Building a “Program”
Nevertheless, all these macropolitical events at the international and national policy level, as well as pressure from external advocates (especially Sagan), were making a difference for NASA’s Mars science program. The priority was going up. Fisk saw MESUR as “part of a larger program of Mars Science Exploration in OSSA.”61 Such a Mars program did not exist at the moment. It would have to be designed. In late 1990 Briggs had left NASA Headquarters for another position, being succeeded by Wesley Huntress. Huntress was an astrochemist who came to Washington after 20 years of research and project management at JPL. He was activistic in temperament and intended to be a strong advocate internally. He saw the environment in which he served as favorable to innovation as long as costs were contained. He wanted programs that could appeal to both scientists and the public and came to his job with an agenda. He was supportive of expanded Mars activity, but his initial emphasis in 1991 was a solar system-wide program called Discovery. It featured low-cost missions that could launch frequently. For Huntress, Mars Observer was revealing a way not to run a planetary program, and he pushed for Discovery as the right way.
Complicating getting MESUR under way was its origin at Ames and the fact that Ames was under a NASA directorate other than OSSA. Fisk sought in 1991 to make MESUR “a leading example of successful intercenter cooperation in Mars exploration.” His discussions about MESUR with the director of Ames did not go well, however, much to Hubbard’s dismay. As Hubbard recalled, Dale Compton, the Ames director, came across as ambivalent. In contrast, JPL’s director, now Edward Stone, clearly wanted the program. As before, JPL lobbied aggressively to run all planetary efforts.62 On November 8 Fisk wrote JPL and Ames that he wanted to move ahead with a comprehensive and evolutionary program for the scientific exploration of Mars and that he had decided to make JPL the lead center in this endeavor.63
As Fisk was making the requisite scientific and institutional choices for MESUR, and Mars research generally, Huntress was moving Discovery forward. Discovery, with its emphasis on a range of low-cost missions, fit the times. It also matched the political situation Fisk faced. Fisk was getting pressure from
congressional supporters of the Applied Physics Lab (APL) of Johns Hopkins University. APL, an entity somewhat similar to JPL, worked primarily for the Defense Department and wished to perform more substantially for NASA. These legislative allies indicated they would help NASA establish a “program line” in NASA’s budget for Discovery if NASA would be willing to entertain a proposal from APL.64 NASA had sought a program line for the Observer series years before and failed to get it owing to the traditional reluctance of OMB and Congress to provide long-term authorization for a particular program. Also, Huntress wanted competition for JPL and planned Discovery to be open to proposals from the scientific community beyond JPL. He decided that the first low-cost mission would go to APL—a relatively simple project called NEAR, for Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous.65
However, Huntress wanted Discovery’s second mission to be much more demanding so as to prove the point that difficult missions could also be low cost. As NASA and JPL had already been discussing the initial MESUR mission, one entailing both landing and roving, he decided to move that mission from MESUR to Discovery. That project would go to JPL. With the prospect of congressional backing for Discovery, OMB also went along with the concept of a program line, by which NASA could determine the sequence of missions within an established budget category without negotiating each mission separately as a “new start.”
Such a line provided continuity. It was an extremely important and strategic move.66 It gave NASA more power over its future missions and scientists greater sense of sustainment. The bargain NASA struck with its budgetary and political masters was that these missions would be low cost as well as open to various performers. It gave NASA greater flexibility and autonomy in choosing and managing projects. It enabled NASA to transfigure MESUR Pathfinder into what later became Mars Pathfinder, the combination lander-rover. MESUR Pathfinder got into the president’s budget as part of the Discovery series. The president’s proposed budget went to Congress in early 1992, with the way smoothed for Discovery’s approval. Discovery was designed to be a general program, not a Mars-specific program—but it was a model for how to proceed, and it would get the first Mars effort after Observer under way.