The landing of the Curiosity rover has renewed my belief in the scientific and technological prowess of America. The U.S. is the world leader in planetary exploration. There is nothing this country can’t do, when we try.
Curiosity is now poised to return new insights regarding the potential that Mars could once have harbored life – and may still. Traveling over 350 million miles in eight months, Curiosity landed near its target. This is a destination we could only dream of exploring a few years ago.
At this crucial moment, our nation must not give up on our quest for Mars scientific knowledge and technological advancement. We go to Mars to expand our knowledge of the universe and our place within it. We want to know if we are alone. We want to know why the Mars climate changed so dramatically over time. And we want to know what these changes forebode for all of us on the Earth. Mars is also the only planet that humans will visit in the foreseeable future, establishing it as a unique target for intensive robotic exploration.
It is not any one mission or science measurement that has singularly changed our view of Mars. It is the conglomeration of evidence, gathered through an interconnected set of measurements, obtained by a carefully engineered sequence of missions. This is the definition of a successful exploration program. Rather than flying a series of independent missions,’s Mars program has constructed a system that is greater than the sum of its parts. Through this program, has created a continuity of people and processes that enable cost-effective exploration of Mars, with a success rate that belies the inherent risks of these endeavors.
During the past 20 years, we have launched surface missions to Mars in 1996, 1998, 2003, 2007 and 2011 – roughly one every four years.
Unfortunately, the proposed NASA budget currently being debated among administration and congressional leaders would dramatically slow this pace just as tantalizing discoveries from the past decade are pointing to a new, compelling chapter in our exploration journey.
We have studied Mars extensively from orbit and learned that water was prevalent in its past and is present today. From orbit, we have identified dozens of compelling surface destinations for future robotic and eventual human surface exploration. It is time to move to the next chapter of this exploration story.
The National Academy of Sciences Decadal Survey clearly states that the top priority of the planetary sciences community is a mission that prepares for the return of samples of Mars rock, dust and atmosphere for intensive study in the Earth’s best laboratories. The next logical step is a small- or medium-scale rover mission aligned with the science objectives of the Decadal Survey. Only a rover can directly access localized features such as outcrops, gullies and mineral deposits. Only a rover can obtain the scientifically diverse specimens required for an eventual sample return mission. And only a rover can provide the ground-truth exploration that will form the basis for the next chapter in our Mars exploration journey.
Mars surface missions do not all need to be multi-billion dollar efforts; in fact, Curiosity is the only surface mission in the past two decades to cost more than $1 billion. I am confident that a cost-effective surface mission can be developed that is capable of following up on the discoveries to be made by Curiosity, and advances our readiness for an eventual sample return effort. There is ample time to prepare such a mission for launch in 2018.
The Mars surface missions of the past decades have deliberately led us to the point where we are now technologically equipped to begin the campaign to search for life beyond Earth. Successfully landing on Mars and exploring its surface is a competency that has proven to be uniquely American. The scientists and engineers who develop these missions are poised to deliver not only on the promise of this mission, but also on the next set of compelling planetary science challenges. Now is the time to accelerate the pace and scope of our nation’s planetary exploration program.
Planetary exploration inspires our children, expands America’s scientific and engineering literacy, and increases our economic and technological competitiveness. This is a pursuit worthy of a great nation.
Author: Robert D. Braun is the David and Andrew Lewis Professor of Space Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has been a member of the mission design and flight operations teams for several spacecraft that have landed on Mars and flown throughout the solar system. He served as the NASA chief technologist in 2010-2011.