Journey to Mars…for the science



In yesterday’s blog post I promised to provide, as a balance to my critiques of the human space flight enterprise, my “vision” of the kind of space program I wish we could have.

I’d originally planned to title this post “A progressive U.S. space policy: mission impossible?” With U.S. election results now in, it’s safe to say, yes, definitely impossible, for now.

Nonetheless, here’s what I wish the U.S. space program could be and do.

I wish we could have a science-and-applications focused civilian space program.

Let’s continue our journey to Mars – robotically.

Let’s put human exploration beyond Earth orbit on hold – at least for the next 30 years, maybe longer.


Despite the many robotic flyby/orbit/land/rove missions that NASA and other space agencies have sent to Mars, despite the overwhelmingly vast quantities of data gathered on the planet, we still don’t know enough about Mars to determine whether it ever was, or still is, habitable.

A major step toward answering the habitability question is a Mars sample return mission. For the past 40 years – since the Viking missions were completed – a Mars sample return has been a top priority in the space science community and Mission Impossible politically. The spacefaring nations of the world have not been able, individually or collectively, to obtain funding for a Mars sample return mission. Current plans to return samples from Mars are shaky, and as yet not fully funded.

(Just this week, European Space Agency Director General Jan Woerner told the media, “I propose to go on with the ExoMars 2020 mission, but we need money for that,” specifying “several hundred millions…. I hope we will convince the member states (of ESA) that we go on with that programme…. I would be very sad if we stop the programme.”)

Meanwhile, plans for the necessary Earth-based sample containment facility – a biosafety-level-4 lab (BSL-4 is the highest level of biological containment, required for human pathogens) are just that for now – plans on paper. Planetary protection requirements for human missions to Mars is a matter that has yet to be resolved.

If we actually could put people on Mars by the 2030s – which I find highly improbable – they would likely contaminate the martian environment to the point that it might no longer be useful for astrobiological research.

And how does establishing a permanent human presence on another planetary body benefit humankind? I have yet to hear a convincing argument.

Let’s focus on science: the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life in our solar system (Mars, Enceladus, Mars, Europa, Mars, Titan…); the search for exoplanets and studies of their potential habitability; efforts to understand the universe; efforts to understand Earth.

It seems that we know so much about our home planet, solar system, planets around other stars, our galaxy, our universe. We do. Yet so many important questions remain unanswered. Let’s work on answering them.

Let’s expand human presence into space virtually. Let Oculus Rift, Samsung, Sony, VR One, and their ilk take people into space. Let NASA hold a contest to find the VR team that can provide the best “in-space” experience.

Let’s expand citizen-science programs. Make sure that citizen participation and citizen contributions are useful and meaningful to them as well as to NASA.

Let’s continue to work on making the science and technology of robotic space exploration available and useful to the broader community. Let’s help the American people get their money’s worth out of their investment in space.

And let’s continue working on the other “A” in “NASA” – aeronautics research.

As to NASA’s public affairs operations, let’s have NASA spend less time boosting its brand and more time explaining how it is meeting its statutory objectives.

Those objectives, detailed in the 1958 NASA Act, are:

(1) The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;

(2) The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles;

(3) The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies and living organisms through space;

(4) The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes;

(5) The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere;

(6) The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defenses of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency;

(7) Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results, thereof; and

(8) The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment.

Since I joined the aerospace community in 1983, I’ve been witness to a parade of reports on the U.S. future in space, all advocating for establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon or on Mars or on both – here are some of them:

National Commission on Space, Pioneering the Space Frontier, 1986

NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space: A Report to the Administrator, 1987 (Ride report)

Space Exploration Initiative, 1989 (G.H.W. Bush)

Report of the 90-Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars, 1989

Report of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, 1990 (Augustine report)

America at the Threshold – Report of the Synthesis Group on America’s Space Exploration Initiative, 1991

The Vision for Space Exploration, 2004 (G.W. Bush)

Report of the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, 2004 (Aldridge commission)

Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, 2009 (Augustine Committee)

The Global Exploration Roadmap, 2009 (International Space Exploration Coordination Group)

What was wrong with all of these reports? Why have their plans and recommendations not been executed?

The Moon-Mars Thing – the “plan” for sending people back to the Moon and on to Mars, to stay – has inched forward so slowly over the past 30 years that it makes me wonder whether it will ever be affordable. (I do not take seriously SpaceX and Mars One claims about getting people to Mars quickly and affordably.)

Putting plans for human exploration and settlement on hold – until human societies are mature enough to avoid making the same mistakes they’ve made here on Earth (over and over again) – would enable us to ramp up development of the technologies needed to robotically explore Enceladus, Europa, and Titan (and of course continue our exploration of Mars) and employ more of those Ph.D. scientists that our society has been so successful in producing. Many NASA science programs are receiving far more qualified research proposals than budgets permit funding for – let’s beef up those budgets so all the good science gets done.

Scientific, robotic, space exploration is enabling people on Earth to understand that we are complex biological systems living in a complex ecological/physical/cosmic system. This narrative may be a site within which the ideology of space exploration might rejuvenate itself – where the vision of a human future in space turns away from conquest and exploitation and becomes a vision of humanity’s collective peaceful existence on Spaceship Earth and the need to work together to preserve life here and look for life out there.

“You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.” (Thanks to John Lennon for this closer.)


One Response to “Journey to Mars…for the science”

  1. David S. F. Portree Says:

    I am glad I have found your blog. I agree with much of what you say, though I believe we should continue to accrue experience with human health in space and with human/robot partnership in space at every opportunity. The moon should be a new continent for us to explore – saying we should ignore it is like saying we should ignore the ocean abyss or Antarctica. It’s a great place for human/robot partnership-building, in my opinion.

    Also, regarding MSR – I wouldn’t call it a top priority in the science community. It is sometimes, then some other top priority (Pluto, Europa) comes along. Often onerous requirements have been imposed on it, creating deep-seated impression that it is inherently unrealistically expensive. I wrote most of a book on MSR history, from its little-known origins in the mid-1960s through 2005. Couldn’t finish it after my wife was killed and I became a single dad, but I still have my draft and research materials, so eventually I will.

    dsfp – blogger at Spaceflight History, staffer at USGS Astrogeology (comments do not necessarily reflect USGS or NASA policy)

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