A Mistaken Priority For The USA Space Program

I have had a very minor role in the use of models to improve our understanding of the Martian climate system; e.g. see

Ye, Z., M. Segal, and R.A. Pielke, 1990: A comparative study of daytime  thermally induced upslope flow on Mars and Earth. J. Atmos. Sci., 47,  612-628.

Rafkin, S.C. Randell, A. Rothchild, T. I. Michaels, and R.A. Pielke, Sr., 2012: Wind-Enhanced Interaction of Radiation and Dust (WEIRD) and the growth and maintenance of local dust storms on Mars.The International Journal of Mars Science and Exploration, submitted.

I was also on a JPL review committee that discussed, based on a Mars versions of the models MM5 and RAMS, where the risks were too large for the Martian Rovers – Spirit and Opportunity to land. Currently, I continue to work with Scot Rafkin of Southwest Labs in Boulder Colorado, developer and leader on the Martian (and now also the Titan) versions of the Mars Regional Atmospheric Modeling System  (see).

Thus, I was disappointed to see NASA’s decision to deemphasize planetary exploration using robotics in order to spend funds on the much more expensive human space program (although some planetary missions are retained; see). With the development of high-capacity and high-performance computing and robotics, the need for human space missions has become much less needed.

Indeed, it seems the only reasons are political competition with other countries (e.g. China) and to show that humans can live in space. Most of us are certainly intrigued by human space flight (Star Trek Next Generation is a great motivational reason :-)), but the actual additions to our scientific knowledge, other than the effects on humans of being in space, have been slight. The greatest scientific achievements in space have been on the planetary, asteroid and solar missions, and in the Earth orbiting satellites (both looking at Earth and looking outward at the vast and diverse material that makes up the Universe.

Thus it was a disappointment to read the BBC article by Jonathan Amos

Where now for Mars exploration?

The article has the text [highlight added]

It’s the planetary scientists who probably have the glummest faces a day after President Obama announced his 2013 budget request for Nasa.

Planetary science loses 20% of its current $1.5bn budget, with Mars exploration taking the single biggest hit, down from $587m this year to $360m next year – a 39% reduction.

The chief casualty, as I predicted last week, is the Americans’ joint missions to the Red Planet with Europe in 2016 and 2018.

It means that in the space of 12 months, Nasa has now pulled the plug on five major missions it was planning with Europe:

Lisa gravitational wave observatory

International X-Ray Observatory

Europa-Jupiter System Mission

and now

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter in 2016

and ExoMars rover in 2018.

Charles Bolden and his new science chief, “Hubble repairman” John Grunsfeld, think they have a workable scenario.

They want future efforts at the Red Planet to be a better fit with human spaceflight ambitions. That is, future robotic ventures at Mars must do stuff which feeds into an eventual manned mission that Barack Obama has said should be a goal for the 2030s.

Congress should reject this approach and insist on sustaining a robust planetary program even if this reduces the funding, for the time being, for human space travel. When we have the luxury to do a human mission to Mars, those  funds can be added back. But if the current reduction in non-human space activities persists, we will have less scientific knowledge in which to base human travel to Mars and elsewhere.

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