Foust Forward | Waking up NASA’s Mars exploration program

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Aug. 27, 2018 issue.

Every day in a control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, engineers play a “wakeup” song for the Mars rover Opportunity, which has been in hibernation since early June when a massive dust storm deprived it of solar power. The song is for the benefit of the controllers, not the rover, as a way to boost morale as they wait and hope that the rover revives itself as the dust storm subsides.

Mars exploration advocates have been waiting and hoping as well, concerned about a potential hibernation of NASA’s overall Mars exploration program. While that program has a long series of successes, a lack of details about the future of the program have scientists worried that the program could sputter to an end sometime in the 2020s.

That was a concern expressed in a National Academies report released in early August that offered a midterm assessment of NASA’s implementation of the latest planetary science decadal survey. The space agency got high marks for going forward with some flagship missions, like the Mars 2020 rover, despite the budget cuts NASA’s planetary science program suffered early in the decade.

However, the report warned of problems in some areas, like the future of the Mars exploration program. Mars 2020 is, for now, the last NASA Mars mission on the books, and NASA’s early studies of potential future missions have focused only on returning the samples of rock and soil that Mars 2020 will collect.

“There is currently no vision for a program beyond sample return, either for scientific investigation or to prepare for future human exploration,” the report stated. That sample return effort, it added, will have to rely on existing spacecraft to scout potential landing sites from orbit and to serve as communications relays. “The system is fragile and aging.”

Speaking Aug. 23 at the annual conference of the Mars Society in Pasadena, California, Michael Meyer, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, played up the near-term activity of the program, including ongoing missions as well as the InSight mission, en route for a landing just after Thanksgiving. “The Mars program is doing really well,” he said, adding he was actually concerned about competition for communications resources in 2020, given plans by NASA and others to send missions to the red planet.

He offered, though, few details about the future of the program beyond 2020. A year ago, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, announced planning for a “lean” sample return architecture that would minimize the time, and number of missions needed, after Mars 2020 to get the sample back.

NASA has yet to flesh out that architecture into specific mission concepts, although it did sign an agreement with the European Space Agency this spring to study cooperation in that sample return effort, one that would give ESA responsibility for a spacecraft that would pick up a sample canister launched into Mars orbit and return it to Earth.

Meyer said at the conference that a “mid-architecture review” would take place in a few weeks “to see whether or not we have the right concepts” for sample return. He offered few other details, though, about a schedule or budget for the missions being proposed. “We have a healthy program,” he said. “Our missions have been very successful.”

The National Academies report saw it differently, calling for a revitalized Mars exploration program with a specific “architecture, strategic plan, management structure, partnerships (including commercial partnerships), and budget that address the science goals for Mars exploration.”

So, perhaps it’s time for Mars scientists and other exploration advocates to start their own series of wakeup songs, not in the hopes that the aging Opportunity rover will revive, but that NASA will wake up to the need to provide a more detailed plan for the long-term future of Mars exploration.


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.