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Galileo at Jupiter illustration
Long before NASA’s Galileo mission arrived at Jupiter in 1995, the mission faced cancellation, one of a series of “survival crises” NASA’s planetary program has encountered over the last half-century. (credit: NASA)

Planetary science turns to history to help guide its future

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It’s a tough time for NASA’s planetary science program. A proposed budget cut has the scientific community worried about the prospects for future missions, including exploration of Mars and the return of samples from the Red Planet. Hopes for doing other ambitious missions, such as to Jupiter’s icy—and potentially habitable—moon of Europa or elsewhere also appear to fade in light of the proposed long-term budgets for the program.

But then, things could be worse, because they have been before.

“The current crisis is mild,” Logsdon said. “There were several occasions where it was threatened with its virtual survival.”

That was one of the key themes of a two-day symposium held in Crystal City, Virginia, last month. The “Solar System Exploration @ 50” meeting was organized by the NASA History Program Office to mark the 50th anniversary of Mariner 2, the first spacecraft to visit another planet. The intent of the meeting was to look back at five decades of missions by NASA and other space agencies to other worlds in the solar system, and many of the papers presented there did look at various technical, scientific, and programmatic aspects of those missions. Throughout the event, though, there was an undercurrent of advocacy, as attendees looked to the problems of the past to offer guidance for the planetary program’s current challenges.

Recalling the past survival crises of NASA’s planetary program

Examining past problems with NASA’s planetary program was the explicit purpose of one paper by John Logsdon and Andre Bormanis. “The current crisis is mild. It’s a 20-percent cut,” Logsdon said of the current status of NASA’s planetary science program. “There were several occasions where it was threatened with its virtual survival.”

The first “survival crisis” the planetary program faced was back in 1967, Logsdon explained. Congress canceled a NASA program called Voyager (not to be confused with the later Voyager missions to the outer solar system) that featured two large Mars landers launched on a Saturn V. “In the aftermath of that, [NASA] administrator Jim Webb canceled the whole planetary program and had it reinvented,” he said. That reinvention led to the missions flown in the 1970s.

In the mid-1970s, with few missions in the planetary science pipeline beyond the two Voyagers, NASA associate administrator Noel Hinners warned Congress that the planetary program “was going out of business,” Logsdon recounted. The new director of JPL at that time, Bruce Murray, also sought to reinvigorate the planetary program. JPL was, in Murray’s view, proposing dull missions, what he called “gray mice.” “What he wanted was ‘purple pigeons,’ mission that had not only scientific merit but also pizzazz, exploratory interest, public interest,” Logsdon said.

Those “purple pigeons” included a mission to rendezvous with Comet Halley using a solar sail, an untried technology at the time. The solar sail concept, as well as a separate solar electric propulsion mission to Halley, fell by the wayside, but another mission to fly by Halley and rendezvous with another comet, Tempel 2, made its way for consideration by President Jimmy Carter, vying with a gamma-ray observatory and a Venus radar mapper.

Carter’s decision, Logsdon said, was influenced in part by a book on black holes written by New York Times science writer Walter Sullivan that the president was reading. Because gamma rays are linked to black holes, Carter decided to approve the gamma-ray mission, which became the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. (The Venus radar mapper, in revamped form, eventually became Magellan.)

“There was a real sense of crisis at the end of the 1980s” in most of the planetary science community because of a lack of missions, Neufeld said.

“As the Reagan Administration came into office, it faced a divided planetary science community,” split between those focused solely on science and those like Murray who also sought the public and exploratory aspects. That made the program vulnerable to budget cuts that the administration’s new budget director, David Stockman, was seeking from the space agency. NASA administrator James Beggs, in a September 1981 letter to Stockman, proposed elimination of the planetary program as a way to meet NASA’s budget targets, a move that would make JPL “surplus” to NASA.

“You can question whether Beggs was serious or playing the ‘Washington Monument game,’” Logsdon said, referring to a classic ploy by the National Park Service to respond to budget cuts by closing some of its most visible landmarks, like the Washington Monument, in a bid to restore funds. “The problem was, it was acceptable” to the administration, which proposed in November 1981 to not just cut future planetary programs but also cancel Galileo.

There was a strong reaction to that proposed cut by the planetary science community as well as the public, organized by a new organization, The Planetary Society, created in 1980 by Murray, Carl Sagan, and Louis Friedman. That, though, didn’t save the planetary program, Logsdon argued. Instead, it was outreach by insiders, like the president and trustees of Caltech (which runs JPL for NASA), to key members of Congress. Those efforts got the attention of Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, who wrote President Reagan recommending that the program be continued. “In the end game, they were successful,” Logsdon said, restoring funding for Galileo and opening the door for future missions. “Nothing that the community did on its own would have produced the result they got.”

There would be threats to, and shakeups of, the planetary program in later years, although not to the same severe degree as in 1981. A structure for future missions created in the 1980s after that near-death experience led to the Cassini and Magellan missions, Bormanis noted, but it also failed to generate more than one low-cost “Observer”-class mission, which was the ill-fated Mars Observer. Limited funds meant that NASA had to choose between Cassini and another “Mariner Mark II” mission, Comet Rendezvous/Asteroid Flyby (CRAF), with Cassini winning out. “CRAF was not considered the sexy mission of the two,” Bormanis said. “There was a perception one could argue with that a Saturn orbiter would be of much greater interest to the public.”

“There was a real sense of crisis at the end of the 1980s” in most of the planetary science community because of a lack of missions, said Michael Neufeld of the National Air and Space Museum in a separate presentation. An exception, he said, was Len Fisk, NASA associate administrator for space science at the time, who felt this was a “great period of expansion” as NASA’s overall budget grew and an understanding that 20 percent of that budget would be allocated to space science. But that concern about a lack of missions led to a push for smaller missions that eventually became the Discovery program, which continues to this day. (Discovery, Neufeld added, also provided an opportunity for new entrants like the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of Johns Hopkins University, shaking up a sense of complacency at JPL.)

A decade later, NASA’s Mars program would come under scrutiny after the failures of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander. “What we had the extraordinary opportunity to do was to take nearly a clean sheet of paper and completely restructure a decade of missions,” said Scott Hubbard, who was the so-called “Mars czar” who led that effort in 2000. That meant wiping away previous plans (in retrospect overly ambitious ones) to mount a sample return mission around 2005. “The reason I canceled the Mars sample return mission that was on the books in the year 2000 is because we didn’t know where to go that made it worth that large expenditure of time and effort.”

Lessons for the future

What the history of NASA’s planetary science program shows is a clear cycle of crisis and reinvention. The cancellation of the original Voyager program in the late 1960s led to a reinvention that created a slate of missions in the 1970s. The near death of the planetary program in 1981 led to a structure of future missions developed later in the 1980s. When that effort faltered and scientists worried about a lack of missions, NASA pushed forward the Discovery program of smaller missions. And when the Mars program stumbled in the late 1990s, NASA rebuilt that program, leading to a string of successful missions, including the recent Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

“The issue of budgetary cycles and political changes means that you have to put the current crisis into perspective,” Neufeld said. “Your problems aren’t new at all, in most cases. It’s more of a cyclical nature.”

“One of the issues is educating the scientific community that appealing to the public is not dirty,” said Logsdon.

And there are signs that the current crisis is leading to a reinvention, at least for Mars exploration. After NASA decided earlier this year to drop out of the joint ExoMars program with the European Space Agency, it created a Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG), charged with developing options for future missions to the Red Planet. The MPPG’s summary report, issued in September, offered several options for future missions, primarily centered on sample return as a long-term goal.

Hubbard, who nixed the sample return plans that NASA had in 2000, thinks now is the right time to pursue sample return. “Today, after this deliberate decade of understanding, we are very well prepared to pick the site that has high value samples,” he said. Many of the technical challenges, like precision landing, have also been successfully resolved. “The main remaining technological challenge is with the Mars ascent vehicle,” he said.

Budgetary challenges, though, may dwarf any scientific and technical hurdles for that mission, unless planetary exploration advocates can win more funding. Last week, The Planetary Society, citing “newly-formed internal budget numbers” circulating within the planetary science community, said that restoring the proposed $300-million in the fiscal year 2013 budget (yet to be passed by Congress) and keeping funding for the planetary science program at $1.5 billion a year for the indefinite future would be enough to allow the 2018 launch of a rover to cache samples for later return to Earth. The funding would also support development of a Europa mission for launch in the early 2020s and accelerate the selection of the next Discovery-class mission by a year.

But how to win—and maintain—that $300-million-a-year funding wedge? The standard response has been to build up public support through a variety of means. The Planetary Society, for example, has been urging its members and others to contact the White House and ask President Obama to reverse the requested funding cut. Hubbard noted that the slogan they developed for the revamped Mars program in 2000, “follow the water,” was useful in communicating their plans to the public and the Congress, and even within NASA itself. “These kinds of things, although they’re sometimes derided as sound bites, give you a way of communication to people who are not insiders, to tell them succinctly what you’re all about,” he said. “I think there’s value, great value, in that.”

“One of the issues is educating the scientific community that appealing to the public is not dirty,” said Logsdon. He cited as an example the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video created by JPL prior to the MSL landing, which he said created “great PR” for the mission.

Yet, communicating to the public alone doesn’t appear to be sufficient to win enhanced support and funding for planetary exploration. Even the surge of interest in recent months after MSL’s successful landing hasn’t resulted—at least, not yet—in additional funding for NASA’s planetary program. And, as Logsdon noted, it wasn’t the public advocacy that saved NASA’s planetary program in 1981, but instead lobbying by well-connected insiders. There’s also the question about how high a priority NASA itself places on its planetary program.

“What I find kind of astonishing,” said Bormanis, “is not so much the fact that we don’t spend a lot of money on planetary exploration, but that we spend as much as we do.”

“Space science has always been ancillary to NASA’s vision of its future,” said Roger Handberg of the University of Central Florida. “We’re in a time of economic distress, so space science will get cut. It has less political support in the agency, at the upper levels, than human spaceflight. So if it’s a choice between human spaceflight and space science, the choice is going to be human spaceflight.”

“I believe planetary science and human spaceflight will always be intertwined,” said Glenn Bugos, a historian at NASA Ames, in a later presentation. “Human settlement of the solar system is something that is very compelling and I think we need to recognize that as a factor in understanding the course of planetary exploration.”

And what about the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), frequently identified by space advocates and even people in Congress as the villain in any NASA-related budget battle? “There are people there who very much care about the space program,” said Amy Paige Kaminski, a former OMB staffer now working at NASA. They understand, she added, the risks and costs associated with spacecraft missions, particularly when those missions encounter problems forcing tough decisions. “Those decisions aren’t unilaterally made by OMB. They’re driven by the influences of other actors.”

“The best you can do is to have the community come up with a rational program, have the program office—the people who are career civil servants—buy in to that rational program, and you try to make sure the administrator is on your side, and that he’s good enough to sell it to the political community,” offered W. Henry Lambright of Syracuse University. However, Mars exploration and other planetary programs are often long-term endeavors, and people like NASA administrators are typically in office for only a few years. “You’ll never get rationality. You’ll get what is called ‘muddling through,’” he said, to laughter from the audience. “That’s the best you’re going to do.”

So, given those obstacles, perhaps the real victory is that NASA’s planetary program has survived the up-and-down cycles of the last half-century. “What I find kind of astonishing,” said Bormanis, “is not so much the fact that we don’t spend a lot of money on planetary exploration, but that we spend as much as we do.”