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Andrew Chaikin

Let NASA Dare Mighty Things Again

Posted by Andrew Chaikin

17-08-2012 8:47 CDT

Topics: Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)

In the space Olympics, the U.S. just won gold. With the safe landing of the SUV-sized, one-ton Curiosity rover at Gale Crater on Mars, the engineers and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have pulled off the technological equivalent of the toughest gymnastics routine, synchronized dive, and 100-meter dash rolled into one.

Curiosity’s landing system, the most complex ever devised, worked flawlessly—better than anyone had a right to expect, except the people who actually created it. Those blue-shirted engineers, the experts in Entry, Descent, and Landing who marched jubilantly out of mission control on the night of August 5 chanting, “E-D-L! E-D-L!” represent the best in us. They are NASA’s space Olympians.

Now that their work is done, the really exciting part is just beginning: the exploration of Gale crater, which may hold clues in the search for life on Mars. That quest began thirty-six summers ago with the Viking Mars landers in 1976. I was a college intern on that mission, and I remember the excitement about the possibility that the Vikings might discover something alive on Mars. But it was a reach too far. Back then, scientists didn't know nearly enough about the composition of the planet’s surface to sniff out traces of biochemistry in Martian dust.

Today, after nearly a decade of preparation, Curiosity has capabilities that make Viking look like a Model T. Instruments that took up most of a laboratory wall when I was a geology student now fit neatly inside the rover. And Curiosity builds on more recent missions like the Mars Exploration Rovers, which uncovered proof that parts of Mars were once habitable. If Curiosity finds the building blocks of life at Gale Crater, we will be one giant leap closer to knowing that the miracle of life is not unique to Earth but one that may be repeated on countless worlds.

Furthermore, Curiosity’s 2.5 billion dollar price tag—significantly less than Viking’s cost in current dollars—amounts to the cost of a movie ticket for every American. Mars missions are getting better and less expensive.

So what, in the scheme of things, is the justification for the draconian budget cuts to NASA’s planetary program that threaten scientists’ carefully thought out plans for exploring the solar system in the coming decade? Is it that we don't value the high-tech jobs, the magnet for STEM education, the knowledge and inspiration we get from NASA’s planetary explorations?

Does anyone think the Office of Management and Budget has done the right thing in prohibiting NASA from planning any more so-called Flagships—the ambitious planetary missions that have done so much to transform our understanding? If that ban is not lifted, Curiosity will be the last of its kind for the foreseeable future.

NASA’s space Olympians aren’t looking for medals—though they surely deserve them. A more fitting tribute would be for the OMB and Congress to lift the dire restrictions on planetary exploration and give these incredible Americans the chance to dare mighty things again.

 
See other posts from August 2012

 

Or read more blog entries about: Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)

Comments:

Mark Adler: 08/17/2012 09:42 CDT

... better than anyone had a right to expect, INCLUDING the people who actually created it.

James: 08/17/2012 09:55 CDT

What is the plan for lobbying Washington to lift the plan? There must be other like minded interest groups to coordinate with and pool lobbying $?

gellis: 08/17/2012 10:44 CDT

Would a mission to explore the seas of Titan not be classified as flagship mission? Oops, that sounds like a joke when reading it, I just realized, but seriously, no pun intended.

Casey Dreier: 08/17/2012 12:28 CDT

@James In the spring, right after the budget was released, The Planetary Society delivered over 20,000 signatures to Congress and met with several representatives. Some funding has provisionally been restored but no votes have yet been cast. The plans for the upcoming spring lobbying effort are getting into gear, but we have the election, the sequester (10% across-the-board cuts to all agencies on Jan 1st), and the continuing resolution, which funds all agencies at 2012 levels until March, to deal with. We want our efforts (and those of our members and partners) to have maximum impact. Expect to hear more about our advocacy strategy very soon.

Casey Dreier (TPS): 08/17/2012 12:31 CDT

@gellis Flagship missions refer the total funding level of the mission, not its ambitions. Flagship missions typically occur once-per-decade (Cassini and MSL Curiosity are flagships). The Titan boat you're referring to is a possible "Discovery" mission class which is a low-cost, fast-turnaround class of mission (see more at: http://discovery.nasa.gov/program.cfml)

bakerjd99: 08/17/2012 02:15 CDT

The short answer is there is no justification. Government funding for real reaserch and development is now, and has always been, a tiny fraction of total government spending. HUD wastes more money in a month than NASA does in a decade. The underlying rational for relentless penny-pinching for researchers vs. extravagant bailouts for banks, public unions and connected cronies boils down to simple envy and jealously. If you are fortunate enough to work on Mars missions, or any serious research undertaking, you are doing something that matters. Your life has some significance. If, on the other hand, all you do is cash in food stamps or welfare checks and vote for politicians that promise to keep them coming you know, at some deep undeniable level, that your life is pointless and devoid of meaning. The world would be better off without you. The insignificant hate the significant with an absolute unbridled fury and will forever seek to pull everyone them down to their level. It's rather amazing that the rage of the useless has been held at bay for so long. Things are going to get a lot worse --- for everybody.

James: 08/17/2012 02:39 CDT

Are there any Congressional races we should be supporting? I know Jose Hernandez is running here in California.

John Rumm: 08/17/2012 02:40 CDT

"[O]ther civilized nations have encountered great expense to enlarge the boundaries of knowledge by undertaking voyages of discovery, and for other literary purposes, in various parts and directions. Our nation seems to owe to the same object, as well as to its own interests, to explore . . . ." Source: President Thomas Jefferson's confidential letter to Congress, requestiong an appropriation of $2,500 to outfit a proposed expedition [Lewis & Clark] to explore the trans-Mississippi West, January 18, 1803 Jefferson, for one, was not afraid to dare, or to dream. We might take a cue from him.

Michael Stat: 08/17/2012 03:10 CDT

@Casey Even if the overall NASA budget for fiscal 2013 can't be increased beyond the reduced budget outlined in Obama's 2013 proposal, could the Planetary Science budget be given back some of the money that was taken away since the cuts to Planetary Science were disproportionately high? If so, is it NASA headquarters who would make that decision, or would it have to be voted on by Congress?

Casey Dreier (TPS): 08/17/2012 04:19 CDT

Michael: Increasing the proportion of funding for planetary science within NASA's existing budget is the goal of our SOS (Save our Science) campaign (http://planetary.org/sos). Congress sets the spending priorities within NASA, so the best thing to do is let your Congressperson know that you'd like to see continued support for major planetary exploration missions like Curiosity. We're working on a revamp of our advocacy section that will help our members reach out to their representatives and what issues are most important to us. Stay tuned for that.

Casey Dreier (TPS): 08/17/2012 04:23 CDT

@James: I'll get back to you on important congressional races. Space politics (especially at the level of planetary sciences) tends to not be a major issue in most congressional campaigns.

Michael Stat: 08/17/2012 06:09 CDT

@Casey. Thanks for the response. But I'm confused about the Office of Management and Budget's role (as stated in Andrew's article) in determining the allocations of funds throughout NASA (i.e. their decision to ban flagship missions). Because they are an Executive Branch /Cabinet level office, then how do they have any authority over the distribution of the budget amongst the NASA divisions if it is Congress (as you stated in your comment above) that has that task? Or did Andrew mean to say the Congressional Budget Office made the no-more-flasgships decision? All this government stuff is confusing! But if I figured out which Budget Office to target, it would really help!

fthurber: 08/18/2012 10:54 CDT

A couple of points: I would think that a cost-effective mission would be clone of the current MSL. The R& D and testing have already been done; a second MSL should be very reasonable. There are a few other sites on Mars that calling out for a mission such as Mawrth Vallis

fthurber: 08/18/2012 11:00 CDT

I hate to say it, but Bill Nye has dropped the ball. He should stay out of politics but has recently endorsed Obama. This may make sense for a variety of reasons but not as the head of the Planetary Society; it sends the wrong message to our politicians--that they divert money to pork (such as the Space Launch System) with impunity. Just in Massachusetts the Stimulus Package expended 11.7 billion dollars with almost nothing to show for it; that is more than enough for a sample return mission or a large number of followup MSLs.

fthurber: 08/18/2012 11:10 CDT

MSL itself (without the launch and support) cost 1.8 billion. I would think that a clone would cost 2-300 million (without the launch and support)...maybe less; that is not a flagship price tag. The army spends $20.2 billion a year in Iraq and Afghanistan just for air conditioning....

Zorbonian: 08/19/2012 11:35 CDT

LOL - @bakerjd99, in some ways, you sound a lot like me. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing :-). @John Rumm, I like your reference to Thomas Jefferson -- if only Congress was not more interested in lining their own pockets rather than serving the American people.

Casey Dreier (TPS): 08/21/2012 02:43 CDT

@Michael I'm learning more and more about the OMB's role here, too. As far as I can understand, OMB has the power to enforce budgetary constraints for a 5-year budget plan. Congress only allocates money on a year-to-year basis, and if OMB isn't convinced that a particular program or project is possible given the 5-year budget outlay, they have the power to influence how money is spent within a federal department. OMB didn't think that NASA could do ExoMars within the 5-year plan as proposed by the current administration, so they had NASA pull out of the mission. The OMB isn't out for Planetary Science (though it can feel that way) they're just civil servants trying to keep NASA on-budget. We're about to start a big campaign to petition the OMB, so stay tuned for that.

Wil: 08/28/2012 01:25 CDT

I think the most exciting aspect of the Curiosity success is the fact that people of my generation accomplished it. I know that sounds self-centered and I certainly did not contribute directly. However, although I honor and appreciate the great space accomplishments of the last generation, I find the successes of contemporary scientists, engineers, and technicians very approachable and encouraging. You all have a great deal to be proud of. By the way, I like the Rick.

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