The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has withdrawn a U.S. commitment to joint Mars missions with the Europeans in 2016 and 2018. This poses a grave crisis for all of us hoping for a human future in space.
NASA’s Mars exploration program has been brilliantly successful because, since 1994, it has been approached as a campaign, with probes launched every biennial opportunity, alternating between orbiters and landers. As a result, combined operations have been possible, with orbiters providing communication links and reconnaissance guidance for surface rovers, which in turn can conduct ground-truth investigations of orbital observations. Thus, the great treks of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003, were supported from above by Mars Global Surveyor (MGS, launched in1996), Mars Odyssey (launched in 2001) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO, launched in 2005). But after serving 10 years on orbit, MGS is now lost, and if we wait until the 2020s to resume Mars exploration, the rest of the orbiters will be gone as well. Moreover, so will be the experienced teams that created them. Effectively, the whole program will be completely wrecked, and we will have to start again from scratch.
Furthermore, if the OMB cuts are allowed to prevail, we will not only destroy America’s Mars exploration program, but derail that of our European allies as well. The 2016 and 2018 missions have been planned as a NASA/European Space Agency joint project, with the Europeans contributing over $1 billion to the effort. But if America betrays its commitment, the European supporters of Mars explorations will be left high and dry, and both the missions, and the partnership, will be lost.
America’s human spaceflight program is completely adrift. Unless it is reorganized as a mission-driven directorate committed to efficiently achieving important objectives within a meaningful timeframe, it may well prove to be indefensible in the face of the oncoming fiscal tsunami. But the Mars program is defensible. It has real and rational objectives, reasonable costs and a terrific track record of success. It can and must be saved.
There is no justification for the proposed cuts. The U.S. government may be going broke, but it’s not because of NASA. Since 2008, federal spending has increased 40 percent, but NASA spending has increased only 5 percent. Trillions of dollars of out-of-control entitlement spending cannot be remedied by cuts in NASA, or even in the entire discretionary budget, defense included. Rather, the financial bleeding needs to be staunched where the hole is, and nowhere else.
In any case, cost is not the issue. With the Europeans putting up their share, a matching $1 billion contribution from NASA spread over the next six years would be sufficient to fund both the 2016 and 2018 missions at a level of $1 billion each. This would require less than 1 percent of NASA’s current budget. There is no excuse for not doing this.
The Mars program would not be terminated to make funds available for future missions to other planets. In fact, there would be no money in the OMB plan to fund any of them, either.
America’s planetary exploration program is one of the great chapters in the history of science, of civilization and of our country. Its abandonment would represent nothing else than an embrace of American decline. This is unacceptable.
Mars is key to humanity’s future in space. It is the closest planet that has all the resources needed to support life and technological civilization. Its complexity uniquely demands the skills of human explorers, who will pave the way for human settlers. It is, therefore, the proper goal for NASA’s human spaceflight program, and the proper priority for its robotic scouts. The human spaceflight program may be in disarray, but the scouts have been making progress, and are set to make more, if only we continue with them.
If we allow the OMB to shut down the Mars exploration effort, NASA will lose its most effective endeavor, one of the few that delivers the goods that justify the entire space program as a national enterprise; the nation will lose one of its crown jewels; the scientists will lose their chance to find life beyond Earth; and humanity will lose the one significant effort that is making real and visible progress toward opening the frontier on another world. We can’t let that happen.
Here is where we need to make a stand. There is no excuse for wrecking the Mars program. The nation can afford it, and walking away from it is walking away from success, from our allies, from science, from greatness, from the pioneer spirit, and from our future. Everyone needs to mobilize now to save the 2016 and 2018 Mars missions.
This is a fight we can and must win. It’s time to speak up.
Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and of the Mars Society (www.marssociety.org). An updated edition of his book “The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must” was recently published by The Free Press.