As most readers of Space News already know, on the very early morning (Eastern time) of Aug. 6, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover is scheduled to make its dramatic landing on the martian surface. In virtually every respect, this mission is bigger, more ambitious and more challenging than any previous mission. If successful, it could move us far closer to understanding whether Mars has ever been suitable for life. But the importance of this mission goes far beyond the actual mission goals and engineering.
During ordinary times, this landing would represent an extraordinary milestone in space exploration and the understanding of Mars. However, we are not living in ordinary times, and the stakes have never been higher for a Mars landing. The budgetary, political and programmatic pressure focused on NASA (and every other federal agency) is unprecedented. Every success and failure — no matter how minor — is being scrutinized to an extreme degree. Add to this environment the fact that MSL is scheduled to land in the heart of the U.S. presidential campaign season, which tends to magnify the impact — positive or negative — of any event. This landing will take place less than a month before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Aug. 27-30, and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 3-6.
With this backdrop, it is certain that MSL will make a political impact. The key question is what will be the nature of that impact and how far-reaching will it be? A successful landing could help generate the momentum necessary to revitalize our science budget and provide more focus for human exploration. On the other hand, failure in this environment would have a far more detrimental impact than in ordinary times. If the $2.5 billion MSL were to fail, it could cause major troubles for NASA and space supporters as they argue for support of programs and budgets.
It is clear that the next few months are a pivotal time frame for the space program. Supporters of space exploration must be proactive and not rely on chance or the “inevitable” outpouring of enthusiasm when MSL lands. The MSL landing should be leveraged to build excitement about space exploration, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and innovation, and to resuscitate the Mars program. NASA recently collected over 400 concepts for new Mars missions, many of which are extremely innovative and could go a long way to advance our understanding of Mars — if only they can be funded. MSL can provide the public excitement and political support to not only re-establish a robust robotic exploration program but also create a bridge to human exploration.
In the event of mission failure, it is equally important that contingency messaging be aggressively disseminated, emphasizing that going to Mars is extraordinarily difficult and explaining why missions like this must be supported in the future.
These efforts can’t be left exclusively to NASA. This message will be far more effective coming from a variety of organizations that are passionate about space exploration.
Events are already being planned. NASA is conducting a series of events centered around the landing, The Planetary Society is once again holding Planetfest in Pasadena, Calif., and museums and other organizations will be holding landing events around the country. My organization, Explore Mars, is running the GetCurious.com campaign that will coordinate landing parties around the world as well as a whole series of STEM, press and other events related to MSL through the rest of the year.
What is certain is that these efforts should not be limited to a single day. If all effort is focused on the landing day, we will be wasting a unique opportunity. The imagery and science coming from the Curiosity rover should be breathtaking and will likely be coming in for at least a year. Mars images need to saturate the public consciousness over the coming months. If we are successful, the primary topics of discussion this fall should be the presidential election and Mars.
Chris Carberry is executive director of Explore Mars Inc.