Will “Curiosity” Kill the Mars Science Program?


—Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Today NASA announced that its next flagship Mars rover has been granted a name: Curiosity.

Sixth-grader Clara Ma of Lenexa, Kansas, penned an essay about the concept of curiosity that won her the right to name the new probe, an SUV-size rover that will be the largest, most technically capable craft yet landed on the red planet.

“Curiosity is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone’s mind. It makes me get out of bed in the morning and wonder what surprises life will throw at me that day,” Ma wrote in her essay.

“Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives. We have become explorers and scientists with our need to ask questions and to wonder.” [read the full essay here.]

It’s a beautiful bit of prose and a very mature sentiment from such a young person. Now let’s hope that inflated budgets and political tugs-of-war don’t tarnish the dream.

Launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, as the rover was formerly known, has already been delayed by two years due to rising costs.

All that high technology led to some serious technical problems and scrapped designs that not only cost the MSL program dearly, they also sent engineers scrambling to finish all the hardware and safety tests before the original 2009 launch date.

After weighing their options, NASA managers decided to postpone the mission to 2011, a slip that caused the budget to swell to about $400 million over initial projected costs.

In addition to fears that MSL would be set back (or scrapped completely), the move made “planetary scientists worry that pushing back the mission could have a ripple effect, delaying and even canceling future missions,” Andrew Lawler wrote in a Science news article last September.

After all, those extra dollars will have to come from somewhere, likely from other less high-profile planetary missions.

Meanwhile, the abrupt resignation of senior NASA science official Alan Stern last fall allowed said official to open a huge can of whoopass on NASA in general, with the MSL as his poster child for all the things that have gone wrong at the agency.

In a scathing article in the New York Times, Stern called the project a “poorly managed” symptom of a “cancer” growing at the space agency in the form of “a NASA culture that has lost control of spending.”

Irresponsible decisions and pet projects lead to budget overruns that lead to smaller but worthy projects getting shown the door, Stern says.

In January a hearing of the Planetary Science Subcommittee set out rules for how MSL’s budget woes would impact other projects.

While most major planned missions will move ahead as scheduled, an atmospheric probe bound for Mars, an orbiter headed for Jupiter, and U.S. involvement in an international moon collaboration are all now at risk of delays and/or losing funds.

And geez, NASA, you know it has to be bad when you get a several hundred-word spoof in the Onion.

On the flip side, people whinging about costs and wringing their hands over delays really are nothing new in the world of Big Science [cough, LHC]. Hubble had its share of start-up troubles, but it’s now arguably one of the most beloved science instruments of all time, not to mention one that has made some significant discoveries.

So out of all the things NASA has money to study, what would you like the agency to focus on? It’s a federal agency, after all, and publicly accountable. All it takes is enough people willing to step up and make some noise—look what public outcry did for the future of Hubble and is still doing for Pluto’s demotion.

It’s your space agency people, you have to decide whether it’s going to be a blessing or a curse.

Human Journey