration.

In May, Obama announced details of his budget plans, and these included modestly more funds for NASA—$18.7 billion for FY 2010—and continuity in all inherited space programs. However, he also created a blue-ribbon panel under the chair of Norman Augustine, a highly respected retired aerospace industrial­ist, who had led a similar panel concerned with space policy under President George H. W. Bush. The Augustine panel’s charge was to assess NASA’s human spaceflight program with particular reference to the Constellation Program. Should NASA stay on course or change direction? The Augustine committee’s task was to provide options to the White House and the NASA Administrator.14 The Administrator’s name was also announced in May, Charles Bolden.

NASA under Nixon

As Viking got under way, Nixon became president, on January 20, 1969. He retained Paine and eventually appointed him NASA Administrator, but he gave him little or no access to advocate his post-Apollo vision. Paine wanted to advance a comprehensive post-Apollo program, the central element of which would be human spaceflight to Mars. It would feature also a space station, a space shuttle, and a lunar base.27

In July, NASA launched Apollo 11 to the Moon and Neil Armstrong took “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was a remarkable moment that brought the world’s people briefly together. It was an epic mile­stone in human history. However, the euphoria over Apollo did not transfer to post-Apollo. When Nixon and Paine flew to meet the returning astronauts, Nixon—in one of his few conversations with Paine—stressed that he supported NASA, but money was tight given the continuance of the Vietnam War and domestic economic troubles.28

Paine tried hard to use Apollo 11 to generate public enthusiasm for a post – Apollo human Mars mission. But winning the race to the Moon removed much of the competitive urgency space had. Paine hoped the 1969 Mars flybys (Mari­ners 6 and 7) would help his cause. Instead, they actually hurt to some extent. These flybys, which went up in late July and August, provided the best view yet of Mars, but like Mariner 4, they revealed a planet hostile to life. The media praised the twin probes, but some commentators asked why Paine would want to send astronauts to such a desolate planet. Indeed, critics said that robotic flight could do Mars reconnaissance relatively cheaply, and hence human flight was not necessary.29

Getting Congressional Support

While Paine labored to promote the goal of human exploration of Mars, it was left mainly to Naugle to sell Viking politically. He had been working the scien­tific community. He negotiated with the Bureau of the Budget (BOB), renamed Office ofManagement and Budget (OMB) in 1970. He now looked to Congress. Paine’s decision to go for the most ambitious Viking option more than doubled the cost. Project Manager Martin told Naugle in August 1969 that the cost would be over $600 million. Naugle then added $150 million as a contingency from his own reserves and went to see Rep. Joseph Karth (D-MN). Karth was chair of the House subcommittee that had authorized Viking, and he was the project’s most influential champion in Congress.

When Naugle told Karth that the project originally sold for $364 million was now $750 million, the lawmaker exploded. He accused NASA of “low-balling the cost to get Viking’s ‘feet in the door.’ ” He gave Naugle “a very rough time,” as the NASA official had anticipated. Naugle responded that NASA was just getting started on the project, and if Karth felt strongly, he should cancel it now, before major development costs were incurred.

Naugle had lived in Minnesota for 10 years and understood Karth’s problems in justifying space expenditures to his fiscally conservative district. However, the Soviet competition for Mars loomed large for Karth. Naugle recalled that he knew that Karth would not want to be the one who cancelled Viking and let the Soviet Union be the first to soft land on Mars. Viking stayed in the NASA bud­get.30 With Karth leading the charge in Congress, NASA had sufficient allies on the Hill to keep Viking going. The political environment, however, was harsh, and Paine was not doing well with his campaign for human flight to Mars with Nixon. Viking’s fate could not be separated from NASA’s future.

Prioritizing Mars

The year 1992 began reasonably well for NASA from a White House budgetary standpoint. The president called for a 4.5% raise for the agency. Space science in particular was augmented, with a 9% increase.1 Congress, however, was less interested in giving NASA more funds and ordered the Science Directorate to cut back on its most expensive programs. Congress made it abundantly clear it would not grant the president’s request to fund his Moon-Mars initiative.

Who would lead NASA? The White House had come increasingly to believe that Richard Truly was not the Administrator it wanted at NASA’s helm. On February 10, days after Bush’s budget was announced, the president called Truly to the White House and forced him to resign. Mark Albrecht, National Space Council executive director, searched for a replacement, someone who would bring an enthusiasm to Bush’s Moon-Mars vision which Truly had not.

The man he found was Dan Goldin, an aerospace executive from California. Goldin turned out to be a NASA Administrator for whom Mars was “the” prior­ity. He might have to emphasize other programs for institutional reasons. The shuttle and especially the space station were utterly critical to NASA. But, in his heart and soul, Mars came first among his personal interests. He also had a personality—vision, self-assurance, drive, intensity—such that he could make a distinctive mark on the agency. Goldin was not an easy man for whom to work. But the science directors he appointed found they could realize their own goals

through him. Finally, it turned out that Goldin would set a record for longevity in the Administrator role. All those factors would make a positive difference for the robotic Mars exploration program. What had been a slow, painful climb up NASA’s agenda for Mars advocates after the Viking disappointment now turned into something quite different. Goldin was a dynamic advocate. Also, he wanted to use Mars exploration to showcase a managerial-technical strat­egy called “faster, better, cheaper” that fit the White House and congressional mood. Goldin intended to lead the agency and nation forward—to Mars. The result was the Mars Surveyor Program, the first program of sequential, inte­grated missions to the Red Planet since Mariner.

The advocacy coalition, for better or worse—and Goldin engendered many critics—had a powerful champion at NASA. He would strive mightily to remake the space-policy subsystem and enlist national policymakers in his quest for Mars.

Congressional Action

Just before Thanksgiving, Congress put virtually all spending bills for FY 2005 into a massive omnibus appropriations measure. The Bush administration lob­bied Congress hard to ensure that its priorities would prevail. Where NASA was concerned, the White House and O’Keefe had needed help from two ex­tremely influential legislators. One was Tom DeLay (R-TX), majority leader and representative from the Houston-area district where the Johnson Space Center was located. The other was Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a former O’Keefe mentor.

The result was to hold all discretionary spending not related to Defense and Homeland Security to a collective 1% increase over what the agencies had received in 2004. Other agencies were literally “taxed” to provide the larger increase Bush sought for NASA. NASA rose from $15.3 billion to $i6.i billion in spending. Moreover, the bill was written to provide O’Keefe maximum flex­ibility to reprogram money, to make sure the new mission got off to a strong start. Diaz stated that the new budget was good for his Science Directorate. It would provide for a “very robust science program,” he said.52

O’Keefe was elated with the financial victory and directed his troops to “de­liver.” To his regret, the Hubble controversy still festered, mightily. In December he received an interim report from an NAS panel that strongly urged a shuttle repair mission for Hubble, saying the robotic mission O’Keefe favored was so technically demanding that it was unlikely to be possible before Hubble’s crucial equipment expired. O’Keefe, however, would not be dealing with Hubble—or the Moon-Mars program and alleged “collateral damage.” On December 13, he announced he was resigning, effective in February 2005.53 He was headed for Louisiana State University as its chancellor.

NASA Withdraws

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Bolden labored to find money for the United States to participate in a serious bilateral program. Negotiating with Dordain and OMB, he could not come up with the money required. He felt he needed $1 billion, and he did not have it, given all the other priorities with influential constituencies which NASA had to fund.

Bolden was talking with Dordain by phone and negotiating in person with OMB on the FY 2013 budget virtually at the same time. It was clear he could not get the money he needed for ExoMars. He called home the NASA technical team working in Paris with European counterparts. Christmas was imminent, and it was pointless to continue the planning effort.


At 1:25 a. m. (EDT) on August 6, 2012, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), encased in a larger spacecraft and protected by a heat shield, hit the atmosphere of Mars. After a journey of eight months and 352 million miles, MSL embarked on what NASA called “seven minutes of terror.” In this brief span of time, MSL would need to decrease its speed from 13,000 miles per hour to almost zero—or it would crash. Failure was unthinkable for a $2.5 billion mission at a time when NASA was under budgetary siege. The Mars atmosphere immediately caused the spacecraft to slow, but seven miles above the Mars surface the spacecraft was still flying at 900 miles per hour. At this point, the spacecraft unfurled a giant, 51-foot parachute.

As the spacecraft’s rate of descent gradually diminished, MSL disconnected from the spacecraft that had been carrying it to this point. The spacecraft flew off, and retro-rockets blasted from MSL, causing it to come to a virtual hover two stories above the Mars surface. At one ton in weight, containing delicate instruments, the car-sized machine was too heavy to complete its landing with retro-rockets or airbags. Instead, for the first time, a newly invented device attached to MSL, called the sky crane, deployed, and cables carefully lowered the machine to the ground. Finally, with cables disconnected, the sky crane rocketed away from what NASA had now safely placed on the surface—the nuclear-powered MSL rover called Curiosity. All this happened automatically

154 million miles from Earth. The landing occurred at 1:32 a. m. (EDT). It took another 14 minutes for radio signals to go from Mars to Earth and reach the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Allen Chen, flight dynamics engineer at JPL, received the information. He announced excitedly, “Touchdown confirmed. We’re safe on Mars!”1

Never before had a technology this complex gone to Mars. MSL, with its Curiosity rover, climaxed a multiyear program geared to “following the water.” Its goal was to discover whether Mars was now or previously capable of being inhabited. MSL Curiosity would not actually find life. It aimed at locating the chemical “building blocks” of life. A later flight, or series of flights, would return a sample of Mars soil and rock to Earth’s laboratories for analysis. Such a mis­sion of far greater expense lay well in the future. But this particular mission was critical to Mars exploration—a milestone in a long-term quest that had begun over a half century earlier, building on what had gone before, enabling what might come ahead.

Getting to this point was a remarkable accomplishment, not only in science and technology, but in public policy and program implementation. Not only did NASA have to surmount severe technological barriers, but it also had to meet daunting political challenges along the way. In some ways, the political problems were greater than those that were technical. Large technical achieve­ment, especially when dealing with government and costing billions over many years, does not happen automatically. It takes a strong push of political advocacy from inside and outside NASA to make Mars a funding priority, establish a program, and carry it out successfully. Who does what to forward Mars explora­tion? How? The answers are critical to the history of NASA and the Red Planet.

The intent of this book is to illuminate the role of key individuals and institu­tions that have constituted a moving force for policy action in Mars exploration. Its thesis is that an informal and changing coalition of advocates inside and out­side NASA has sought to make NASA the institutional embodiment and lever for their quest to the Red Planet. The influence and limits of this coalition, as well as their scientific and political strategies, have shaped the course and pace of the Mars exploration program.

The study contends that over the long haul, the advocacy coalition has pro­pelled Mars exploration forward. This has been particularly the case as it has turned individual missions into an integrated and sequential whole, beginning in the early 1990s. It has built political support for this program and sustained it in the face of changing times and opposition. The actors most critical to coali­

tion leadership and influence affecting the Mars exploration program have been senior officials of NASA. Decisions and strategies in Washington, D. C., have powered (or frustrated) exploration on Mars.

The focus of this book is not the history of science, or advance of technology, or cultural aspects of Mars. Such subjects come up, but not as foreground. This book seeks to reveal and analyze the politics and policy behind Mars exploration.

Reaching Mars

On June 19, 1976, Viking і swung into Mars orbit. “After eight years, we’re finally in orbit,” a relieved James Martin exclaimed.46 This was an achievement in and of itself. But NASA knew that this was but the first step. Soon, Viking was transmitting photos of Mars’s surface, including the region where NASA planned a landing for Viking і. Various NASA officials and others gathered at Mission Control, Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Gentry Lee, JPL mission planning director, recalled how grown scientists and engineers behaved like 10-year-olds as pictures of Mars from the orbiter came in. They whooped and yelled and ran to the screen where images appeared with cries of “wow.”47

While the images were fascinating and spectacular, they also produced anxi­ety. Sagan, a member of the landing site team, remarked that Viking could see the larger-scale features, and many were menacing. But what about smaller – scale features the orbiter could not see? If Viking landed the wrong way on a boulder the size of a trash can, it might be wrecked.48 Looking at images of the previously selected landing site, Harold Mazursky, on loan to NASA from the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS), felt that the risk was acceptable.

Martin, however, was not so sure. He conferred with superiors at NASA Headquarters up to Fletcher. NASA had scheduled the first landing for July 4, aligned with the national celebration of the country’s 200th birthday. Presi­dent Gerald Ford was “enthralled” and eager to make the landing part of the celebration. Fletcher and other top managers told Martin not to worry about the scheduled July 4 landing date. If he believed the site in question was too dangerous, they said, he should delay the landing and look for a place that was safer. On June 28, Martin informed a vast media assemblage that had gathered for the historic event that the chosen site “had too many unknowns, and could be hazardous.”49 Fletcher, meanwhile, informed the president that the July 4 rendezvous was out. Martin “would have thrown his badge on the table if we’d taken the risk of landing on July 4,” Hinners recalled.50

The vital importance of Viking to NASA kept Fletcher intimately involved. On July і, Fletcher announced from JPL’s Mission Control Center that NASA had found an alternative 150 miles northwest of the original place. “Mars is a lot different planet than we thought it would be,” he stated. “By a combination of intuition, wise judgment, and a little bit of luck, we found a site close by that exceeded all expectations.”51 But just a few days later NASA examined radar signals of the new site from Earth, and they indicated that the orbital images could be wrong as to the smoothness of the terrain. Again, Martin and his team decided they had better keep looking, and senior NASA officials once more went along with the judgment.

This time the reconnaissance was even more thorough, using orbiter pho­tos, radar, and expert analysis. The problem was that as NASA looked farther from the original site, it moved more distant from potentially fruitful places of scientific interest. The search for life was the prime announced purpose of the mission, and that purpose was in danger of being jeopardized. The Viking team had to find a place that was both reasonably safe and scientifically interesting, which was becoming extremely hard to do.

The meetings of scientists took place every day for long hours, amidst grow­ing frustration about getting consensus on a place to land. There was no time for personal lives. Viking dominated all schedules. Gentry Lee worried that the landing date would coincide with the birth of his first child. Tim Mutch, a Brown University geologist in charge of the lander’s camera system, tested the system again and again, so often that he became mesmerized by his routines and, at one point, confused testing with reality. He went home one evening to tell his wife how well the photos had gone only to be reminded that the actual work lay ahead.52 Everyone was on edge and getting cranky. Minds wandered and speculations roamed amidst the nervousness and loss of sleep. Mazursky imag­ined great floods taking place on Mars carving giant canyons. His USGS col­league, Mike Carr, countered that the surface features were more likely caused by slow-moving streams that took eons to carve the cleavages. Observers called Mazursky “the great inundator” and Carr “the long, slow trickler.”53

No one was more frustrated or tense than Martin. “We always had it in the back of our own minds that Mars would not cooperate, and it hasn’t,” he complained.54 One day he exploded over a trivial matter, signaling to everyone the exasperation they all felt about the exigency to make a decision soon about where to land.55 Finally, at midnight, July 14, the landing-site team reached agreement on a particular site. It was 200 miles to the northwest of the original target in the plains of Chryse, where water was believed to have flowed.56 An­nouncing the decision the next morning, Martin said Viking 1 would land July 20, a date that marked the anniversary of the first Moon landing of Apollo.

NASA Reprieved

OMB, leading presidential budget-balancing policy, had had NASA going down drastically in ensuing years, and that included draconian cuts for space science. Both Gore and House Speaker Newt Gingrich went on record after the Mars rock discovery, saying NASA would get more money for Mars explora­tion. There was political agreement on that. But from where would the money come? House Republicans argued for taking the money from Gore’s favorite program—space-based global environmental observation—which they believed provided ammunition for Gore in the global warming debate.43

Goldin did not wish to rob the budget of other important missions to fund Mars. He pressed OMB to keep the overall NASA budget stable, at least, and not have it decrease in following years. On November 19, he wrote T. J. Glau- thier, OMB associate director, pleading for budget stability in the out-years. He followed this up the same day with a letter to Glauthier’s superior, the OMB di­rector Franklin Raines, declaring that NASA was “at a crossroads… level fund­ing is critical.”44 Huntress complained publicly that NASA’s “productivity has been going up, but our budget has been going down.” Gibbons acknowledged that NASA’s financial situation was a “dilemma [that] is coming to a head.”45

The Russian connection had helped “stabilize” NASA’s space station budget in 1993, and the Mars Together initiative might have been an additional help with regard to the robotic Mars program if it proved viable. But Russia had monstrous financial problems and continued its string of robotic failures. On November 16, Russia launched “Mars ’96,” but it went awry soon after launch and crashed into the Pacific.

Russia’s more recent failure reminded NASA and its Mars constituency how difficult implementing big plans for the Red Planet could be. “You always have to stay humble in this business,” said Tony Spear, project manager for the Path­finder lander/rover mission.46 On December 4, Pathfinder soared into space successfully, on a trajectory that would take it to Mars ahead of MGS. Huntress exclaimed, “Pathfinder will establish the technological basis for missions of the future. Each mission will learn from its predecessors to pry loose the secrets of Mars.”47

In early December, Sagan paid what would be his last of a number of visits to Goldin. His hair gone and appearance gaunt, he showed the ravages of a bone marrow disease that would soon take his life. The two men spoke for hours, during which Sagan “laid out a series of visions about the future of space exploration.” “He was talking with intensity,” Goldin recalled. “A man on his deathbed. This is the Carl Sagan I love, a man so full of hope and optimism that he never gave up.”48

On December 12, Gore held his much-anticipated meeting to discuss the implications of the Mars meteorite. This was presumably preparatory to the policy summit Mikulski had demanded and Clinton had promised. The Gore meeting was about ideas and philosophy, not programs and budgets. Scientists, philosophers, theologians, NASA, and administration officials attended. Not present, and sorely missed, was Sagan. The scientist most identified with the quest for life was himself now so gravely ill that he could not come. He would die on December 20.49

The Gore meeting extended almost three hours, more like an academic seminar than a government hearing. Most present were impressed with Gore’s knowledge of the subject. Although he “brushed off’ one participant’s sugges­tion of an Apollo-style approach, he clearly was eager to do more on Mars and Origins.

He said it was important to seize the moment, because the combination of Mars and extraterrestrial life fired the human imagination. He said he person­ally believed in the “ubiquity of life.” At the end of the meeting, OMB’s Glau – thier—the same OMB official to whom Goldin had recently pled for funding— declared he would try to find ways to insulate space science from cuts. He would not have said that if it was not clear that Gore and Clinton were supportive of such a statement. Finally, after the meeting, Gore declared his desire for a “robust space science program.”50

An unidentified “administration official” told Science magazine that prior to the Mars meteorite, space science had few advocates in the White House. “Clearly,” this official said, “space scientists have more leverage now than they have ever had.”51

In January 1997, Clinton began his second term as president. He retained Goldin, now regarded as a valuable member of his administration, the poster boy for federal reinvention. Clinton gave his State of the Union Address on February 4 and—in a rare presidential nod—specifically mentioned his support for space and the Mars program. He declared, “We must continue to explore the heavens—pressing on with the Mars probes and the International Space Station.”52 Then, on February 6, Clinton rolled out his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.

As expected, the budget was a reprieve for NASA. Overall, the budget re­fleeted Clinton’s desire to make progress to achieve a balanced budget during his time in office. But it also showed a conscious effort to support research and development as key to the nation’s future. NASA was helped by this govern­ment-wide decision. That did not mean a budget increase. It meant averting a huge cut. Within NASA, the budget also showed a particular desire to favor space science.53

The mark for NASA was $13.7 billion. This was $280 million down from its current budget. But this was far better than what NASA was going to get if OMB’s earlier recommendation had had its way. At the White House’s direction, the new Origins theme became the focus of NASA’s budget submission, and OMB worked with NASA to add $1 billion over the agency’s five-year projec­tion for this initiative.54 Goldin knew he had dodged a bullet, and he expressed delight to the media. “Holy Mackerel,” he said, “this is a great program.”55 Space science got a 4% raise, bringing it to $2 billion. Ed Weiler, put in charge of the new Origins activity and destined to succeed as associate administrator for science when Huntress retired from NASA in 1998, declared, “I’m exceptionally happy. All the boats are going to rise.”56 This would especially be true of Mars exploration.

Senator Mikulski was particularly elated. When she saw the budget, she wrote Vice President Gore, declaring, “A space summit is no longer necessary.” She had been the prime mover for such a summit, but she had achieved as much as she could have expected without one, thanks in large part to the Mars rock and the vice president’s support. “How do you spell relief?” she asked. The answer she spelled out: “G-O-R-E.”57

Exhilarated, Goldin pushed officials in NASA space science and human spaceflight directorates to work closely together, and—while there was fric­tion over who would pay for what—there was serious effort expended by both sides.58 Goldin believed that if all went well with the robotic and the space station programs, he or a successor could propose to the president the “next logical step,” which Goldin regarded as human spaceflight to Mars. Goldin had come to Washington to set NASA on a trajectory to Mars. Like many advo­cates, especially Friedman, who had easy access to the NASA Administrator, Goldin believed that this was the place where the human and robotic programs converged. He shared Zubrin’s view that humans to Mars required extracting resources while on Mars. But the “living off the land” philosophy required bet­ter knowledge of what resources existed that could be converted to human use.

Accordingly, NASA could equip robotic Mars probes with instruments to scout such resources, as well as detect radiation and other hazards to astronauts in the Mars environment. For Goldin, robotic Mars missions combined scientific and precursory rationales, and he made that clear to the agency.