Obama Shoots Down Mars Exploration; Space Community Outraged as Real Missions Are Replaced by Simulated Science

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Obama Shoots Down Mars Exploration; Space Community Outraged as Real Missions Are Replaced by Simulated Science


Byline: Robert Zubrin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In its budget submitted to Congress Feb. 13, the Obama administration zeroed out funding for NASA's future Mars exploration missions. The Mars Science Lab Curiosity is en route to the red planet, and the nearly completed small Maven orbiter, scheduled for launch in 2013, will be sent, but that's it. No funding has been provided for the Mars probes planned as joint missions with the Europeans for 2016 and 2018, and nothing after that is funded, either. This poses a crisis for the American space program.

NASA's Mars exploration effort has been brilliantly successful because, since 1994, it has been approached as a campaign, with probes launched every biennial opportunity, alternating between orbiters and landers. As a result, combined operations have been possible, with orbiters providing communication links and reconnaissance guidance for surface rovers, which, in turn, could conduct ground-truth investigations of orbital observations. Thus, the great treks of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003, were supported from above by Mars Global Surveyor (MGS, launched in 1996), Mars Odyssey (launched in 2001) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (launched in 2005). But after serving 10 years on orbit, MGS is lost, and if we wait until the 2020s to resume Mars exploration, the rest of the orbiters will be gone as well. Moreover, so will be the experienced teams that created them. Effectively, the whole program will be wrecked, and we will have to start again from scratch.

Furthermore, if the administration's cuts are allowed to prevail, we not only will destroy America's Mars exploration program but will derail that of our European allies as well. The 2016 and 2018 missions have been planned as a NASA/European Space Agency joint project, with the Europeans contributing more than $1 billion to the effort. If America betrays its commitment, the European supporters of Mars exploration will be left high and dry, and both the missions and the partnership will be lost.

When, on Oct. 26, I revealed the administration's plans for this wrecking operation in the pages of this newspaper, I was widely attacked by Obama supporters. Cutting short NASA's most successful program would be insane, they said, and so claims that such a move was in the works could not possibly be true.

Alas, they were only half right. The cuts are nuts, but that has not deterred the administration - quite the contrary. When NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. was quizzed recently by Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, on the rationale for the move, Mr. Bolden replied that the cuts were done because the Mars program was highly successful. (I am not making this up.)

The scientific community is understandably outraged. Ed Weiler, the NASA associate administrator for science, a 33-year agency veteran, resigned his post in disgust. To take his place, Mr. Bolden appointed John Grunsfeld. As NASA chief scientist under former Administrator Sean O'Keefe, Mr. Grunsfeld gained notoriety by acting as public and congressional advocate for Mr. O'Keefe's attempt to abandon the Hubble Space Telescope, even while acknowledging to others in the technical community that his testimony had no rational foundation. Continuing in this tradition, Mr. Grunsfeld told the members of the science committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) this month that because they are temporary government employees while sitting on NAC they are not allowed to criticize the Mars mission cuts (i.e., Shut up ).

The Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), a broader scientific advisory panel, could not be silenced so easily. It issued a statement saying that its members are appalled. To placate them, Mr. Grunsfeld put forth the following consolation: In 2016, instead of sending a real exploratory probe to the red planet, NASA will have a group of astronauts on the International Space Station pretend that they are flying to Mars. …

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