NASA’s Mars Program Planning Group delivered its summary report today, a copy of which is here. The 66 page document firmly establishes a Mars Sample Return as the next logical goal for Mars exploration, but examines a number of different architectures for achieving that goal, some of which involve multiple pre-cursor missions.
Certain to be debated and offering ample room for time-consuming diversions depending on which if any alternative is formally adopted, the MPPG appears to have laid the groundwork for a credible plan which seeks to combine the goals of pre-cursor human and robotic exploration of Mars and finally gets on with the business of belatedly accomplishing one of the most the most delayed goals of the space age.
Despite a successful landing and a promising beginning to the Mars curiosity rover’s multi-year mission on the surface of the Red Planet, NASA’s ongoing future Mars program is very much in doubt, with only a single orbiter, MAVEN, slated to be launched in late 2013, and no definite plans beyond that point. Earlier this year, an embarrassed NASA had to pull out of a planned 2016 joint Mars mission with the European Space Agency, in part because it could not afford the skyrocketing cost of the Atlas V launch vehicle, which was the United States primary contribution.
Fortunately, (at least for the moment), Russia stepped in and offered its Proton launch vehicle instead. Dating back to the days of the Soviet Union, Russia has a very poor success record where Mars missions are concerned, and with the Proton suffering a launch failure barely a month ago, there is certainly cause for concern.
One of the core issues with any Mars exploration architecture, as with so much else, is that of launch costs. We can only hope that if NASA is allowed to formally adopt a Mars sample return as a high priority, the agency take full advantage of the cost reductions offered by both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles and not trap itself into a circular justification for SLS which will add years and billions to the effort.
More to come…