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Review: Exploring Mars

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Exploring Mars: Chronicles from a Decade of Discovery
by Scott Hubbard
Univ. of Arizona Press, 2012
softcover, 224 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-8165-2896-7

Today, by all accounts, is expected to be a bad day for the future of Mars exploration. NASA’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal is due out, and it’s expected to include no funding for NASA’s role in the joint American-European ExoMars program of a 2016 orbiter mission and a 2018 lander, the latter including a rover that could serve as the first phase of a multi-mission sample return effort. NASA’s planetary science program is expected to get an overall 20% cut in the proposed budget, a victim of both constrained spending overall—NASA’s overall budget is facing a 0.5% cut from what it received for 2012—as well as need to cover increased costs of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Over the course of half a year, Hubbard and his team crafted a “ladder to Mars” strategy of alternating orbiter and lander missions to carry out scientific objectives in an approach popularized as “follow the water”.

In the eyes of many in the space community, the Mars program is taking a disproportionate share of the cuts, for reasons as yet unclear. They fear that the momentum built up over the last decade by a series of successful missions to the Red Planet will be lost, and with it the prospects of achieving in the next decade the Holy Grail of robotic Mars exploration, returning samples of Mars back to Earth, which itself is a key milestone towards eventual human expeditions. There will still be NASA missions operating at Mars for years to come—the Mars Science Laboratory rover, aka Curiosity, is designed to last for years provided it lands safely this August—but the sense of steady progress made possible by a series of ever more ambitious missions will be lost.

The fact that there is momentum to be lost is a sign of how much progress NASA has made in Mars exploration. A dozen years ago, its Mars exploration program was in shambles after the dual failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander missions, victims of trying to do too much with too few resources. One of the recommendations of an independent panel that examined those failures was that NASA’s management of those Mars missions, spread out among several people within the agency, be consolidated into a single position, later dubbed the “Mars Czar”. The first person to hold that position, Scott Hubbard, recounts his time reshaping NASA’s Mars program in Exploring Mars.

The book is principally a memoir by Hubbard of his time at NASA Headquarters from March 2000, when he arrived from NASA Ames Research Center to take the job as head of the Mars exploration program, through the launch just over a year later of the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter. Hubbard hit the ground running: in addition to creating his program office, he immediately had to address two missions planned for launch in 2001. The orbiter mission got the go-ahead to proceed, but with a far more thorough series of reviews; the lander, though, was canceled because of concerns it was too much like the failed Mars Polar Lander (the hardware developed for that 2001 mission was later repurposed successfully for the Phoenix Mars Lander launched in 2007.)

A bigger challenge that faced Hubbard was crafting a long-term plan for Mars exploration that was scientifically coherent and technically (and fiscally) achievable. Hubbard notes that when he took the job there were still plans for a joint sample return mission between NASA and the French space agency CNES as early as 2005, something that soon became clear was unrealistic. Over the course of half a year, Hubbard and his team crafted a “ladder to Mars” strategy of alternating orbiter and lander missions to carry out scientific objectives of understanding the history of water, and thus the potential for past or present life, on Mars—an approach popularized as “follow the water”. This initial work also included the decision on the first new mission under this strategy: a geological rover concept that became the twin Mars Exploration Rovers, later named Spirit and Opportunity.

At one point, Hubbard used the fire escape stairs and freight elevator at NASA Headquarters to avoid running into Goldin “and getting some unanticipated direction from him.”

Exploring Mars is not about the development of those rovers or other missions, or the science they achieved, although Hubbard does devote a chapter near the end of the book summarizing those missions and their accomplishments. Instead, he provides a behind-the-scenes about how NASA developed that Mars exploration strategy in 2000, providing a blueprint that guided not just the 2003 rovers but also the missions that followed, up to and including Curiosity. He provides interesting insights on that process and other details, including minutiae like the layout of the NASA Headquarters offices. Such detail might not be interesting to people who are more interested in the spacecraft or the science, but that overall process of strategy and policy is essential to enabling the spacecraft and the science.

The book is a relatively upbeat one, perhaps because the Mars exploration strategy that Hubbard led the development of has proven to be highly successful. Hubbard speaks positively of many of the people he worked with at NASA and elsewhere, including the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), with whom Hubbard had to persuade to provide additional funding for the Mars program in the agency’s next budget request. Dan Goldin, the NASA administrator at the time, gets perhaps a mixed grade from Hubbard: while credited with bold ideas (he was the first to suggest that two rovers, not one, be flown in 2003), he could be aggravating as well. Hubbard writes that at one point in the fall of 2000, as he was trying to get final approval for the new Mars exploration plan, he used the fire escape stairs and freight elevator at NASA Headquarters to avoid running into Goldin “and getting some unanticipated direction from him.”

The depiction of the OMB staff is perhaps the biggest contrast between the events chronicled in Exploring Mars and the present day. According to Hubbard, the OMB staff examining NASA’s budget asked hard questions about the agency’s plans but were receptive to the strategy he was developing. Ultimately, they came through with over a half-billion dollars of additional funding over five years for the Mars program in the agency’s 2002 budget request. “We could do it all and do it well!” he writes. Today, however, OMB has been widely vilified as blocking NASA’s future Mars exploration plans. Last week, Ed Weiler, who retired as NASA’s associate administrator for science last fall, said OMB had specifically targeted ExoMars for cuts as opposed to across-the-board reductions in the agency’s planetary science programs. Why OMB has targeted ExoMars isn’t clear; the OMB staff praised by Hubbard have long since moved on to other positions, including at NASA. Unless Congress overrides the administration, though, the progress in Mars exploration that started with the efforts of Hubbard and others in Exploring Mars may be at risk of being lost.