MSL and the NASA Mars Exploration Program: Where we’ve been, where we’re going

Curiosity RoverBy Adrian Brown

NASA’s one-tonne Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is now on its way to Gale Crater. Barring any complications, on August 5th at 10:31pm Pacific Daylight Time, it will land on the surface of the deepest crater on the edge of the famous Martian dichotomy between the southern highlands and northern basins.

But just as MSL faces a physical Martian dichotomy at Gale Crater, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP) faces its own dichotomy of sorts: how will it cope with the success of the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) and keep producing compelling science results in the face of stark budget cuts?

How did the MEP get to this point? What is the best way forward? This article will examine the recent history and accomplishments of the NASA Mars Program through the prism of the Mars Science Laboratory mission: the largest and most expensive instrument to be sent to the surface of another planet.1, 2

Why do we need a Mars Exploration Program?

To many NASA observers, it may seem self evident that the Mars Rovers are a shining icon of our engineering prowess that all of humanity can be proud of, in the same way as we are proud of the achievements of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But scientifically and technically, what is the main aim of these missions? I would argue that the chief objective of the NASA Mars Exploration Program is to open human hearts to the Martian frontier and focus the efforts of our best and brightest minds on the goal of exploring the nearest inhabitable planet in our Universe.

For example, SpaceX was founded in 2002, in the midst of the excitement of the 2003 MER missions, Spirit and Opportunity. If these rovers had been cancelled or failed to launch, would Elon Musk and his 1,800 employees, some of the nation’s best and brightest, be around today working on spacecraft and launch vehicles that could one day take us to Mars?

A second example is relevant: if the Mars Exploration program is discontinued or defunded (or re-baselined) today, will the child who will be the first human to walk on Mars still be inspired by NASA to study physics and math at school?

These are just two example arguments for continued investment in the NASA Mars Exploration Program. This program is a sublime human technical achievement that generates public excitement and engagement that NASA desperately needs. To continue in its inspirational mission, NASA must continue to have a functioning, adequately funded, and efficiently run Mars Exploration Program.

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