4 December 2008

A single Mars program for the Earth?

Posted by briony

One interesting tidbit that came out of the NASA presser on the MSL delay are comments made by NASA Assoc. Admin. for the Science Mission Directorate, Ed Weiler. Apparently, NASA and ESA have gotten clearance to start laying the groundwork for a joint Mars program. As Ed Weiler said:

So David [Southwood – ESA Director of Science] and I sort of talked about the possibility of maybe we oughta think about NASA and ESA getting together and come up with one Mars architecture, one Mars program for the Earth… In the future, NASA and ESA are going to work together to come up with a European/US Mars architecture. That is, missions won’t be NASA missions, they won’t be ESA missions, they will be joint missions. We need to work together. We’ll never, ever do a sample return mission unless we work together.

This is a really interesting proposal. Making space exploration a more international endeavor is a big challenge, but has been cited by many (e.g. theĀ  Planetary Society) as the only way to accomplish the broad goals of robotic and human space exploration.

This idea also is coming up at a time when the future of the Mars program is totally up in the air. The “2016” rover mission and the ever lingering sample return mission had been moved to the edge of the map even before the MSL delay. International collaboration will probably help both to establish a more concrete timeline and spread out the cost for these missions. The 2016 surface mission was specifically discussed as being much more likely in the international context, presumably as some combination of ESA’s ExoMars and the 2016 US mission. As Ed so eloquently put it:

It’s nice to put our logos on our missions… but we could probably do a heckuva lot better mission if we did it together than if we continue to compete with each other.

While I think this will overall be a huge boon to Mars exploration, there are certainly hurdles that will have to be overcome. ESA and NASA have very different management styles, as do the science and engineering teams under each. ESA also has a very different relationship with it’s supporting governments than NASA does in the US. It will certainly be interesting and instructive to watch this process take place from within the science community.