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Mars Exploration Rover
The success of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers suggests that NASA has a good handle on how to conduct robotic Mars missions. Can those lessons be applied to the new exploration vision? (credit: NASA/JPL)

Is the Great Galactic Ghoul losing his appetite?

Considering the billions of dollars worth of spacecraft that the Great Galactic Ghoul has eaten in the past, the UK’s Beagle 2, at about $70 million, must have seemed like an insignificant little morsel—like eating a couple of grapes, when one really wants to have a T-bone steak. Other than the Beagle, the Ghoul has not had too many meals recently. The last time the poor beast had a decent meal was in late 1999, when he ate the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter. Since then, the NASA Mars Odyssey and ESA’s Mars Express have avoided him, and gone into orbit successfully around the Red Planet. Even worse from the Ghoul’s point of view, two Mars rovers have been scooting slowly around the planet’s surface for almost nine months. Shouldn’t a healthy, hungry Ghoul have at least eaten one of these by now?

It’s shocking to realize that not only are these two little robots still working, and working well, but that NASA has just announced that, barring an accident, or an encounter with the Ghoul, they are going to be operating for at least another six months. Is NASA (and ESA) actually learning from experience? The skill with which the rover program has been run is either extraordinary or else due to the most amazing run of luck the space business has seen since Apollo 13 made it back safely to earth.

The rover mission’s principal investigator made the point that “these machines just keep going and going, so the science just keeps coming and coming.” The data on Martian geology and on the nature of the Martian environment is going to keep the researchers busy for years. What is more, the confirmation that water is fairly abundant makes it more likely that an eventual human mission will be able to live off the land.

The skill with which the rover program has been run is either extraordinary or else due to the most amazing run of luck the space business has seen since Apollo 13 made it back safely to earth.

From ESA’s Mars Express comes a good example of a “dog that didn’t bark.” Its Planetary Fourier Spectrometer has found traces of methane, but it has apparently not found any sign of the kind of isotopes scientists would expect to find if there were any indicators of organic life. If this is confirmed, it will be bad news for those who’ve been expecting that confirmation of past life on Mars would provide a burst of energy for the field of astrobiology. On the other hand, those who are looking forward to eventual human exploration and colonization of the planet can take comfort in this. They will not have to argue with those who want to prevent any human activity that might disturb the Martian microbes.

Complaints that the rover project was underfunded from the beginning, and that the success so far owes far more to chance than to the implementation of the Faster Better Cheaper concept, have persisted since last January. (See “The thin line between success and catastrophe”, The Space Review, March 1, 2004) Certainly the rover budget was tight and the timing, driven by the launch window, left hardly any room for error. Fortunately, the team at JPL, and their supporters at the other NASA centers, knew what to expect. Their success with the Pathfinder/Sojourner mission in 1997, and the failure of Mars Polar Lander, has made them realistic about what the can and cannot be accomplished with the technology and the budgets they have to work with.

There is little doubt that NASA, and perhaps also ESA, have got the hang of Mars robotic missions. The next set of Mars-bound spacecraft—the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Phoenix lander, and the Mars Science Laboratory—are more difficult to build and operate than the current ones, but the space agency has earned a renewed level of trust and confidence in this particular area. If these future efforts are successful, from both the scientific and budgetary points of view, NASA’s robotic exploration program may be easier to sell to Congress and to the America people.

The human exploration program has not yet had any comparable successes to point to, certainly not since Apollo. Neither the shuttle nor the ISS have performed up to expectation and both programs have vastly exceeded their original budgets. It may be an “apples and oranges” comparison, but if NASA cannot begin to show how the systems to be used by the Vision for Space Exploration can operate to their full potential and stay within budget, the political will to carry out the vision will be weak at best. Transferring the lesson learned by the Mars Exploration Rovers and other successful robotic spacecraft to the human side of the operation may be difficult, but should be possible within the “One NASA” concept.

If NASA cannot begin to show how the systems to be used by the Vision for Space Exploration can operate to their full potential and stay within budget, the political will to carry out the vision will be weak at best.

Spirit and Opportunity have shown that even within tight limits, NASA has the skills and the energy to make a difficult mission a success. The challenge is to maintain this record, to continually keep improving performance, both technologically and in keeping within the cost estimates, and ultimately to integrate this expertise into the agency as a whole.

As the Genesis mission has shown, the Great Ghoul has a cousin here on Earth. She not only eats the occasional spacecraft here, but she occasionally goes up to Capitol Hill and eats them before they get out of the barn. The way to avoid this Ghoul is to make sure that NASA consistently comes up with credible cost estimates and then demonstrates that it can accomplish the jobs it says it can.


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ISPCS 2014