Mars Exploration: You Get What You're Willing To Pay For
September 26, 2012 • 9:25AM

The Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) released a summary of its report to the press yesterday, proving, once again, that you can't have a Mars exploration program without paying for it. The Summary report outlines a series of options NASA could adopt for unmanned Mars missions from 2018 onward.

The only reason this Group was formed, or that it was considered necesary, was due to the Obama Administration's deep cuts to NASA's Mars exploration funding in February, when the FY13 budget was released. NASA scrambled to placate a furious Mars science community and Congress, by promising to come up with something to replace the now-cancelled 2016 and 2018 joint Mars missions with Europe.

Already nearing completion is MAVEN, an orbiter to study the atmosphere of Mars, which will launch next year. Last month NASA announced the selection of the InSight lander mission for 2016 to investigate beneath the surface of Mars. The question is: what is next?

The details of the various options contained in the report are less important than that they were dicatated by the constraints placed on the scientists, program managers, outside experts, and others who participated in this exercise. The bottom line is that, as the OMB dictated in the FY13 budget, there will be no more "flagship" missions, meaning in the $1+ billion range. As MPPG head Orlando Figueroa explained at the briefing, this means, no rover for the 2018 launch opportunity. John Grunsfeld, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, explained that, given the budget constraints, if NASA wants to launch a Curiosity-style rover in the future, it would have to skip at least one Mars launch window (there is one every 26 months), and "save" the money from that skipped mission, to be able to pay for one more expensive one down the road.

Although the NASA scientists, engineers, and managers are trying to make the best out of an impossible situation (that is, continuing a Mars exploration campaign without adequate funding), it is clear that it is from the top down that the policy has to change.