This Sunday night millions of people worldwide will be glued to their media delivery systems watching not (just) the Olympics, but the most ambitious and daring interplanetary landing ever. The Mars Science Laboratory created by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will land on Mars at 10:31pm PDT. The unanimous hope of everyone watching will be that it lands safely.
The JPL design for the MSL EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) has been detailed in the popular media with the oft repeated headline “Seven Minutes of Terror”, to punctuate the many risks the landing rover will face before touchdown. If successful, the engineers will be praised as the best in the world and the mainstream media will briefly show amazing new photos of red dust, sand and rocks for at least one news cycle.
If the landing fails, the JPL engineers will still be the best in the world, but they will have to quietly endure having the least qualified people judge them. It will be no more dignified than if Yelp opened a new section for Spacecraft Reviews and invited every DIYer to claim they could do a better job in their garage.
Mars missions do fail. They fail because of a weightless blob of solder, a frozen propellant line, a misunderstood metric, a line of code in the wrong sequence, an unexpected gust of Martian wind. They also fail when overconfidence outweighs extensive pre-flight testing and when ambitious mission designers mount all their precious eggs in one basket.
There is one failure mode that will get the least amount of public scrutiny; the stunning lack of a follow-up mission. This is not to say NASA should have sent two MSL rovers, as was done with the enormously successful pair of Mars Expedition Rovers. MSL is sensibly a one-off, and because of its high cost and mission risks, a pair of failures would more than double the pain. Tragically however, the NASA budgets offered by the Obama Administration have cut planetary exploration to the bone for the rest of this decade. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter mission, scheduled for launch late next year, is currently the last US Mars mission scheduled to fly.
To put this in perspective, consider a 5 year old girl with plastic planets dangling above her bed and a photo of Martian ice dug up by the Phoenix Lander taped to her closet door. She already dreams of becoming an astronaut so she can rocket to Mars and fix all the broken robots. She will be in middle school when the next mission launches, and in high school when a precious few grams of Martian rocks land in a Utah desert. NASA still trumpets a plan for exploration that will land people on Mars about when this girl graduates from college… and I do not have the heart to tell her those plans are just so many public relations promises.
About 250 JPL scientists and engineers were laid off last year. Following the August 5th landing of MSL, successful or not, hundreds more will be getting pink slips down in Pasadena. Like the fool farmer who eats his own seed corn, the U.S. has already traded our best rocket scientists for yesterday’s tax cuts.
This is what is at stake on Sunday night… the last roving robot on Mars for my daughter to catch a ride on. There will not be another while she lives under our roof. If MSL lands too hard and goes silent, this critical stepping stone will be missing and there is nothing in the pipeline to replace it. When my daughter wakes Monday morning, will I show her new photos of red rocks or tell her that another robot on Mars needs her help? Even with the worst outcome, she would not give up hope.
The worst failure mode is the failure to try, and try again.
Pete Goldie holds a Ph.D. and 2 other graduate degrees from “old East Coast universities.”
“I merely wish it known that I am a licensed ceramic tile & natural stone contractor and everything I write about space science is not only freely available but eagerly disseminated by federal government agencies through the judicious expenditure of income tax revenue.”