NASA’s Out of Date Search for Life on Mars

By Keith Cowing
May 10, 2012
Filed under
NASA’s Out of Date Search for Life on Mars

According to this article in Space News: “[Orlando]Figueroa reiterated previous statements that his team will consider only missions that contribute in some way to an eventual Mars sample-return mission, which is the U.S. planetary science community’s top priority for flagship-class Mars exploration endeavors.”

This is a mindset ripe with old thinking. Even without the budget cuts, the costs for a Mars sample return mission have steadily increased over the decades that NASA has planned for it. NASA needs to head down a new path (or series of paths) wherein basic questions regarding the presence of current or previous life on Mars are addressed through more advanced and focused technologies – ones that can be used in situ. Instead, Figueroa et al are simply tied to old ways of thinking that make answering these questions move further into the future rather than making them move closer – all because the sample return mantra is etched into their brains from decades of repeating it among themselves.

It has been nearly 40 years since the twin Viking landers were sent to Mars. This is the last time NASA tried to do in situ testing for the presence of life on Mars. It is rather embarassing that NASA has not tried to do this again in the ensuing four decades or that it apparently won’t try to do in the coming decade.

Lets all hope Curiosity is successful. But imagine the mood in Congress were NASA to ask for more money after MSL made a new impact crater on Mars? NASA should be thinking of a fault-tolerant strategy that both survives an MSL failure as well as one that is boosted by its success. If you ask NASA for a copy of their contingency plan for a post-MSL failure their answer is simple: there is none. I have asked.

Recall what NASA did after it crashed Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Observer into Mars. It retrenched, came up with smaller, redundant, overlapping approaches that were not single-point failures but rather, could sustain failures and still advance science. Ironically this was done under Figueroa’s management. Figueroa – and NASA – have forgotten those hard-learned lessons. And now they only want to launch missions that support a single future mission – one that may never fly – and one that will be ripe with opportunities for single point failures.

Oh by the way: Opportunity says “hello” from Mars. Imagine what could have been done if NASA had simply made more of these rovers.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.