Lunar Exploration Vision Obscures Successes on Mars


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The miracle on Mars continues. Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in January 2004 with a combined roving and lifetime warranty of 4,000 ft. and 120 days, are pushing toward four years of combined life and more than 6 mi. of total travel. Both have made compelling discoveries about Martian water and transmitted images almost beyond belief (see p. 48).

The rovers also have scored big on Earth, pulling NASA out of the darkness of the Columbia accident and giving the Bush administration a positive foundation on which to launch the new Vision for Space Exploration. But members of the Mars team that made all this possible believe the administration and NASA's new management have perhaps become "blinded by the vision."

There are signs that the administration and NASA headquarters are so focused on a return to the Moon and Crew Exploration Vehicle that the resolve and resources it will take to thoroughly address all the challenges of the next more ambitious rover are being whittled away.

The nearly $1.5-billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, set for launch in 2009, will be twice the size of the current 400-lb. vehicles. It will be preceded by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that was launched in July and the Phoenix north polar stationary lander, which is scheduled for launch in 2007 to search for subsurface water.

MSL must be large enough to process samples for possibly life-related organics and travel up to 20 mi. on nuclear power. The larger rover precludes the use of landing airbags. The vehicle's Skycrane precision landing mother ship would instead lower MSL to the surface like a Jeep from a helicopter (AW&ST Apr. 5, 2004, p. 30).

All this means a major increase in technological challenge beyond the existing rovers, and that success with Spirit and Opportunity will not equate to an easier development for MSL.

The Mars project argued hard for twin MSL rovers for hardware and scientific redundancy--just as was done for the current rovers. But that has been ruled out, and the emphasis now needs to be on maintaining an unwavering focus on MSL funding, technology and testing.

To deemphasize the robotic Mars program now, in a tradeoff with the manned lunar vision, would be a terrible mistake.

Washington needs to be reawakened to the quantifiable payoff the robotic Mars program brings now, in terms of NASA political capital in Congress and scientific, educational and technological benefits to the U.S. as a whole. Accompanying these factors is exploration as a positive symbol of America's contributions to all mankind.

Published in the 14 November 2005 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology. Reprinted with permission. For additional information visit www.aviationnow.com


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