Scientists Are Concerned About Future Mars Missions

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The Mission to Retrieve Curiosity’s Samples May Be Eating Up Future Funding

What happens when you put a bunch of space scientists in a room to talk about funding. Bedlam, that’s what happens. Well, as “bedlam” as a confluence of scientists can get, anyway. Tensions mount… It might start with a scoff or a snort at the mention of an idea. Soon whispers are going around the room about the validity of peoples’ research. Soon it comes to strong words like, “We have other priorities, too!” It’s chaos. On July 26th we saw such bedlam at the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) meeting as scientists vigorously voiced concerns about future mars missions. 

Okay. It wasn’t that dramatic. I was just trying to create tension in my opening paragraph – I read about that in Writing for Dummies. The fact is, the stuff we’re about to discuss isn’t really all that sexy for a site called Space Porn, but it’s important nonetheless.

King Coin

Trump's 2020 budget request

Trump’s 2020 budget request

When it comes to space exploration, funding is king and there’s precious little of it to go around. Sure there are “big” government organizations, like NASA that give out research grants and contracts. By the way, when I say “big” government organizations, I feel I should drive home the point that NASA’s total budget for 2019 is $21.5 billion. That might sound like a lot, but it only represents less than half a percent of the total US Federal budget. We literally spend 73% more money on making nickels and pennies each year than we do to keep the Opportunity rover going and collecting samples on Mars—you know, the planet we’re gonna have to move to when we finally destroy this one? Most Americans are woefully unaware of how little we actually spend on space exploration. And even then, we’re still carrying the financial burden of humanity’s space exploration, as we spend more than every other country that’s currently in space.

There are also major research universities that raise grant money for research, but again, the resources are precious and few. The reality is there’s just no enough money appropriated to researching space. 

The Big Concern About Future Mars Missions

Mars Curiosity Rover taking data

Mars Curiosity Rover taking data

We sent a rover called Curiosity to Mars a few years ago. It’s been collecting all kinds of valuable samples for examination back here on Earth the whole time. Now NASA and the European Space Agency are working on a plan to retrieve the samples that will take a decade or more to complete. The plan is for NASA to send a craft to Mars with a lander to collect the samples. They’ll then put the lander back into orbit around the red planet and the Europeans will go pick them up. Seems like a great bit of international partnership at first, doesn’t it.

Scientists at MEPAG, however, voiced serious reservations over the mission. The main problem is that we don’t know enough about Mars yet, and the plan to retrieve these samples could cripple future orbiter and robotic missions to Mars. There are no robotic missions planned to Mars past 2020, currently, when NASA plans to launch another rover based on Curiosity’s design. Without any such major missions, smaller missions by smaller research organizations—which provide valuable data to the scientific community—won’t be able to study Mars any time in the near future.

Scientists at the conference asked NASA if the sample retrieval mission could accommodate other scientific instruments. In other words, they asked if they could hitch a ride. NASA answered that with a hard no, however. Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program said there were “very, very intense propulsive demands” for this mission, and that “Every time I add an extra kilogram of mass to that, it makes the problem harder and harder to implement.” It’s the same old story, the same old song and dance. Getting mass into orbit is expensive and we just don’t have the funds.

Other Options

Well, that’s the big problem. There aren’t many other options at this point for these smaller research teams. As ever, they’re completely dependent on grants and funding from universities. However, with the rise of commercial space exploration, there may be some innovative ways to get research spacecraft into space without relying on NASA. Elon? Bezos? How about it? Your companies would get charity tax breaks for donating space on your rockets for non-profit research organizations, and it would make you look like real bros in the eyes of the public. 

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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