In 1979, Hinners left the leadership of space science at NASA to become director of the National Air and Space Museum. Tim Mutch, inspired by his own experience on Viking, took leave of absence from Brown University to take Hin – ners’s place. He came to Washington determined to save planetary exploration and revive the Mars program. He wanted NASA to appoint a blue-ribbon panel of planetary scientists to help him develop a rational sequence of missions, including those for Mars.54 Although initially skeptical, he had, like others, come to believe that the next step in the Mars program should be a rover.55
He never got the chance to lead a return to Mars. Mutch was an experienced mountain climber. In October 1980, he took time off from NASA to go on an expedition to India. He and some companions scaled the 24,000-foot Mount Nun in the Himalayas. On the way down, Mutch disappeared and was presumed dead. The accident removed a potentially influential advocate for Mars, one the
program sorely needed. Mutch had been at NASA barely a year.56 The Viking 1 Lander site on Mars was subsequently named for him.
The planetary program at headquarters now drifted. Mutch’s deputy, Andy Stofan, was an engineer, primarily interested in launch vehicles. There appeared to outside Mars advocates to be a leadership vacuum within NASA. John Naugle stepped into the breach. He had recently left NASA for industry. Seeing the precarious situation of planetary science at NASA, he persuaded Frosch to form a Solar System Exploration Committee (SSEC) as an ad hoc panel of the top- level NASA Advisory Council (NAC), with himself as chair. It was painfully obvious that the “big science” and “great leap” approaches NASA, JPL, and Sagan favored were not helping their cause.
Frosch charged the SSEC not only to develop a planetary program that would be scientifically sound but also “to define new ways to reduce costs.”57 More than ever before, it was clear to Naugle and top NASA officials that what many Mars activists might most want—i. e., a Viking 3 rover leading to MSR— was not likely to be funded for some time. Moreover, planetary scientists were again debating respective priorities publicly, thereby weakening their clout with NASA, much less with the White House and Congress.
Naugle had forged a measure of unity among NASA scientific advisors after the Mars Voyager had been killed, and it had helped NASA strengthen the science voice in support for Viking. He saw such a need once more to help not just Mars but planetary science generally. The Mars community needed a strategy for the future and had to tie that strategy to a cost political officials would be willing to pay. In 1981, Naugle returned to NASA as chief scientist, a new position, and relinquished the chair of SSEC to Hinners. It was largely up to them to get Mars higher on the NASA agenda as a new start flight project. The political context in which they worked was continuing to deteriorate, however.
President Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981 determined to lead a conservative revolution that would augment defense spending and minimize government’s domestic role. NASA, like other civilian agencies, was adversely affected by this approach. The Space Shuttle, because it was linked with defense, a White House priority, was relatively protected from budget cuts by Reagan’s political staff. Not so the robotic programs, which were left to the policies of OMB.
Frosch left NASA in January, and it was not until June that a NASA Administrator, James Beggs, was confirmed. Age 55, Beggs was a Naval Academy graduate who had served at NASA in a high administrative position under Webb and subsequently been an executive in aerospace industry and undersecretary of transportation. At his confirmation hearings, Beggs was quite precise about his goals—to transition the shuttle from development to routine operation and guide NASA to its “next logical step” in space, the building of a space station. Beggs was deeply interested in NASA’s going to Mars with humans, but he knew that day was many years away. The space station, in his view, would help bring that day closer, however. While supportive of the robotic program, he was unswerving in his priorities.58
His deputy was Hans Mark, recently secretary of the Air Force under Carter. A physicist, Mark had in the early 1970s been director of NASA’s Ames Laboratory. He shared Beggs’s priorities in terms of the shuttle and space station. He had questions about the value of the robotic planetary program. Burt Edelson, an engineer, became associate administrator for OSSA. He emphasized applications, especially an initiative to use satellites to monitor planet Earth. The principal champion for Mars at headquarters was Geoffrey Briggs, a physicist who had come from JPL and worked on Viking. Briggs was first deputy, then acting, then director of planetary programs for OSSA.
By the time Beggs was confirmed and able to move into the NASA Administrator’s office, David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, had made his move to cut NASA’s budget. The axe fell particularly hard on the planetary program. A Venus mission, authorized in Carter’s last budget and which Reagan inherited, was rejected. Galileo, in development, was saved by sacrificing other space science efforts. The issue for Beggs was not one of new starts, but of saving the planetary program from termination. Mark seemed to side with detractors of the planetary program. In October he circulated a memo recommending “a de-emphasis” of planetary exploration until the futures of the shuttle and space station programs were clear. Reagan had yet to decide on the space station. Advocates of planetary science, such as Murray and Briggs, saw Mark as an adversary.59
Outside NASA, the president’s science advisor, George Keyworth, backed the astronomy program as a more fruitful investment than the planetary program at NASA, giving the former higher grades for “showbiz.” Murray sought aggressively to change Keyworth’s mind.60 But the major problem was OMB, which wanted to cut NASA further in Reagan’s second year. In the fall of 1981, Beggs and Stockman began a protracted contest of “chicken” in negotiating the upcoming budget. Murray, director of JPL, found himself and his organization very much a pawn in this negotiation.
As Beggs and Stockman dueled in the latter months of 1981, Stockman proposed a budgetary cut for NASA that was draconian. Beggs warned that if Stockman persisted, Beggs would have no choice but to eliminate an entire program and that would be planetary exploration. Beggs reminded Stockman that behind the program was JPL, and, as Beggs put it, “JPL would become surplus to NASA’s needs.” Stockman refused to budge on the cuts he proposed. As Murray saw it, “NASA was playing hardball with Stockman, and JPL was the ball.”61 Beggs took his case to Stockman’s political superiors in the White House.
Caltech, which ran JPL, reacted to the threat to the laboratory. Its president and influential members of its board of trustees now joined the fray. Caltech president Marvin Goldberg met with senators interested in the space program in December 1981. In particular, he convinced Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-TN) to express his support for planetary exploration in a letter to President Reagan. The White House decided to preserve the planetary program and thus JPL.62
The planetary program was salvaged, but the only major planetary flight project NASA had for the future, as 1982 ended, was Galileo. Mars was not even a subject for debate at the policy level. It had been a “miserable” year at NASA, Naugle recalled.63 He retired not long after. Likewise, in early 1982, Murray announced he was leaving JPL, effective July. The planetary program had “survived,” he pointed out, along with JPL, and he took “satisfaction” in that. “It might have been worse,” he said.64
While various political machinations took place involving NASA, JPL, Caltech, Congress, and the White House, SSEC labored to devise a new planetary strategy, including one for Mars. The fact that Hinners was its chair in 1981-1982, and Briggs its executive director in these years and subsequently, helped assure a tight coupling between NASA and SSEC. Everyone knew that the stakes were huge and NASA and planetary scientists had to reach consensus on a sellable strategy. That strategy, it was agreed, had to be based on low-cost missions.
There was much debate within the SSEC over priorities. Some wanted to reconstitute the Mars emphasis and eventually link robotic exploration to human exploration of the Red Planet. Briggs argued for a “Mars-focused program within the overall 20-year program that SSEC was contemplating.” But there was a good deal of anti-Mars resentment in the group, Briggs recalled, in the sense that Mars had gotten too much emphasis in the past.65 Most of the panel wanted a “broad scientific exploration of the planetary system.” They also understood that the cost of missions had to come down. The entire planetary program had plummeted to 20% of its peak funding in the Viking era. SSEC sought to design a “core program” that would fit within the constraints, which it accomplished in 1982.66
SSEC formulated recommendations for a core program that would consist of “planetary missions designed to be conducted within a roughly constant budget of some $300 million per year.” It called for projects to inner planets, outer planets, comets, and asteroids. For the inner planets, SSEC gave top priority to a Venus radar mission, because Venus represented a large gap in knowledge. It had also been cancelled in the 1981 budget turmoil. The original mission was now stripped down and given a new name, Venus Radar Mapper (later called Magellan).
However, SSEC closely followed this inner-planet priority with Mars. There was no question about SSEC’s long-term goal for Mars—“the return of a surface sample to Earth.” The cost precluded a mission of that kind under the budgetary requirements NASA had laid down. Similarly, a Viking 3 rover mission that would lead to sample return also would cost too much. Hence, SSEC recommended “early initiation of a Mars Orbiter, emphasizing investigation of geology and climate of the planet.” It would be called a Mars Geosciences/ Climatology Orbiter and represent the first in a line of low-cost inner-planetary missions, using off-the-shelf hardware. The Mars mission could be launched in 1990. It would determine the global surface composition of the planet and the role of water in shaping its climate. Estimated to cost $250 million, its name was eventually changed to Mars Observer.67
Among the behind-the-scenes proponents of the new Mars mission was Daniel McCleese. McCleese at JPL pushed from within the NASA organizational family to return to Mars “for specific narrow investigations that were opened by Viking and not settled.” He was particularly interested in the water issue and the hydrological cycle on Mars. McCleese found an ally in Charles Barth of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder (the same individual who had mentored the Mars Underground).68 Barth was strategically located as a member of SSEC.
NASA was able to use the SSEC proposals to advantage. It got the Venus mission into the president’s budget being formulated in late 1982, and Mars advocates hoped Mars would make it into the next year’s budget. Prospects were improving. As the year ended, Keyworth and Mark (if not Stockman) were shifting their stance. “There was never any intention of cancelling the planetary program,” Keyworth stated in November 1982. Mark extolled planetary exploration as important in NASA’s overall program. He praised SSEC for finding less expensive ways to conduct missions. “I think it had done a terrific job in understanding the problem and formulating the solution,” he said. The fight in late 1981 had produced “a lot of bad vibes and a lot of good dialogue.” Science magazine quoted another observer of what had transpired as saying, “It was a catharsis that forced people to take a hard look at what they were doing and how much it would cost.”69