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Review: Why Mars

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Why Mars: NASA and the Politics of Space Exploration
by W. Henry Lambright
Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2014
hardcover, 336 pp.
ISBN 978-1-4214-1279-5

Given how much we’re still learning about Mars—and how far away the prospects of humans on the surface of the Red Planet remain today—it’s easy to forget that NASA has been exploring the planet with spacecraft for nearly half a century. This November marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Mariner 4, which, in July of 1965, became the first spacecraft to successfully fly past Mars and return images. Since then NASA has sent other spacecraft to fly by, orbit, land, and rove; today two rovers are in operation on the surface of Mars and two spacecraft are working in orbit, with a third to arrive next month.

Most of the book might have been more accurately titled “How Mars,” as it’s a programmatic history of NASA’s robotic Mars exploration efforts, from the agency’s origins in the late 1950s through the end of 2012.

NASA has not achieved that half-century of progress in a steady fashion, though. Since the 1960s there have been ups and downs, successes and failures, flurries of missions followed by long gaps. While NASA’s Mars Exploration Program looks stable today, just two years ago there were questions about its long-term future: at the time Curiosity landed on Mars, there were no missions on the books beyond the MAVEN orbiter. This sustained exploration, in spite of considerable instability, is the subject of Why Mars by W. Henry Lambright, a professor of public affairs at Syracuse University who has previously written about space policy and history.

Most of the book might have been more accurately titled “How Mars,” as it’s a programmatic history of NASA’s robotic Mars exploration efforts, from the agency’s origins in the late 1950s through the end of 2012, when NASA announced plans for a Mars rover mission in 2020. The emphasis here is on “NASA,” “programmatic,” and “robotic.” There’s little about other nations’ Mars exploration programs except in regards to potential cooperation, such as NASA’s aborted cooperation with ESA on ExoMars. While there is some discussion of the science done by the missions, it is not a primary focus of the book (there are no images of Mars, or even of Mars spacecraft, in the entire book.) Proposals for human exploration of Mars also get limited attention in the book, although none have advanced very far compared to the history of robotic exploration.

Within that narrow focus, though, Lambright tells a thorough story of NASA’s efforts to send a series of increasingly capable spacecraft to Mars. The flyby missions of Mariner 4 and its successors led to the first Mars orbiter, Mariner 9, and then the Viking program of orbiters and landers. Viking, while a scaled-back replacement for the far more ambitious Voyager Mars missions proposed in the 1960s (not to be confused with the Voyager missions to the outer solar system), was still criticized by some as too great of a leap in the quest to find evidence of life on Mars. And, when the Viking results were, at best, inconclusive about life there, NASA’s Mars program went on hiatus, with no funding to implement any of the proposed follow-on missions, including a “Viking 3” rover.

While NASA’s next Mars mission, the Mars Observer orbiter, got started in the 1980s, the agency’s Mars exploration program wasn’t really invigorated until the 1990s, thanks to several factors, ranging from NASA administrator Dan Goldin’s push for “faster, better, cheaper” missions to evidence of past microbial life on Mars found in a Martian meteorite (which most of the scientific community has since rejected.) That program survived the twin failures of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999 in a restructured form, one driven by science and focused on “following the water” to determine Mars’s past habitability through a series of missions, rather than Viking’s home run swing-and-miss of directly searching for life.

And what of the future of Mars exploration? It “will likely emulate the rhythm of the past,” Lambright argues.

Parts of the story of NASA’s Mars exploration efforts have been told before, either in books about specific missions or some behind-the-scenes accounts of the program, like Scott Hubbard’s 2012 account of his time as the first “Mars czar” during the program’s restructuring in 2000 (see “Review: Exploring Mars”, The Space Review, February 13, 2012). However, Why Mars offers a comprehensive overview of the entire robotic Mars exploration program at NASA, including the political maneuverings in Washington among NASA, the White House and its Office of Management and Budget, and Congress to fund various elements of that program and deal with the inevitable cost overruns and budget shortfalls.

Only in the book’s last chapter does Lambright go from discussing that programmatic history to answering the question posed by the book’s title: why go to Mars? “The robotic program has been sustained mainly by the quest to determine whether life exists or has ever existed on Mars, and also by the need to send robotic precursors if human beings were ever to go there,” he argues. That’s been supported by what he calls a “loose coalition of Mars advocates” inside and outside government, ranging from individuals within NASA to organizations and companies that benefit from Mars exploration to advocacy groups like The Planetary Society.

And what of the future of Mars exploration? It “will likely emulate the rhythm of the past,” Lambright argues, with successes and setbacks towards a long-term goal of Mars sample return, a goal of Mars exploration advocates for decades. Achieving that goal is also “a potentially big step towards human spaceflight,” he argues, although some human Mars exploration supporters, like Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society, would argue that sample return is not needed before sending humans there. In any case, the history of NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program, as recounted in Why Mars, can provide lessons learned and guidance for its future.