NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and his European Space Agency counterpart, Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, failed to settle their differences on restructuring the two agencies’ joint robotic Mars exploration program at a meeting Oct. 3, and now hint that it may be time to bring Russia or another partner into the mix.

At issue is how much of the joint program that was worked out when the two agencies had a brighter fiscal outlook can be salvaged in today’s tougher economic environment.

“Every nation in the world today faces fiscal challenges,” Bolden told reporters at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here. “ESA and the United States today are working diligently to determine how our Mars program should proceed.”

Those efforts included a bilateral meeting between Bolden and Dordain Monday to discuss the Mars program that once included a U.S.-funded Atlas V launch for a European re-entry demonstrator and data-relay Mars orbiter in the 2016 planetary launch window. Since April NASA has been balking on that earlier commitment, citing tight money (Aerospace DAILY, Oct. 3).

“Hopefully Jean-Jacques will agree with me, but what we’re trying to do is determine how we accomplish the goals of the program in the best way possible, and that may mean that we revamp the way that we were going to go about it,” Bolden said Oct. 3 in a joint press conference with Dordain and other agency heads attending the IAC. 

Originally the 2016 mission would have been followed by a 2018 U.S.-led mission to deliver two rovers to the surface of Mars to collect samples for eventual return to Earth. Europe would supply its ExoMars rover, and the U.S. would supply a follow-on to the Mars Science Laboratory rover set to launch later this year.

“I think ESA is also, hopefully, potentially, talking to other international partners to see if, because of the way that the fiscal climate is right now, if we can find ways to accomplish goals of the ExoMars program as set out,” Bolden says.

Dordain says his sit-down with Bolden here was just the latest in almost weekly meetings at a lower bureaucratic level aimed at finding a way to continue the cooperation, particularly since European industry has been working on the original joint program for three years.

“What we would like is to implement the same objectives, and No. 2, to keep as much as possible of the heritage of the industrial activities that we have done for the last three years,” Dordain says. “And for that we are discussing with NASA, but we are also considering to connect with other partners.”

One possibility is to launch the 2016 mission on an Ariane 5. Another is to bring Russia into the joint effort in exchange for a Proton launch in that planetary window.

Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos, said no decision has been made on using a Proton for the 2016 European Mars launch. “But if it happens, we will be very happy,” he said through an interpreter.

More than 2,000 delegates from almost 80 nations have gathered in this historic port city at the southern tip of Africa to spend a week discussing the latest concepts and technologies for exploring space.

While the IAC presents public technical sessions on topics as diverse as miniature instruments for measuring gene expression in space and optical navigation for precise landings on the Moon, the leaders of the world’s established space agencies will be holding bilateral meetings out of the limelight to try to resolve some difficult issues that have come to a head since last year’s IAC in Prague.

Besides Bolden and Dordain, Popovkin also may meet with Chinese representatives on the status of the Phobos-Grunt mission to the Martian moon Phobos, with a Chinese probe riding piggyback. The mission has missed one planetary launch window already, and there are suggestions that continuing problems with the main Russian spacecraft may force another 26-month delay from the planned launch this fall.

On a brighter note, China is sending a delegation from its Manned Space Engineering Office to update delegates on the launch of its Tiangong 1 docking target, the next step on the path to a Chinese space station, and plans to launch follow-on unmanned and manned Shenzhou missions to the new orbiting facility.

Here in Africa, science ministers, national space agency chiefs and other leaders meeting at a technology summit in Mombassa, Kenya, have decided it is premature to establish an African space agency along the lines of ESA. More detail on that decision is expected, as well as early data from the recently launched Nigerian Earth-observation satellite. With growing interest across the continent in the benefits that space applications can provide, the sessions on African space developments are likely to be well attended.