LIEGE, Belgium — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden urged NASA’s international partners Sept. 26 not to read too much into an advisory panel’s report on the U.S. agency’s near-term Mars exploration options, saying “NASA does not plan to do anything alone” when it comes to Mars exploration.

Addressing a press briefing here, where he and his European Space Agency (ESA) counterpart, Jean-Jacques Dordain, were receiving awards from the University of Liege, Bolden said the report should be seen only as offering hope that, despite its budget constraints, NASA will be able to send an astronaut to Mars by around 2030 as President Barack Obama has requested.

The Mars Program Planning Group report, released Sept. 25, plots multiple avenues toward a manned Mars mission, including one whose interim goal is to collect samples from Mars and return them to Earth.

The report says a fresh round of Mars missions could begin as early as 2018, the year the 20-nation ESA is tentatively scheduled to launch the second of two payloads as part of its ExoMars program.

ExoMars at this point is being assembled mainly as a cooperative effort with Russia after NASA told ESA that the U.S. contribution would not include launches by Atlas vehicles, as had been planned, because of NASA’s budget uncertainty.

The first ExoMars launch, in 2016, is slated to carry a telecommunications orbiter that will include the NASA-provided Electra telecommunications relay and navigation instrument to assure communications between probes and rovers on the surface of Mars and controllers on Earth.

“Let me say this clearly, because we hear all the time that NASA has ‘abandoned’ ExoMars,” Bolden said. “We have not abandoned ExoMars, and the Electra payload is an example of our continuing high interest in the mission.”

Bolden noted that Mars missions, including NASA’s current Curiosity rover on the planet’s surface, could utilize massive amounts of telecommunications capacity that are not yet available.

Next-generation optical communications links and other emerging technologies could be harnessed to widen the information pipe between Mars and Earth to take advantage of what the rovers and landers are finding, he said.

“There is more data sitting in Curiosity than we can get back to Earth in a century,” Bolden said by way of stressing how important NASA views Mars telecommunications relays.

Bolden said the Mars Program Planning Group examined only one piece of the Mars exploration puzzle, which was the program development sequence that could result in fulfilling Obama’s goal.

The group did not address budget constraints and other interests that continue to push NASA and most of the world’s other space agencies into collaborative efforts.

ESA’s Dordain, at the same press briefing, said ESA had participated in the Mars Program Planning Group and was kept apprised of its activities.

Dordain has more than enough on his hands to win his governments’ approval of ExoMars without getting overly concerned with the NASA report. He said he still hopes that the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, will agree in November to provide two Proton rockets for the ExoMars missions, as well as a third Proton to launch ESA’s Juice mission to Jupiter later in the decade.

Part of the savings coming from the Proton launch of Juice will be used to fill ExoMars’ continued budget shortfall.

Dordain, whose agency has no exploration program for beyond low Earth orbit that does not involve partners, said, “We have no choice but to cooperate with partners.”

Bolden said that when NASA knows for certain what its 2013 budget is, it will be able to consider new missions and possibly a contribution to the 2018 ExoMars element, which includes a European-built rover as well as a mainly Russian entry, descent and landing payload.

Bolden said one of the main questions that needs to be answered for future Mars exploration is whether a sample-return mission must precede the launch of astronauts to the red planet.

He said that during the Apollo lunar exploration program, some voices at NASA wanted to hold off on sending astronauts to the Moon because they were uncertain of the composition of the lunar surface.

Probabilistic risk assessment analysis, he said, was not applied to Apollo to the extent that some wanted, and the decision was made to send Apollo 11 to the lunar surface without benefit of a sample-return precursor.

Bolden admitted that returning to Earth a sample from Mars “remains the Holy Grail. But the international community is going to have to figure out how to get to the Holy Grail. What is the timing? Do we need to have a sample before we send humans? I honestly don’t know.”



ExoMars’ Chances Improve with Italian, British Pledges

ESA Agrees To Fund ExoMars Until Year’s End

Europe To Press Ahead with ExoMars Plans Without NASA

ESA Formally Invites Roscosmos To Join ExoMars Mission as Full-fledged Partner

ESA Forced To Defer Full-scale Work on 2016 Mars Orbiter

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.