Jim BellJan 09, 2012

A Tale of Two Martians

I recently came across an old copy of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, and its famous opening line -- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" -- made me think about Mars. That probably seems pretty weird, but to put it into context, I think about Mars a lot as part of my job as an astronomer and planetary scientist. So yeah it's weird but maybe not THAT weird.

It's the best of times for Mars exploration because right now we've got three orbiters and a rover actively studying the surface and atmosphere of the most Earth-like of our planetary neighbors, revealing evidence that it was even more Earth-like long ago. Stunning new pictures and other information about another world's amazing landforms and processes, from ancient impact scars and layered rocks to modern-day dust storms and polar caps, stream in every day. During the past 15 years yet another orbiter, two other rovers, and two other landers have also added to our bounty of Martian discoveries. To top it off, just a few weeks ago, the most ambitious Mars mission yet attempted was launched from Cape Kennedy. NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover, named "Curiosity" by a contest among school children, is on course for a landing on the Red Planet next August 5, to hunt for ever-more detailed evidence of the planet's habitable past.

It's also the worst of times though for many of my Russian, European, and Chinese colleagues who were part of another recently-launched Mars mission. The Phobos-Soil spacecraft was to have done a rendezvous and landing on Mars's potato-shaped moon Phobos to scoop up samples of ancient planetary building blocks and bring them back to Earth for detailed study. Phobos-Soil also carried the Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter, China's first foray into Mars exploration. Sadly, a problem with the launch rocket's upper stage has left Phobos-Soil stranded in low-Earth orbit rather than on its way to Mars. The orbit is slowly decaying due to friction with the upper atmosphere, and the spacecraft will burn up in a fiery atmospheric explosion sometime in early January. A number of space agencies are tracking the spacecraft to try to predict where surviving chunks may land (most likely in the ocean, and hopefully without doing any harm).

Exploring Mars has never been easy, but it's been particularly challenging for the Russians, both during and since the Soviet era. Despite many phenomenally successful orbiter, lander, and balloon missions to Venus and orbiter, lander, and rover missions to the Moon, the Russians have never had a fully successful Mars mission -- in 20 attempts! To be sure, America hasn't had a perfect success rate either, but our failure rate has only been about 25% in almost as many attempts. For the Russians, Mars has been a Red Menace. Yet, they persevere. I hope our international colleagues can muster the resources to give Phobos-Soil and Yinghuo-1 another shot, and I hope we can find a way to help.

It's natural to celebrate and be proud of America's successes in leading the exploration of Mars and the other worlds around us, and to me it's just as natural to feel a poignant sense of disappointment and sadness whenever one of these missions -- be it ours or one from another country -- fails. Hundreds to thousands of people put years of their lives into each effort, and it takes hundreds of millions to several billion dollars of government funding to just get these complex exploration vehicles to the launch pad on time. According to international law, no one owns the Moon, or Mars, or any other worlds out there, so it makes sense for people from all across this planet to work together to explore others. It also makes economic sense -- especially in today's fiscal environment -- to pool resources and explore the solar system cooperatively, rather than competitively.

But America's recent financial troubles have resulted in a series of ever-worsening budgets for NASA, and our political climate is seemingly growing ever-more hostile towards international collaboration. Combined, a bleak picture of the future of space exploration, and of Mars exploration in particular, is emerging. The next planned missions after Curiosity -- an atmospheric science orbiter to be launched in 2016, and a sample-caching rover to be launched in 2018 -- would be joint projects among NASA and our European Space Agency and Roscosmos. However, these missions are at a grave risk of being cancelled soon because of insufficient Administration and Congressional support, making them extra vulnerable to government funding cuts. There's no Plan B for Mars exploration if those missions are cut, and there's nothing specific yet planned for Mars beyond 2018.

In an era of increasing austerity, especially in discretionary government spending, some argue that America can't afford the luxury of launching robots to study Mars or Jupiter's ocean moon Europa, or even of launching people into deep space to explore the Moon, Mars, and asteroids in person. I disagree. I believe that exploring the solar system is the modern incarnation of the American pioneer spirit, extended out to worlds beyond. Reaching for the stars and extending America's frontier spirit and exploration destiny into the solar system is more important than ever during difficult times. NASA's discoveries and adventures educate and inspire our young people to learn about science, technology, engineering, and math. Space exploration creates thousands of high-tech jobs around the country in aerospace companies, government and industry research labs, and universities. Stable, healthy funding for NASA yields strong tangible and intangible returns on investment and -- I believe -- is a priority for the future of our nation.

I'm proud of the leading role that our country is playing in the exploration of Mars, our solar system, and other solar systems -- it is the best of times -- and I think it's essential that this exploration enterprise is increasingly international in scope. However, I'm deeply worried about the effect that drastic budget cuts would have on our space program -- potentially the worst of times -- as one effect of such cuts would be to diminish America's leadership in space exploration.

This post was originally published at The Huffington Post and reprinted here with permission of the author.

Let’s Go Beyond The Horizon

Every success in space exploration is the result of the community of space enthusiasts, like you, who believe it is important. You can help usher in the next great era of space exploration with your gift today.

Donate Today