nasa doesn’t care about other planets

December 8, 2012

curiosity lander

Or at least that’s how Kanye West would’ve characterized the reaction of planetary scientists to NASA’s announcement that its next big mission in 2020 would be to send an updated Curiosity twin to Mars at a target cost of $1.5 billion. What’s the problem? Well, planetary science budgets aren’t exactly all that large or flexible so every dollar spent on Mars comes out of the budget of a future mission to Europa or Titan. And with NASA’s recent zeal about Mars, it seems like the red planet is squeezing out the rest of the solar system from the agency’s scientific priorities. Since everyone’s buzzing about Mars rovers, manned missions to Mars, potential cities on Mars, with a periodic misunderstanding about traces of microbial life on Mars thrown in for extra publicity, the visibility for missions beyond the cold, rusty desert world is plummeting and with it, the chance to get decent funding for an ambitious new mission deep into the outer solar system.

From a bureaucrat’s standpoint, you can see why NASA is eager to send more rovers to Mars. It worked out the kinks and really understands how to land robots on the red planet. Images being beamed by a rover from the surface of another world rocket across the web and TV, and prompt a thousand cheers for the agency, citing the latest landing as proof that NASA can still do truly amazing and awe-inspiring things, regardless of what the whiny curmudgeons think. But just like studio executives in Hollywood trying to sell the same movies again and again with new actors or new titles, NASA administrators could easily venture past the point of diminishing returns, when new rovers on Mars will produce little more than yawns and reruns of the same stories written as its predecessors touched down. The agency doesn’t have enough money or political capital to tie its future to Mars. In the 1980s, when it was still riding the Apollo high, it’s pricey proposals were quickly rejected. In today’s environment on Capitol Hill, NASA is lucky to still be around.

Technically speaking, we could spend the next century studying Mars and find something brand new and scientifically exciting every time. We do that on Earth all the time and we study it every day. But there’s an entire solar system beyond Mars with equally significant scientific wonders to discover and equally compelling reasons to study. NASA doesn’t exist to repeat its last success; its job is to boldly go new places and undertake ambitious missions with uncertain results. It has to stop marketing itself as the agency that once took humans to the Moon and start carving out an identity as a proving ground for high risk but very high payoff blue sky ideas, like DARPA. Will it be an uphill fight to get the attention and funding from politicians whose primary preoccupation today tends to be losing maturity contests to middle schoolers, and a public which likes to keep demanding progress and innovation without caring how its obtained or how much it costs? Yes, it will. But it’s a fight worth having and avoiding it by launching rovers to Mars only delays it…

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  • TheBrett

    The funding in question was already allocated towards Mars missions, so if it wasn’t spent on another rover, it just wasn’t going to get spent. NASA didn’t cannibalize the funding of other programs to do this.

  • Paul451

    Thing is, if you’re going to make a bunch of sequels, it makes sense to plan for that during the making of the original, instead of scrapping everything at the end of production, then a few years latter starting from scratch.

    Ie, a significant chunk of the cost of MSL was non-recurring; R&D and tooling up. A program to develop, say, five MSL-class rovers would not cost five times the price of building one. It may not even cost double the price of one.

    Hell just naming the first one MSL-1 would have signalled a huge change in the way NASA does business. Incremental development instead of constantly starting from scratch. And by the time they were flying the third rover, the technology would be so proven and adaptable that developing a lunar version would seem like a minor side-project. And a lunar polar explorer would be a minor step after that.

  • TheBrett

    If they had the ground support staff for it, I’d be completely for this. Build all rovers in batches of at least five, since you could amortize the costs and also re-deploy follow-up ones if the first lander failed to make it.

  • Paul451

    Not just “batches” though. Incremental development. Gradual improvements through the series, based on the original design. Each version is a low risk, low cost improvement on the previous.

    So you’d have, say, MER (Spirit and Opportunity) as your base unit. You upgrade the instruments with MER-3 and 4, each carrying different specialist instruments, maybe upgrade the AI/comms-bus in MER-5 and 6. Then you upgrade the base rover to a new heavier class, but the comms and instruments in that first version are carried over from the previous MERs with as little variation as possible, so the base rover is the only thing upgraded, the only risk. Once it’s proven, you start to improve the rest of the hardware in versions 2, 3, 4 in that series, each upgrading only a limited portion of the rover. Rinse, repeat.

    The thing is, this kind of incremental development sounds more expensive and less capable that just starting from scratch with a blank sheet of paper each time. But in reality, when you build slight variations on a base unit, you get really good at understanding the limits and capabilities of your system. (Have you ever done that? Built something once, taken a week. Then built the second one and taken two days. The third takes hours, and you can make improvements to your original design.)

    IMO, this is why Apollo (via the pre-Apollo development) was so successful and the shuttle program was so trapped. It’s why Constellation/SLS was/is such a disaster, and SpaceX is doing so well.

  • gfish3000

    Yes and no. The problem is not that money was allocated to go to a Mars mission and would be used to send another rover to Mars, but that it was allocated for Mars in the first place at the expense of another destination, primarily for the PR value.

  • TheBrett

    On that I agree. I wish they hadn’t canceled some of the good missions – like the Europa Mission – for that.