On February 13, President Obama unveiled the proposed budget for NASA for the fiscal year 2013: $17.7 billion. That’s $59 million less than FY 2012, and a number that’s expected to remain constant over the next five years. Hardest hit was the Mars program, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of exploration on our cosmic neighbour. NASA has had great luck with creative and cost-efficient Martian missions in the past, so it’s possible that the next decade on Mars will be fruitful, it might also look different than anticipated. (Left, Mars’ atmosphere.)
A $58 million budget cut isn’t in itself devastating. To get a real sense of the loss that comes with this figure, it’s necessary to look at what aspects of the agency are losing the most funding.
Some branches gained funding, such as Earth science, heliophysics (sun studies), space technology, space flight support networks, the International Space Station, exploration research and development, and construction of facilities. Other departments lost funding, like astrophysics, aeronautics, education (very unfortunately), and agency operations. In these cases, the change in funding is on average about $30 million; some changes were larger, but pale in comparison to the big winners and losers for the coming year. (Left, the JWST. Credit: ESA.)
The big success stories are the James Webb Space Telescope and Commercial Spaceflight. The JWST, Hubble’s perpetually over budget replacement, got a 21 percent increase to its budget as it readies for launch — funding rose from $518 to $627 million. Commercial spaceflight saw an even more impressive 104 percent increase from $406 million to $829 million.
These two substantial increases had to come from somewhere, and since NASA’s over all budget shrank, it clearly came from within. And it’s pretty clear the biggest victim was Mars. Martian exploration lost 21 percent of its 2012 funding, dropping from $1,510 million to $1,192 million.
Last year, the National Research Council’s Committee on Planetary Science and NASA released an outline of planetary goals from 2012 to 2023. On Mars, the decadeal survey called for a launch every two years to take advantage of every possible launch window with a series of missions culminating in a sample return mission. (Left, an artist’s impression of the ExoMars payloads.)
In 2014, NASA was set to launch an orbiter to measure the escape rate of the planet’s atmosphere. 2016 and 2018 were to see the launch of the ExoMars mission, a joint venture with the European Space Agency. The first launch would send another orbiter and an ESA lander, and the second launch would send two rovers. This latter mission was to be the first phase of the sample return mission.
Cuts to the Martian funding have changed that exciting plan. NASA has been forced to withdraw from ExoMars, leaving the ESA to ask the Russian Space Agency to fill NASA’s shoes. (In light of Russia and the former Soviet Union’s history on Mars, this could end with the galactic ghoul haunting the ESA as well.) NASA, meanwhile, is hoping to take advantage of the 2018 launch window for some still undefined payload — the year will mark the closest distance between the two planets, a cosmic arrangement that comes once every fifteen years.
It’s a shame to cut the Mars budget with such exciting missions in the pipeline, but the reduced budget isn’t necessarily a death sentence for Martian exploration. NASA has done a lot with a little on Mars before. In the early 1990s, the space agency adopted the “faster, better, cheaper” approach to unmanned spaceflight. Mission costs were capped and held to strict time frames; projects that ran over budget were cancelled. (Right, the Earth as seen from Mars.)
The FBC approach is generally celebrated as a dark and unreliable era for NASA’s scientific exploration. Between 1992 an 1999, the agency pursued 16 projects under the FBC banner: five missions to Mars, one to the Moon, three space telescopes, two comet and asteroid rendezvous, four Earth-orbiting satellites, and one ion propulsion test vehicle. Ten of the 16 missions were successful, giving FBC an overall success rate of just 63 percent. Not a great average.
But looking at the FBC programs from a different perspective shows that the initiative might be one worth returning to. To cite only the 63 percent success rate is a poor indication of what FBC accomplished. All 16 missions cost less than the Cassini mission to Saturn for which NASA paid about $2.6 billion. That’s 16 smaller and less complex missions for the cost of one traditional mission. (Left, an artist’s impression of the Mars Polar Lander.)
The five missions to Mars were: the Mars Global Surveyor that launched in 1996, a striking success that returned more images than any previous mission; Mars Pathfinder, also launched in 1996, was another great success that delivered the first rover, Sojourner, to the Martian surface; the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998; the Mars Polar Lander in 1999; and two Deep Space 2 probes in 1999.
The last three missions were all failures, lost on arrival at Mars. But they weren’t lost because of FBC constraints, they were the product of poor communications and mistakes at engineering and managerial levels. MCO was lost because its onboard computer used metric units and the ground crew monitoring the mission used imperial units — the spacecraft entered the atmosphere at such a steep an angle that it burned up before reaching the ground. MPL was doomed by a similarly unfortunate error. Code designed to protect the lander from a premature shutdown failed and a false signal caused the lander to fall and crash to the surface. The Deep Space 2 probes were part of the MPL mission. (Right, an artist’s impression of the Mars Climate Orbiter)
These types of mistakes are just as common in traditional missions. Failure of communications between NASA and contractor North American Aviation played a large role in the Apollo 1 fire — the contractor knew of the dangers of the plugs out test but the agency pressed on to keep to the lunar landing schedule (and the Apollo program is probably the farthest NASA has even been from a FBC approach to spaceflight). A similar failure of communications was a central factor in the Challenger disaster.
Problems arose under the FBC banner when project leaders reduced the cost and tightened the schedule of a mission without simplifying it. The programs that were successful were simple, both technically and organizationally. Clear management of straightforward technology allowed the missions to fly on time and under budget. As Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Pathfinder demonstrated, it’s possible to get great results within these constraints. (Left, Sojourner on Mars.)
The Next Decade on Mars
When you break down what FBC accomplished per dollar, the missions become much more impressive. 16 missions for the price of one is good bang for your buck, even with six failures. Mars Pathfinder cost one-fifteenth of what Viking cost; in 1997 dollars, the two Viking landers cost $3.5 billion while Pathfinder cost under $150 million and it moved around the surface. Pathfinder was a simpler mission with a very basic rover that returned a wealth of data. Simplicity was not a necessary aspect of FBC mission, but was clearly present in the successful missions. (Right, a Viking landers)
So in light of the newly reduced budget for Martian exploration, might it be prudent for NASA to return to an FBC approach to unmanned exploration? The Mars Science Laboratory’s rover Curiosity is the most sophisticated payload ever sent to the red planet and the most expensive with a price tag of $2.5 billion. If everything works with the complicated Sky Crane landing system in August, NASA’s sure to get a lot for its money with this mission, but it can’t follow up with the same sophistication.
A series of smaller, simpler, and specific missions, however, could be a good way to follow up from Curiosity over the next decade. Some have suggested that NASA retrofit Curiosity with the capacity to gather and store Martian samples — one launch could deliver the necessary hardware and a second could collect and return the samples. This would, in theory, be done with a pair of simple and straightforward missions that could fall under the FBC banner. (This artist’s impression shows Curiosity dwarfs the MER rovers Spirit and Opportunity.)
Instead of building increasingly large and complex rovers, the budget cuts could open the door for creativity and clever problem solving, inspired missions that turn a budget loss into science gain with simpler missions with singular goals. Rather than an era of stagnation, the next decade could see amazing development with mission planners thinking outside the box. (Right, the view from the Viking 2 lander. 1976.)
But I don’t work for NASA, and I don’t know the intricacies involved with planning and sending a mission to Mars. We’ll have to wait and see what the agency does within its new limitations. Hopefully, creativity will prevail.
Faster, Better, Cheaper Revisited by Lt. Col. Dan Ward, USAF.
Faster, Better, Cheaper by Howard E. McCurdy. Johns Hopkins. 2001.