NASA’s Mars exploration effort has been brilliantly successful because, since 1994, it has been approached as a campaign, with probes launched every biennial opportunity, alternating between orbiters and landers. As a result, combined operations have been possible, with orbiters providing communication links and reconnaissance guidance for surface rovers, which, in turn, could conduct ground-truth investigations of orbital observations. Thus, the great treks of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003, were supported from above by MarsGlobalSurveyor (MGS, launched in 1996), MarsOdyssey (launched in 2001) andMarsReconnaissanceOrbiter (launched in 2005). But after serving 10 years on orbit, MGS is lost, and if we wait until the 2020s to resumeMars exploration, the rest of the orbiters will be gone as well. Moreover, so will be the experienced teams that created them. Effectively, the whole program will be wrecked, and we will have to start again from scratch.
Furthermore, if the administration’s cuts are allowed to prevail, we not only will destroy America’s Mars exploration program but will derail that of our European allies as well. The 2016 and 2018 missions have been planned as a NASA/European Space Agency joint project, with the Europeans contributing more than $1 billion to the effort. If America betrays its commitment, the European supporters of Mars explorationwill be left high and dry, and both the missions and the partnership will be lost.
When, on Oct. 26, I revealed the administration’s plans for this wrecking operation in the pages of this newspaper, I was widely attacked by Obama supporters. Cutting short NASA’s most successful program would be insane, they said, and so claims that such a move was in the works could not possibly be true.
Alas, they were only half right. The cuts are nuts, but that has not deterred the administration - quite the contrary. When NASAAdministrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. was quizzed recently by Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, on the rationale for the move, Mr. Boldenreplied that the cuts were done becausetheMarsprogramwashighlysuccessful. (I am not making this up.)
The scientific community is understandably outraged. Ed Weiler, theNASA associate administrator for science, a 33-year agency veteran, resigned his post in disgust. To take his place, Mr. Bolden appointedJohn Grunsfeld. As NASA chief scientist under former AdministratorSean O'Keefe, Mr. Grunsfeld gained notoriety by acting as public and congressional advocate for Mr. O'Keefe’s attempt to abandon the Hubble Space Telescope, even while acknowledging to others in the technical community that his testimony had no rational foundation. Continuing in this tradition, Mr. Grunsfeld told the members of the science committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) this month that because they are “temporary government employees while sitting on NAC” they “are not allowed” to criticize the Mars mission cuts (i.e., “Shut up”).