The Long Journey
Mars is a program in a science directorate in an agency. Not elevated organizationally, it has a high visibility to the political world. That visibility has helped make it a focus of agency attention and controversy over the years. The history of robotic Mars exploration has seen a sequence of overlapping eras. The eras overlap because NASA is usually trying to sell a new program as it is implementing an older one. The history has seen recurring issues. One has been conflict between the priority given Mars and that for other planets. Another has been the tension between those who would explore Mars incrementally and comprehensively and those who favor faster leaps forward and specifically target the search for life. A third is the debate between Mars and space activities other than planetary exploration, such as telescopes or human spaceflight. A fourth is the conflict between NASA and external forces that want to contain space costs generally—sometimes for non-space priorities—and press NASA to cut back expenditures, including those for Mars.
These and other issues have played out in the various eras. They illuminate the politics of Mars. The first era involved the pioneering flights of Mariner— the flybys of the 1960s and orbiters of the early 1970s. Mariner took place when the emphasis at NASA was on the Moon. Second came the aborted program Voyager, and then Viking, America’s initial landings on Mars, in 1976. Viking was an extraordinary success in many ways, but critics saw it as a failure because it did not achieve its avowed goal to find life. There was dispute over the findings, but the scientific consensus was negative as to life, and this perceived failure helped halt momentum in the program. Calls for a mobile Viking (Viking 3) follow-up went nowhere, as did those for Mars Sample Return.
The third era was an interregnum, in which advocates of other missions made their claims and Mars proponents struggled to get a hearing. As Mars dimmed on NASA’s agenda, the agency’s planetary program in general also suffered financially. A relatively few adherents kept the flame of Mars burning, but not brightly. Eventually, Mars Observer launched and approached Mars 17 years after Viking. Although Mars Observer failed as it encountered the Red Planet in 1993, it gave rise to a fourth era of Mars exploration. The new era, called Mars Surveyor Program, featured a sequence of two missions that were relatively small and simple and that were launched every 26 months when Mars and Earth were in an optimal alignment. NASA’s strategy of “faster, better, cheaper” fit the political times of post-Cold War America. A premature attempt to accelerate
MSR and failure of two Mars probes in succession brought this era to an abrupt close.
The fifth era of Mars exploration was the “follow-the-water” Mars Exploration Program. It was more incremental, comprehensive, and realistic about pace and cost and began in 2001 with the Odyssey orbiter.
Those who wished for greater leaps rather than incremental steps made the most ambitious mission of this series, MSL, even more sophisticated than its original planners had recommended. It was the mission that transitioned from following the water to looking for organic carbon compounds and other indicators of life potential. The boldest and most expensive Mars mission since Viking, in many ways MSL was the Viking 3 that never happened in the late 1970s—except that MSL was far more capable than Viking 3 could have been. MSL’s cost soared to $2.5 billion as it was deferred to 2011 from its 2007 and then 2009 schedule. It built on everything NASA had learned scientifically and technically up to this point.1
What NASA would do after MSL and the smaller project sent in 2013, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, was unclear at the time of writing. What had initially emerged for the sixth era had been a bilateral program with Europe. NASA and the European Space Agency had designed a joint program that would begin in 2016 and 2018 and take advantage of succeeding opportunities to build toward an MSR after 2020. Under severe cost-containment pressure from OMB, the United States withdrew from a major role in the 2016 and 2018 missions as originally planned. To help maintain Mars momentum in the wake of the MSL Curiosity landing, NASA instituted a smaller U. S. mission, InSight, for 2016. It also said it would contribute to the European missions via certain instruments. Most significantly, NASA got approval for a $1.5 billion rover in 2020 that would build on MSL’s Curiosity. The MSR sequence of missions might or might not be initiated with this later mission. In 2012, NASA Administrator Bolden pledged that NASA would continue Mars exploration and better integrate robotic and human spaceflight requirements in a proposed new programmatic era, which he called Mars Next Decade.2
But the initiation and contours of Mars Next Decade were uncertain. There is hope that missions after MSL Curiosity and MAVEN would lead to a coherent program aimed at MSR. In any event, a sixth era presumably will begin in 2016 and build to bolder ventures. That there has been a rocky start to this post – MSL era is not surprising. History shows that Mars exploration has had a long and tortuous journey, consuming decades, with ebbs and flows in momentum. A
program of programs, it has not been a steady evolution. It has been marked by punctuation points and key decisions between programs, and sometimes within programs and specific projects.
Mars exploration represents not only a set of missions and hardware but an agreed-upon scientific and political strategy. However, that strategy is a result of conflict and consensus building among interest groups, governmental and nongovernmental. A program constitutes an equilibrium of interests.3 The equilibrium exemplifies agreements among specialists in a space policy subsystem—bureaucrats, legislators, scientists, others—about a particular course of action. There is relative stability. Events, key individuals, and disagreements within the subsystem, or pressures from larger forces from outside, can disrupt the subsystem and bring about policy change. The task of Mars advocates generally and NASA leaders particularly has been to make the case for Mars. It has been to build and then rebuild consensus within the space sector and relate it to national and international policy as circumstances have necessitated. Situations internal or external to NASA require decision makers to adapt. Change is to be expected. Managing it is an art more than a science.
What and who have been the moving forces behind NASA’s journey from Mariner to MSL and beyond? What and who have stood in the way of the Mars proponents? How has their clash of interest influenced the course of Mars exploration? What decisions by NASA have favored one side or the other in the politics of Mars? Where is the program headed?