NASA Announces New Mars Rover: De ja vu, all over again…

Earlier this week, the pencil-pushing skydreamers of NASA held a press conference that landed like a bomb among the planetary community; they would build and launch another Mars rover in 2020 based on the Curiosity platform, but with new, as yet undecided instrumentation. Long-memoried space program observers may be reminded of the Skylab program in the 1970s, a somewhat creative reuse of leftover Apollo hardware. You can watch all 52 delicious minutes of associate administrator John Grunsfeld’s press conference here:


Reactions varied, but most, like the inital tweets of the Planetary Society’s excellent Emily Lakdawalla (you can read her tweets here) were incredulous. The planetary science program at NASA is facing a 309 million budget cut this year. Existing missions with life left in them, like Cassini in the Saturn system and Messenger orbiting Mercury, may be ended early because of budget constraints that those poor satellites will never understand. We’ll just stop returning their calls. We won’t even tell them we just want to be friends.

There are also tantalizing destinations like Jupiter’s moon Europa that many planetary scientists are keen to explore, because of the possibility of vast subsurface oceans of liquid water warmed by the tidal forces of Jupiter and the other Galilean moons. All these new places to visit, and NASA seems to have Mars myopia. Another scientist, Chris Rowan, tweeted ” It looks like we should try renaming all the Jovian moons ‘Mars’ and then ask to fund a mission there…” Kristin Block, who works on rover missions, and who tweets @Marsmaven, summed up a good deal of the reaction:

I love Mars. But there’s this thing about *exploring*. You go to new places when you can. & you don’t stop listening to working spacecraft.

In long form reactions, Stu at the Cumbrian Sky blog typed up a nice essay that argued that another Mars rover should have a high-profile raison d’etre, like specifically looking for life. NASA, however, doesn’t even have a clearly defined scientific mission for this new rover, which seems a bit like the cart before the horse. Emily Lakdawalla blogged about this and added that in creating this new mission, NASA seems to be ignoring a recent study it commissioned that said that the next big step in Mars exploration is returning actual samples back to earth. The Planetary Society’s official reaction was more muted and stately, affirming the enduring coolness of Mars and Mars Rovers (none can deny), but using the announcement–and the success of the Mars missions themselves–to push for a restoration of the 309 million in the 2103 Planetary Sciences Division budget.

So what’s going on here? Why, after the stunning victory of the Curiosity landing, which still makes me smile with wonder and delight every time I think about it, and I try to think about it at least once a day (it got me through this election cycle!)  is NASA trying to do it all over again instead of coming up with something newer, bolder, even more insane and risky?

Three reasons, the first two obvious and the third not so much so. The first is the opportunity provided by the leftover tech from the Curiosity probe. My DIY, creative reuse heart appreciates that. I can see an administrator looking at all of that and saying, Hey, we can launch another one of these things! Second is that, as I understand it, the 1.2 billion projected cost of the second rover (not such a great savings from that leftover tech I guess) is already budgeted, so it’s not a new mission from the point of view of the money watchers in the beltway. This also explains why NASA is not talking about sample return–that’s a more ambitious mission that would require more money. So in that way that institutions do, NASA is making the best of what they have.

The third reason lies in the DNA of NASA itself. I was shocked (and as I mentioned, delighted) by the bravura plan to land Curiosity on Mars. Part of my incredulity was how, um, ballsy, a move it was for a bureaucracy like NASA. I think they must have really felt the need for either a splashy Yeah! In your face! to boost sagging morale, lackluster budgets and dismal public recognition, or a dramatic coup de grace to finish themselves off with one thud on the Red Planet. Just imagine if that thing had crashed on impact. 2.5 billion down the drain. Whatever it was, it was an awesome moment for humanity, and it paid off.

Given the drama of the Curiosity landing, and the stress NASA administrators must have sweated out of their brows during those tense few minutes of descent, their conservative, let’s do what we’re good at approach now is more understandable. They just might not have the stomach lining at the moment for a very different descent to the surface of Europa. And anyway, there’s no budget line for that yet. It’s a sad state of affairs. I tempered my lamentation on the loss of the space program with a consideration of space exploration as a human, not national endeavor, and by the continuing successes of the unmanned exploration missions. Without the latter, well, it’s just sad.

Good science can certainly come from another Mars Rover. Focusing on Mars isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the long run, we will want to answer all our questions everywhere, and from that point of view, depth or breadth is not important, as long as there is exploration going on.

NASA should think twice about it’s public relations strategy, however. The next Mars probe landing won’t be such a hit, and just remember how many people tuned in to those repetitive shuttle launches. There goes another one. Novelty drives not just the news cycle but also plays a key role in the fundamental human drive to explore. NASA really wowed us with Curiosity. And part of the sting of the December 4th press conference was that we were expecting NASA to be audacious again. Audacity would be a great name for a planetary probe. Hesitant, Tentative or Incremental, not so much.

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