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Bush Shakes Up Civil Space

With billions set to flow into missile defense the money will have to come from somewhere. AFP photo
by Bruce Moomaw
Cameron Park - March 5, 2001
Without question, it has been an eventful week for NASA. Firstly there was the massive scaling-down of the International Space Station, followed by the cancellation of NASA's entire effort to develop a Single-Stage-to-Orbit launch vehicle and any work on a future manned Mars mission.

This was then partly mitigated by a promise to increase spending on the unmanned Mars exploration program, but at the expense of any plans to launch a mission to Pluto in 2004. But then the Pluto cancellation, in turn, was tentatively rescinded the next day by Congressional demand.

In the middle of all this turmoil - from Feb. 27 through March 1 - NASA's Solar System Exploration Subcommittee (SSES) held one of its three annual meetings to review and issue recommendations on the current form of the agency's Solar System exploration program.

Committee chairman Michael Drake of the University of Arizona told SpaceDaily that a detailed review of NASA's radically revised plan for Mars exploration was conducted, along with an examination of where a Pluto mission might now stand.

The SSES review of the Mars Program is part of an ongoing process to correct the previously rushed Mars program that had sought to conduct a Mars sample-return mission within this decade despite serious under-funding.

SSES reached the conclusion that the new plan - which postpones the launch of the first sample-return spacecraft from 2003 to 2011 at the earliest - was well designed and required no significant changes.

The new plan is still very ambitious, but has been designed to be highly adjustable to any delays resulting from mission failures or cost overruns.

The plan through 2005 is now firmly in place, starting with this year's Mars Odyssey orbiter; two separate 2003 "Mars Exploration Rovers capable of traveling up to 1 kilometer across the surface, and a 2005 "Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter" which will conduct detailed mineral mapping along with extremely high-resolution surface photography, and perhaps also radar sounding that will look for subsurface water ice.

The 2005 mission will also conduct weather-mapping experiments similar to those lost on Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999.

Under the current schedule, the 2007 launch season will see the first advance test flights of the spacecraft that will be used in next decade's sample-return mission.

Firstly, this will involve a US-built "Smart Lander" designed to soft-land within only a few km of its target using retro rockets. Moreover, this lander will be able to recognize and dodge any rough terrain it encounters, in order to safely deliver a new type of long-range rover that can spend a year or more traveling across Mars with a payload of some 300 kg of scientific instruments.

At the same time, a French-built orbiter will brake into a circular orbit around Mars whereupon it will eject a grapefruit-sized target to simulate a Mars sample container, and then practice a totally automatic rendezvous and docking with it in Mars orbit (using American tracking equipment). This mission is also expected to carry four little "NetLanders" that will use the Pathfinder "beach ball" approach to getting down in one piece.

In the same 2007 launch window, NASA hopes to deploy a series of little hard landers dubbed Mars Scouts, which will be scattered across Mars to survey future landing sites and carry out various science-related tasks. An Italian-built spacecraft is also planned that will be placed in a high circular Mars orbit, where it will serve as a comsat allowing high-speed data relay for future Mars landers.

In 2009 another orbiter is to be launched - maybe a modified version of the Italian Mars comsat to carry out more detailed subsurface radar sounding - and, in 2011, a second set of Mars Scouts.

Then, in either 2011 or early 2014, the first Mars sample return mission will at last be launched. This will involve another Smart Lander and Long-Range Rover. However, this time the rover will collect up to one kilogram of rock and soil samples that will be launched into orbit by a two or three-stage rocket, whereupon a second French-built Mars orbiter will rendezvous with and retrieve the sample container before heading back to Earth with its billion-dollar rocks.

Under the current plan it is hoped that additional sample return missions will be carried out at every other Mars launch window (that is, once every four years). Although this is an ambitious program given the current funding, the Bush Administration is now proposing that the Mars program be allocated more funds to make it more "robust".

Exactly what this means or how big the increase would be is still uncertain, as any new official budget plans won't be released for another month.

As a hint of what be possible, Scott Hubbard, the Mars program director, presented at the October SSES meeting an alternative program based on an additional $2 billion in Mars funding over the next decade.

Hubbard's plan would allow a second Smart Lander and long-range rover to be launched in 2007, and the second Mars sample-return mission to be launched in early 2014 - only two years after the first one, instead of four years.

Depending on the success of the technology development plan, it might even allow the first sample return mission to be launched in 2009.

Whether the Bush Administration's proposed increase will be of that order remains uncertain, as it may only be designed to make sure that the current program stays on schedule if cost overruns appear in the currently planned missions.

In that connection, there have been recent stories of design problems in the planned 2003 Mars rover mission which might force the number of rovers launched to be cut from two to one, and might even require some reduction in the rovers' currently-planned payload of five science instruments.

Dr. Drake, said however, that the SSES was told that, while problems do exist, they don't appear to be serious enough to force either of these actions to be taken.

As such, it may well be that the increase in funding being proposed by the Bush Administration is partially intended to keep the twin rovers slated for launch in 2003 on track.

Part Two: Congress Has Pups As Bush Nukes Pluto

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