NASA at a turning point for Mars exploration - what to do now?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mars is awesome but beginning to get a wee bit expensive. What to do?

NASA seems to be at a bit of a turning point in the Mars program as it debates what to do next. The problem at the moment is that future missions are beginning to cost more and more, as simply sending mbissions with the same or similar technology to the planet just isn't good enough a reason to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars required. 

"The NASA Mars program is at a turning point," McKay argues in the April edition of The Mars Quarterly, a Mars Society newsletter. A trio of factors are converging that should prompt a reset of the space agency's pinball wizard of a red planet exploration program, he writes:

  • Costs of Mars robotic missions will continue rising as larger, more competent missions are proposed. Mars missions have moved into the cost category of the "flagship" missions to the outer solar system.
  • Mars as the primary astrobiology target is now in competition with other worlds – particularly Saturn's moons Titan and organics-spitting Enceladus, McKay argues. While the search for a second genesis of life in our solar system may still drive missions, he states that these missions may not be to Mars.

Even though the program so far has been remarkably successful (the Mars Rovers are *still* going for example), one problem with Mars is that at our current level of technology and funding there's just no way we can make the leap from robotic to manned exploration.

So what to do? Here's my idea (admittedly just off the top of my head): draw up a few quick and dirty missions to nearby locations (Mars, perhaps a near-Earth asteroid) that are a bit more focused on PR value than science. That means a probe that actually sends back high-res video that can be seen by the public whenever they want. Do the same thing for the near-Earth asteroid or some other asteroid close by as the NEAR Shoemaker mission did, although to a target that doesn't take so long to reach. Hopefully by then (let's say four years from now) we'll have a few things in our favour:

- Stabilization and a few years of growth in the world economy
- Further development in technology (especially in the private space industry) making access to space much cheaper than before
- Detection of a few Earth-like planets by Kepler and others, creating a change in the way we view space

If all the above happens along with a steady stream of PR and interesting imagery/video from NASA's missions, perhaps we'll be in a bit more confident place to decide what we want to do over the next decade or so re: space exploration, whether to the Moon or Mars or simply in LEO. Let's not forget that by then Bigelow Aerospace should also have a few more modules in orbit, so perhaps the focus will shift back to exploration and colonization of LEO, which is advocated by some as the only realistic method of colonization at the moment considering that it doesn't require landing and taking off again before coming back to Earth, which is always a drain on resources. With LEO exploration all you have to do is reduce your velocity and safely drop back to Earth when you want to return.


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