Bruce Jakosky has been involved in more than a half-dozen NASA planetary, lunar and solar missions over the decades, starting with the Viking Mars landers of the 1970s and including the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover currently studying Mars’ habitability. But the University of Colorado-led Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter, now en route to the red planet, is Jakosky’s first mission as principal investigator. It’s a job, he says, that’s not for the faint of heart.

“My wife tells me that there are only two things I know how to talk about, MAVEN and skiing,” Jakosky said in a recent interview with SpaceNews correspondent Leonard David. “A couple of years ago for Christmas I gave her coupons, each one of which could be redeemed for four hours of MAVEN-free conversation. I did have a little asterisk on the coupons that read, ‘Not valid on day of launch.’”

Launched in November, MAVEN is on track to begin orbiting Mars this September. Competitively selected in 2008 under the since-discontinued Mars Scout program, MAVEN also looks to be on track to complete its primary mission for less than the $671.2 million NASA budgeted for building the nearly 2,500-kilogram satellite, launching it on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket and orbiting the planet for at least a year.

Nobody is more pleased than Jakosky, who is leading the mission from his home base at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder.

MAVEN’s goal is to explore Mars’ upper atmosphere, sorting out what role the escape of gas from the atmosphere to space has played in altering the planet’s climate throughout its history. The University of Colorado at Boulder provided science instruments and leads science operations, and education and public outreach. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the project and provided two of the science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations.

How far under budget is MAVEN?

We’re still in the process of determining what our underrun was. We know that we are on track to be under budget. We haven’t vetted that through NASA headquarters as yet. That is being done this spring as part of the annual budget process. One reason we’re coming in under budget is that we had adequate reserves. We did more bookkeeping than other missions. 

This is your first experience as a mission principal investigator. What has that been like? 

I had never done anything like this. You really have no idea what it entails. It could be an incredible amount of fun or the most painful drudgery you can ever imagine. I feel lucky as it has turned out to be a lot of fun. The role of principal investigator is one of getting to shape the mission, to look across every single aspect of the project to make sure you can get the science. You don’t get to do that in a vacuum because you’ve got to write a proposal, pass reviews, convince people it’s the right mission. 

The science of MAVEN is one element. What do you now appreciate about engineering that you didn’t when you took on the principal investigator role?

How hard it is. We have about 10,000 requirements on the project. I’m blown away by that number. Every one of them had to be not only written and documented but connected to the other requirements — the ones from which it flowed. Over the years, issues that cropped up on MAVEN, I think, can be traced to lack of communication. It’s a very social activity in building a spacecraft. Good open communications added up to team success. It’s all about communications. One of the reasons that I think MAVEN has done well is that we defined a mission early on and we stuck with it. We resisted what’s called “science creep” where you start adding instruments. We also resisted “engineering creep” to make this or that better, which means adding months and extra dollars. We thought we had a solid mission to begin with and we kept focused on that.

How’s the overall health of MAVEN?

Everything is working perfectly. The spacecraft is working as expected, as are the science instruments. We still have to deploy the booms with their instruments after orbit insertion. There have been a few thermal issues that have come up, but they are minor. Things look good for the Sept. 21 engine burn to insert MAVEN into Mars orbit. We have a one-year primary mission and we’re hoping for an extended mission. We have the potential for a 10-year science mission if things break our way in terms of fuel use, along with spacecraft safety and health.

What concern do you have about the dust that comet 2013 A1 Siding Spring will spew as it buzzes by Mars in October about 10 times closer than any identified comet that has ever flown past Earth?

The comet comes by Mars just four weeks after MAVEN’s orbit insertion. Assessing the dust issue is a serious effort. Right now the numbers are all over the map. But the risk could be in as high as the 1 to 10 percent range of something serious happening. Work is underway to identify, quantitatively, what the dust risk is. The biggest uncertainty is what the dust abundance will be and the size range of those particles that would be most hazardous to us. We have a working group to make recommendations, in terms of pointing the least vulnerable face of MAVEN into the flow. 

Can MAVEN carry out comet science?

The working group is looking at both what can we learn by looking at the comet and by looking at Mars. The comet dust and gas are going to hit Mars. That’s going to perturb the planet’s upper atmosphere. It would be nice to have an immediately before and immediately after snapshot of what it looks like, given the comet’s close flyby. But the caveat is that health and safety of the spacecraft and instruments come first. Everything else is a distant second.

How does MAVEN fit into NASA’s overall program?

MAVEN came out of 10 years of planning and development. I was adamant that MAVEN be pitched in a way that connected it up with the bigger picture of why we’re exploring Mars and what we want to learn scientifically about the planet. And part of that is about Mars climate history and geology. And part of it really is about astrobiology. That’s because I do see the most fundamental question about Mars as being, is there life there, or was there life there? 

So MAVEN can be viewed as an astrobiology mission?

MAVEN isn’t a search-for-life mission. But we’re about understanding the history of climate and the history of the habitability of Mars. It is astrobiology writ large — addressing fundamental issues and understanding what the presence or absence of life on Mars would mean.

If all goes well, India’s Mars orbiter will join MAVEN, as well as Europe’s now-orbiting Mars Express, to conduct scientific research. What’s the potential for joint observations?

We’re having very detailed discussions with the Mars Express folks. They have several instruments that are making measurements relevant to MAVEN. You get extra value from two stations versus one. We’re in the process of developing a Memorandum of Understanding between the two missions. Not country to country or agency to agency, but scientist to scientist.

What about India’s Mars Orbiter Mission?

We’ve had preliminary discussions with the Indians. I’m hoping that we will be able to develop collaboration and cooperation with them. Even if we can’t end up working closely together with Indian scientists or the Mars Express officials, once we have the data from MAVEN we can work the three data sets downstream. We can do valuable collaborative science even if we didn’t coordinate the observations.

Do you expect eureka moments from MAVEN data?

I can’t tell you what will come out of MAVEN. But one of the hallmarks of Mars science has been that every spacecraft we have sent has made fundamental discoveries about that planet. The reality is that I have no idea of what we are going to see. I can tell you that if we can continue to have a Mars program, all the information we have, including MAVEN, will go into deciding what the next mission will be. It’s not clear today if we still have a Mars program. We’re sending Mars spacecraft, with MAVEN, with InSight, with the 2020 rover. We have a Mars program with a lower-case “p” but it’s not clear we have a Mars program with a capital “P” — and that remains to be seen.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...