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A year after the Curiosity rover (above) landed, NASA has restructured its Mars exploration program while private efforts have proposed for daring human exploration missions there. (credit: NASA/JPL)

One year after the seven minutes of terror: the state of Mars exploration

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One year ago tonight, terror turned to triumph. On the night of August 5, 2012, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft arrived at Mars, encountering what NASA had dubbed the “seven minutes of terror” that elapsed between the time the spacecraft encountered the uppermost layers of the Martian atmosphere and when it landed on the surface. So many things, they warned prior to the landing, could go wrong during that entry, descent, and landing phase.

Of course, as it turned out nothing did go wrong. The spacecraft worked as expected, setting the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars, touching off celebrations in mission control that have been replayed countless times in the year that followed. Given all the attention focused on getting that spacecraft—which cost about $2.5 billion—safely on the surface, those celebrations were understandable.

“The challenge to restructure the Mars Exploration Program has turned from the seven minutes of terror for the Curiosity landing to the start of seven years of innovation,” Grunsfeld said in December when announcing the 2020 rover.

Largely overlooked at the time, though, was the fact that NASA’s Mars exploration program was in a state of turmoil. Earlier last year, NASA announced it was terminating its partnership with ESA on the ExoMars program, which featured an orbiter mission in 2016 and a rover in 2018, the latter intended to collect samples for later return to Earth. (ESA later reached an agreement with the Russian space agency Roscosmos to partner on ExoMars.) When Curiosity landed, the only Mars mission on the books for NASA after it was the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, an orbiter slated for launch this November.

A year later, the future of NASA’s Mars exploration program appears brighter. Just two weeks after Curiosity’s landing, NASA announced it had selected a Mars lander mission called InSight as part of its Discovery program of planetary science missions. InSight, slated for launch in 2016, will study the planet’s interior using a spacecraft based on the Phoenix mission (which, in turn, was based on a 2001 lander cancelled by NASA after the failure of the Mars Polar Lander in 1999.)

InSight, strictly speaking, is outside of NASA’s official Mars Exploration Program, funded instead by the Discovery Program. That selection raised concerns elsewhere in the planetary science community, particularly as NASA sought to reduce funding for its overall planetary science program from $1.5 billion in 2012 to $1.2 billion in 2013. (The Senate version of a spending bill for NASA in 2014 includes language instructing NASA to fund one of the two proposals that lost out to InSight, a comet mission and a Titan lander, for further study.)

In December, NASA surprised the Mars (and overall planetary science) community with a decision on the next Mars mission after InSight. Speaking at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco on December 4, NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld announced that NASA had decided to send a copy of Curiosity to Mars in 2020. “The challenge to restructure the Mars Exploration Program has turned from the seven minutes of terror for the Curiosity landing to the start of seven years of innovation,” he said at the time. “This mission concept fits within the current and projected Mars exploration budget, builds on the exciting discoveries of Curiosity, and takes advantage of a favorable launch opportunity.”

In the announcement, Grunsfeld said the scientific goals of the mission would be determined by a separate study, and did not commit to using the mission to cache samples for return to Earth, as was the plan for the 2018 ExoMars lander. That, too, raised concerns in the science community, since a Mars rover was identified in the 2011 decadal survey for planetary science as the top priority large, or “flagship,” mission for the coming decade, provided that it was the first step in a multi-mission Mars sample return effort.

“If that rover followed the decadal recommendation of collecting a returnable sample cache to come back to Earth, then it is responsive to the decadal recommendations,” Steve Squyres, the Cornell University planetary scientist who chaired the decadal survey, told a meeting of the Space Studies Board in April. If the 2020 rover doesn’t include a sample caching capability, he concluded, “it is completely inconsistent with the recommendations of the planetary decadal, and, according to the decadal recommendations, it should be bypassed, it should not fly, and the next priority mission would be a Europa orbiter.”

Tito is slated to speak at the Mars Society’s annual conference later this month in Colorado on both the current status of the project and ways the public can be involved.

Last month’s release of the report by the 2020 rover science definition team (SDT), though, appeared to allay those concerns. Analysis of the mission objectives, the team noted in its final report, “brought the SDT to the conclusion that exploration oriented toward astrobiology and the preparation of a returnable cache of carefully selected and documented surface samples is the only acceptable mission concept.”

The concept in the SDT report calls for collecting up to 31 such samples, caching them so that a future mission could retrieve them and send them back to Earth. When such a follow-on mission or missions—some sample return concepts call for three separate missions to cache, launch into Mars orbit, and return to Earth those samples—would fly remains beyond NASA’s current planning horizon. “We’re not signing up to a timetable or a commitment for a follow-on mission,” Grunsfeld said at a briefing about the SDT report last month.

Public interest and private initiatives

The Curiosity landing generated considerable public interest, with people following the landing online and at various events, including watching it on one of the video screens in Times Square in New York (even though the landing took place at about 1:30 am there.) Public interest has, of course, not been sustained at that level as Curiosity performs its scientific mission, other than rumors—untrue, as it turned out—last fall that Curiosity had discovered organic materials in the Martian soil (see “From seven minutes of terror to seven months of science”, The Space Review, February 18, 2013).

But as NASA reconstructed the future of its Mars exploration program, others have stepped in with visions of Mars missions of their own that have attracted the public interest. In February, a group called Inspiration Mars, backed by millionaire and former space tourist Dennis Tito, announced its plans to launch a crewed Mars flyby mission in 2018. The spacecraft, carrying a husband-and-wife crew, would launch in early 2018, zoom past Mars without stopping in August of that year, returning to Earth the following May (see “A Martian adventure for inspiration, not commercialization”, The Space Review, March 4, 2013).

Inspiration Mars has been quietly working on refining that mission concept since the February release: in May, for example, they said they were looking at several different options for launch vehicles that could be used for the mission (see “The private road to Mars”, The Space Review, May 28, 2013). Tito is also slated to speak at the Mars Society’s annual conference later this month in Colorado to discuss both the current status of the project and ways the public can be involved.

While Inspiration Mars has been working on its flyby mission concept, Mars One has made headlines for an even more ambitious proposal. The private venture, based in the Netherlands, has been developing plans to send people to Mars on one-way colonization missions, starting as soon as 2023. The combination of the one-way element of the mission, its proposed cost ($6 billion for the first mission, a fraction of the cost of other mission architectures), and plans to rely on media rights for at least much of the initial financing for the effort have raised more than an eyebrow or two in the space community.

Yet, it’s also aroused the interest of many people around the world. Shortly after opening the process for people to apply for be on that initial mission, Mars One reported that it had received 78,000 applications. Although it appears that only a small fraction of that have actually completed the application process—the Mars One applicant website has only a little more than 1,200 applicant videos as of this weekend, although people can choose to make their videos private—it has demonstrated a broad variety of people are interested in leaving Earth behind for good and go to Mars.

“Right now, we collectively—all of the applicants and Mars One—are kind of in a honeymoon stage,” said Bradley. “Everybody’s super excited and happy, and the hard part hasn’t come yet.”

That cross-section of public interest was on display Saturday in Washington, at what was dubbed the “Million Martian Meeting.” Attendance fell several orders of magnitude below that alliterative title—the meeting room on the George Washington University campus where the event took place could accommodate about 100 people but was not quite filled to capacity—but attracted a variety of people, most of whom had applied or were considering applying to Mars One. That audience included a 14-year-old girl who was too young to apply (the minimum age is 18) but wanted to know what she should do to improve her odds in future application round when she was old enough.

At the opposite end of the age spectrum was David Davidson, who at 70 years old is one of the oldest Mars One applicants. “I’ve had an interest in space exploration all my life,” he said, adding that Mars One was the first effort that seemed plausible to him. A doctor of optometry, he said his wife and three adult children support his application—although one of them found out about it through his application video. “Hey, Julie, your dad is going to Mars, and you know what? I’m not coming back.”

If Mars One does keep to its timeline, Davidson would be about 80 years old when that first mission launches. “I come from a long-lived family,” he explained. “I figure I’ll have about 20 good years on Mars.”

Mars One founder Bas Lansdorp attended the meeting, and attendees quizzed him on the application process and plans for Mars One. After the meeting, Lansdorp declined to provide an update on the number of applicants, but said Mars One would provide an update either shortly before or shortly after the deadline for applications at the end of this month.

Lansdorp said they had received a lot of applicants from the US, “but we would have liked to have more applicants from more different countries.” He said the number of well-qualified applicants was much higher than he expected. About 20 percent of the applicants so far are women, which he said was “a little bit disappointing,” but noted that the average female applicant appeared to put more effort into the application than the average male applicant.

Once the application deadline passes, Lansdorp said that Mars One will put together an astronaut selection board to review the applications. He said he expects anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of the applications to make the cut for the next round. “We will let people though who we think stand a chance of making it,” he said of this stage of the selection process.

That selection is a source of excitement and anxiety for those at the meeting. It’s also a cause for concern: some worry that a community of applicants, who have interacted both in person and in online discussion boards and Facebook groups, might schism or fall apart entirely when some make the cut to the next round and others don’t.

“Right now, we collectively—all of the applicants and Mars One—are kind of in a honeymoon stage,” said Austin Bradley, one of the organizers of Saturday’s meeting. “Everybody’s super excited and happy, and the hard part hasn’t come yet.” Once the selection process starts, and people don’t make the cut, “people’s feelings are going to be hurt.”

“If you’re one of the people not selected, try to continue the sense of family we have right now in the honeymoon stage,” he asked attendees.

That may be good advice not just for the Mars One applicants but advocate of Mars exploration in general, be it by NASA and other governments or by private initiatives. Given the extensive technical, financial, and schedule challenges any long-term Mars exploration effort faces, they can use any support they can get.