Opinion: Our Exciting Future on Mars is Back On

The view of Mars from the Viking 2 lander in 1976. Photo Credit: NASA

We’re getting a little closer to regaining the exciting future we had on Mars before NASA pulled out of the joint ESA ExoMars mission. Between June 12 and 14, an international cohort of 200 scientists, engineers, NASA personnel, and academics – not to mention 1,600 online participants – hashed out idea for a Martian future at a workshop conducted for NASA by the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) in Houston. 

“The number of workshop participants demonstrates the broad interest in Mars exploration,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

NASA has had its Martian ambitions repeatedly impacted by the ever-changing political climate. The most recent of these was a move by the Obama White House to cut NASA’s planetary missions budget by 20 percent. The announcement was made through the 2013 Fiscal Year Budget Proposal released on Feb.13, 2012.

“Scientists and engineers came together to present their most creative ideas for exploring Mars,” said John Grunsfeld. The astronaut, astrophysicist, and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington chairs the agency-wide Mars reformulation effort along with Gerstenmaier, Chief Scientist Waleed Abdalati, and Chief Technologist Mason Peck.

Workshop attendants focused on short-term mission; ideas for longer-term activities will help shape program architecture beyond the early 2020s. This tied into the overall goal of taking the steps to reformulate NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP), enabling it to meet high-priority science goals including launching a manned orbital mission to Mars in the 2030s.

The variety of proposals focussed on the goal of returning samples from Mars, a top priority of the 2013-2022 Planetary Science Decadal Survey that’s fallen by the wayside. Returning a sample would be a significant advance in scientific understanding of the planet, ultimately helping scientists develop the technologies for manned exploration of the red planet.

NASA's Curiosity Rover, which will land on Mars on August 5, is poised to make great strides in furthering our knowledge of Mars. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The LPI workshop provided a broad set of ideas for Mars exploration, including synergies between science, human exploration and technology development,” Gerstenmaier said. Proposals also tapped into the significant benefits that could be gained from technology investments by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, and Office of the Chief Technologist.

“Future Mars exploration missions will require new concepts and technologies,” said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program. “There were many innovative and transformational concepts presented at the workshop. With continued investments in cutting-edge technology, these will lead to increased capability, reduced mission risk and lower mission costs.

The benefits of international cooperation towards realizing lofty Martina goals was another dominant theme.

The task now falls to NASA’s Mars Program Planning Group, the group created to reformulate MEP. Reporting to Grunsfeld, the MPPG will incorporate input from the workshop into its decisions. Budgetary, programmatic, scientific and technical constraints will play an equally important goal in informing decisions about the future of Martian exploration.

“The scientific and technical community has given us quite a range of ideas to consider in reformulating the Mars Exploration Program,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters. “Many concepts presented are highly relevant to the challenges the MPPG must address.” That’s likely because the participants were those most passionate about Mars and the prospect of exploring our cosmic neighbour. “Great ideas come from challenging the best and brightest and igniting their passion and determination to succeed.” Grunfeld said.

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