- July 26, 2022
Going In Circles On The Road to Mars
NASA Mars Czar Defends Plan To Follow Mars 2020 Rover with Orbiter, Space News
“Watzin made his case for the orbiter to the NASA Advisory Council’s (NAC) planetary science subcommittee at NASA Headquarters here. Some NAC members wondered why, in Watzin’s words, an orbiter is the “next logical step” in the Mars sample-return campaign anointed as the top U.S. planetary science priority in a 10-year science roadmap, or decadal survey, published by the National Research Council in 2011. The White House has been reluctant to commit to a multimission sample-return program because of the substantial investment required. However, it did allow NASA to start work in 2013 on a Mars 2020 sample-digging rover leveraging designs and hardware recycled from the Mars Science Laboratory mission, which landed the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on the red planet in 2012. When the Mars 2020 rover arrives in 2020, it will dig up samples and leave them on the ground to be collected and returned to Earth by a future mission or missions.”
Keith’s note: NASA loves to cite the NRC Space Studies Board and its Decadal Surveys as being the driver for how it prioritizes missions. Indeed NASA often does so as if these Decadal Surveys are holy scripture that preordain their mission choices. Congress does this too – and pays the NRC to do studies that support its whims so as to allow them to order NASA to follow these holy recommendations. So what does NASA do this time? It ignores the NRC SSB. Talk to anyone who has been planning these various humans to Mars scenarios at NASA and they all say that there needs to be a sample return mission before humans can be sent to Mars. Its like a mantra – no one knows exactly why but everyone buys into it. And of course the NRC SSB includes the need for a sample return in its holiest of holy Mars/astrobiology recommendations so as to inform and support human missions.
What does NASA propose instead? A solar electric, laser-communicating jack-of-all-trades spacecraft with extra bells and whistles that will clearly cost a lot more than a simple Mars communications/relay satellite might otherwise be. If HEOMD adheres to past history this thing will be over budget, over complex, over subscribed, and behind schedule and will arrive at Mars later than desired. Since this solar electric propulsion will end up being a pacing item for NASA’s unfunded humans to Mars program everything else will be delayed as well. And unless the NRC SSB and NASA decide to suddenly not adhere to the whole sample return Mantra that too will be delayed – and will also serve to push back the first mission to Mars.
Of course this is all being done with “notional” budgets half a decade away from becoming real. Oh yes, I almost forgot: the White House is “reluctant to commit” to the humans on Mars things it claims it wants to see NASA do in the 2030s. That certainly helps reduce the certainty of planning based on future budgets when the current crowd won’t even support these things.
But NASA can’t help itself. Instead of finding a simple path to Mars that can see its way though budget ups and downs it comes up with the most complex way to do it – complete with self-inflicted critical path bottlenecks – and then NASA tries to sell it to everyone using infographics as being “the next logical step”. Oddly, that phrase also happens to have been used by NASA to market the space shuttle and the space station back in the day.