A prominent critic of the Obama Administration’s Mars exploration program offered praise following NASA’s announcement that it will send a new robotic rover to the planet in 2020. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who had denounced this year’s decision not to participate in the 2018-2020 European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars missions, issued a release applauding the new mission.
The announcement follows a year of uncertainty about the nature of NASA’s Martian exploration program. A year ago a House Science subcommittee held a hearing in which Republican and Democratic members expressed deep concern about the future program. In February of this year, NASA announced its decision not to participate in the two ESA missions. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden explained the “tough choices” the agency made when it sent its FY 2013 budget to Congress:
“This means we will not be moving forward with the planned 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions that we had been exploring with the European Space Agency. Instead, we will develop an integrated strategy to ensure that the next steps for Mars exploration will support science as well as human exploration goals, and potentially take advantage of the 2018-2020 exploration window. The budget provides support for this new approach, and this process will be informed by extensive coordination with the science community and our international partners.
“This Administration remains committed to a vibrant and coordinated strategy of Mars exploration and continuing America’s leadership role in the exploration of the Red Planet within the available budget. Our goals include not only new path-breaking robotic missions to Mars, but also future human missions, as outlined by the President. . . . “The missions currently at Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory [Curiosity] on its way, and MAVEN well into development, will provide many years of data to help us understand the Red Planet and our needs in future years to meet the President's challenge to send humans to Mars in the mid-2030s.”
Bolden was challenged by House and Senate authorizers and appropriators this spring when testifying on the FY 2013 request. Among those who were most critical of the Administration’s decision regarding the ExoMars missions was Rep. Schiff, a member of the Appropriations Committee. He engaged Bolden in a seventeen-minute dialogue about the agency’s Martian program, characterizing its exploration program as “visionless.” Explaining his position, Bolden declared “we don’t have the program in place that I would like to have because I don’t have endless money.” Both the Senate and House appropriations reports had language regarding the Mars program.
On December 4 the Administration announced plans to launch a robotic science rover to Mars in 2020. In making the announcement, Bolden declared: "The Obama administration is committed to a robust Mars exploration program. With this next mission, we're ensuring America remains the world leader in the exploration of the Red Planet, while taking another significant step toward sending humans there in the 2030s."
The architecture of the one-ton Curiosity rover now exploring Mars will be the basis for the new rover. Discussing the 2020 mission at the December 4 annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (an AIP Member Society), John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for Science, said a science definition team will develop the mission’s objectives. He estimated that its cost would be in the range of $1.3 to $1.7 billion. Grunsfeld said this cost “fits within the budget line” of the FY 2013 request sent to Congress in February. Discussing other ongoing and planned Martian mission, he said “this is now looking like quite a robust plan,” praising the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy for their support.
On the same day NASA announced the mission, Schiff released the following statement:
“I am pleased that NASA has announced the next steps in its robotic exploration of Mars, namely the launch of a Curiosity-class rover to the Martian surface in 2020. In its few short months on Mars, Curiosity has broadened our understanding of our planetary neighbor, and the findings announced thus far point to even greater discoveries as Curiosity continues to explore Gale Crater and Mount Sharp. An upgraded rover with additional instrumentation and capabilities is a logical next step that builds upon now proven landing and surface operations systems.
“While a 2020 launch would be favorable due to the alignment of Earth and Mars, a launch in 2018 would be even more advantageous as it would allow for an even greater payload to be launched to Mars. I will be working with NASA, the White House and my colleagues in Congress to see whether advancing the launch date is possible and what it would entail.”
When asked about Schiff’s goal of advancing the launch date at the AGU meeting, Grunsfeld said “I think 2020 is ambitious” for determining and constructing the rover’s scientific instrumentation payload. 2020 is, he declared, an aggressive strategy.