I love Mars. I’m one of the people who eagerly await each new image that comes down from the Mars Science Laboratory and I dream of seeing humans touch its surface someday. So I was excited to hear John Grunsfeld announce on Tuesday that NASA will fly a new rover (based on the design of the Curiosity rover) to Mars in 2020. I’m still excited, but I’m also worried…
A Recycled Rover
In her recent blog post, Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society wrote: “I am not immediately convinced that what the public really wants is a copy of Curiosity. Where’s the new adventure in that? It’s certainly not leading us any closer to the things the public care about: sending people to Mars, getting a chance to travel to space themselves, or looking for alien life.”
I agree and I don’t want NASA to make the same mistake that many Hollywood producers make when it comes to sequels. Thinking “The public LOVED Curiosity, so let’s fly another one!” can be dangerous.
Public Relations Consequences
While a recycled rover is obviously better than no rover, I think that there are big PR downsides to a repeat mission:
1) It will look “routine”: I would argue that the public was excited about the Curiosity landing not just because it was landing on Mars, but because its landing system was so ambitious. In many ways the Sky Crane seemed like a crazy sci-fi apparatus and we were both excited and terrified to see whether it would actually work. With this 2020 rover, the public (rightly or wrongly) will expect it to land safely. We in the space community understand why it’s VERY wrong to think of spaceflight as routine, but as past history (Apollo & Shuttle) shows, it is all too easy for a space mission to be considered “old hat”.
2) There’s less for the press to work with: While the mainstream press will certainly cover this mission, I’d bet that its coverage won’t be as comprehensive as what we saw with Curiosity. Firstly, the Sky Crane is now “proven” technology. Secondly, the press does a good job of covering firsts (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo 8, Apollo 11) and lasts (the final shuttle missions) , but largely ignores the “middles”. It will be a bigger challenge for NASA to explain why this mission is new and important and have the press relay that information to the public.
3) It’s not directly tied to human exploration of Mars: The 2020 mission won’t take us closer to a major milestone like a sample return mission unless this rover caches a sample for a future lander. Even then, I think that a repeat mission eliminates any sense of steady progress toward that goal. The Gemini & Apollo missions were excellent examples of a methodical approach to spaceflight in which each mission built upon the previous one – all with the ultimate goal of reaching the Moon. Re-doing a Curiosity-like mission in 2020 may just look like a big detour.
But Please Don’t Blame the Rover
If it sounds like I’m blaming the rover or am upset that NASA is flying a robot to Mars, I’m not! Just a year ago, there weren’t any new Mars landers on the horizon beyond MSL, and I was genuinely worried that Curiosity could be the last of its kind for a long time. So another mission is a fantastic bonus. The problem is that it really shouldn’t have come to this. We should not be OK with the idea that NASA needs to cobble spare parts together to fly to Mars.
If we’re to point blame, we have to look at NASA’s allocated budget. Recent budget proposals recommended a 21% cut to NASA’s planetary sciences division for 2013. As the Planetary Society has written, “Major missions are not possible on this budget, and merely maintaining support for current missions would be difficult.”
That’s why I support the Planetary Society’s effort to fight for the return of $309 million to the Planetary Sciences Division within NASA. “This would bring the total budget to $1.5 billion/year, about 8% of NASA’s overall budget and about 0.04% of the entire federal budget. This funding level includes no additional increases over the next five years to account for inflation. This is a very, very small amount of money. And it’s exactly the kind of investment in science and technology that President Obama has said he wants to preserve.”
With simply a return to 2012 funding levels, NASA would not be in the position it’s in today – one in which we it has to repeat previous efforts instead of steadily moving forward.