It’s Accountability, Stupid

I rarely quote Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but I did just that – repeatedly – reading Robert D. Braun’s Commentary “The Value of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory” [Dec. 8, page 19]. “Oh, please!” I kept saying to myself.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is a mismanaged turkey that should have its head lopped off, preferably along with those of the managers who let the project get so out of hand. Because we’re not doing that, a host of other NASA exploration efforts will suffer.

Most galling is Braun’s assertion that because this is a flagship mission, anything goes. Invoke the word “flagship” and accountability should just go away. This translates plainly to me as, “Just shut up and fork over more of your money.” That’s some way to instill public confidence in a taxpayer-funded endeavor.

The “frontiers” that Braun says MSL is pushing seem primarily to be about creating make-work for aerospace companies. MSL will have a heat shield similar to Orion’s. So what? Let Orion work out its own technology for its own operating conditions.

Spirit and Opportunity, our two still-operating Mars rovers, have shown brilliantly that the basic configuration first flown on Mars Pathfinder has been matured into a highly successful design, capable of doing excellent science and rugged enough to last years in the martian environment.

So why are we reinventing the wheel – or in this case, the rover? Surely there are many more places on Mars that we would love to have a Spirit or Opportunity exploring, even with their particular limitations. Surely we have yet to exhaust the capabilities and benefits to be gotten from this rover design.

Pushing frontiers needn’t be all about getting into a bigger, sweeter ride – with accompanying budget. The challenge can (and here, should) lie instead with becoming creative with those tools you already have. In these Mars rovers, we have a capable platform for Mars exploration – completely developed, completely proven.

Instead of funding one single massive rover with all new technology, let’s reap the benefit of that design work already done, and build a whole series of Spirits and Opportunities. Change only what is absolutely necessary based on our operating experience. (Is getting a brush or wiper for dusting the solar panels really that absurd, or difficult?) We could use the biannual Mars launch window to launch one, two, a few of the rovers to interesting new sites on the red planet. With repeated opportunities (pun intended), we could even get more daring about where we want to land them. We could also give them different mixes of instruments for different missions.

It would do well to remember that Mars Pathfinder originally began as the Mars Environmental Survey, or MESUR. There were going to be multiple ground stations similar to that on Pathfinder, placed in a variety of locations on Mars. Eventually, that network was whittled to one “engineering model,” to which a microrover was added.

While good science was certainly done, the primary benefit was arguably the engineering that eventually was scaled up for Spirit and Opportunity and their delivery systems. We’re now in an excellent position to place multiple mobile stations on Mars and fulfill the MESUR vision.

If nothing else, we should build a few more Spirits and Opportunities and put them in storage. Then, when the managers of a flagship program leave us with nothing at all for a precious launch window – as they just have with MSL – we could pull them out to fly instead.

Alan Stern has it exactly right: Managers who can not field missions reasonably close to their promised costs should not be given a pass, especially at the expense of other vital exploration projects.

Greg Zsidisin,

New York