NASA Recharting its Path to Mars

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One of the best things about my job as NASA administrator is that it allows me to visit our NASA centers as well universities and aerospace industry facilities around the country where I am continually meeting people who share my excitement about the growing importance of space exploration. A few weeks ago, I was in Seattle at a President’s Jobs Council meeting where the focus was on preparing more young people for the high-tech jobs of today and tomorrow. On consecutive days in January, I visited students at Georgia Tech in Atlanta and Morgan State in Baltimore who were eagerly pursuing space-related studies in science and engineering. It is clear that an increasing number of Americans, including key leaders in Congress, understand that NASA and a nascent commercial space industry are critical to job growth and American competitiveness. President Barack Obama punctuated that point Feb. 13 with his release of a 2013 budget that includes $17.7 billion for NASA.

It’s a budget that keeps us on course to develop the next-generation deep-space crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket to carry our astronauts beyond low Earth orbit to destinations like an asteroid and eventually Mars. It’s a budget that allows America to maintain its unique presence in space aboard the international space station and doubles our investment in commercial crew partnerships so we can end the outsourcing of NASA’s human space launch business and bring that work home to American companies. And it’s a budget in which scientific exploration, to the tune of $4.9 billion, stands out as NASA’s single biggest top-line expenditure. That is important to keep in mind as the agency takes steps to more closely align our Mars science and human exploration |programs.

In this time of economic challenge, all agencies of government are being called upon to reassess the way they do business. NASA is no different. Given our own funding constraints, we are recalibrating our Mars science program in order to optimize both what it can achieve scientifically and how it advances human exploration goals. This means we will not be moving forward with the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions that we had been exploring with the European Space Agency (ESA). Instead we will develop a new strategy that takes into account science objectives, human exploration goals and forward-looking developments in our space technology program.

Since mid-December, John Grunsfeld, former astronaut and recently named associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, has been evaluating alternative strategies for future robotic Mars exploration. We have resumed talks with our partners in ESA in an effort to develop concepts for future Mars missions that take into consideration the NASA and ESA assets and capabilities, as well as new technologies. Together, we will develop a plan that advances our nation’s priorities for the scientific and human exploration of Mars.

With the knowledge gleaned from this synergistic approach we will be closer to achieving the president’s goal of sending explorers to Mars by the 2030s.

As a former NASA astronaut who has flown four missions on the space shuttle, including the 1990 flight that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, I’ve learned that scientific discovery and human exploration go hand in hand. In fact, visits by space shuttle astronaut crews who serviced and upgraded the observatory greatly enhanced its capabilities and made the amazing success of Hubble possible.

America’s track record of successful missions to Mars is second to none, and we intend to keep it that way. Our investment in Mars exploration over the past decade totals $6.1 billion. Eight years ago, we landed the Sprit and Opportunity rovers on the surface of Mars, and we currently have two satellites in Mars orbit observing the planet. In August, NASA will land the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, on the planet’s surface. This roving science laboratory will assess whether Mars was or is today an environment able to support life. In 2013, NASA will launch the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter — the first mission devoted to understanding the martian upper atmosphere.

NASA’s vision is to reach new heights and explore the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind. I believe that unraveling the planetary puzzle about life on Mars is the essential next step in realizing that vision. By better coordinating NASA’s scientific and human exploration programs, we will achieve our goals of discovery quicker and at less cost to the taxpayer.

Charles Bolden is administrator of NASA.