has got big — as in expensive — plans for future exploration
of the red planet
Congress can’t seem to appropriate money fast enough to help
America get back into space and off to Mars as NASA prepares
for its next unmanned mission to the Red Planet this summer.
At a capped cost of $355 million, the Phoenix Mars Lander
mission is expected to blast off in August for the fourth
planet from the sun, where it will expand on surface experiments
currently being conducted there by the remarkably resilient
twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity and a host of orbiting
cameras and monitors.
Funding is already approved for Phoenix, the first mission
of NASA’s Scout explorer program and also the first mission
to Mars led by an academic institution, this time the University
of Arizona, along with California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory
and Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
Though public criticism of NASA and anything having to do
with space exploration is somewhat uncommon, some comics and
social critics have wondered publicly—if only in a humorous
way—where all this extremely expensive unmanned space exploration
is actually leading.
we are pretty sure that nobody lives on Mars, at least not
year-round,” quipped author and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist
Dave Barry in a piece for the Miami Herald in 2004,
a year after the rovers touched down on the Martian surface.
“We base this on the fact that NASA has spent hundreds of
millions of dollars sending unmanned probes up there, and
they have sent back thousands of pictures, all of them showing:
Then there was The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart: “President
Bush announced we’re going to Mars,” Stewart deadpanned one
night, “which means he’s given up on Earth.”
Mars has always served as a sort of silent straight man for
comedians, as well as an easy plot device for filmmakers and
Barry, for instance, wrote a book a few years back called
Dave Barry Is From Venus and Mars, which has really
nothing to do with either planet, but contains a collection
of funny essays on life in general. And Monty Python alum
Eric Idle wrote a novel, The Road to Mars, that included
a part about terrorists plotting to blow up Mars, but wasn’t
really very funny.
Still others, though, take a somewhat more serious approach
to the actual science being done on and around Mars. Among
them are the top scientists involved with the Phoenix project
and Louis Friedman, co-founder of the California-based Planetary
Society, who argue for even more public support for furthering
mankind’s seemingly insatiable need to gain knowledge through
think public interest in Mars rovers and Mars landings and
support for Mars exploration is because the public does find
it interesting. But even more important, they find it profound,”
says Friedman, who in 1980 helped found the Planetary Society
along with Carl Sagan and former JPL head Bruce Murray.
have spent untold resources—not billions, but trillions, maybe
more than that—on trying to understand ourselves: What is
life? How did we get here? What is the future of life in the
universe? What is our relationship to the cosmos? And we have
done that through religion and folklore and stories,” Friedman
says. “Now we are doing it through science and exploration,
but it’s really part of the same quest.”
The Phoenix Mars Lander follows the $820 million twin rovers
Spirit and Opportunity, which have been whirring around the
Martian surface collecting and examining rocks since January
Unlike the rovers, Phoenix is a stationary platform with a
robotic arm that will work on the planet’s extreme northern
plains and hunt around for ice, dig ditches and then analyze
and test surface soils and subsurface samples for signs of
complex organic molecules.
It will also take high-resolution pictures of its surroundings
and measure atmospheric conditions more than a dozen miles
above the surface of our nearest galactic neighbor.
Soon after Phoenix, NASA plans to launch the Mars Science
Laboratory, or MSL, a roving laboratory that is three times
heavier and twice the length of both Sprit and Opportunity.
Like Phoenix, which will touch down on the plains near the
icy Martian North Pole, where scientists believe life-producing
water most likely existed or possibly still exists, MSL will
also be able to evaluate chemical compositions on the spot.
Adding some new technologies into the mix—scientists always
say inventions are some of the more tangible real-life benefits
of space exploration—MSL also will use a state-of-the-art
laser to cut into rocks. And it still has to be determined,
but MSL may have the added distinction of being the first
NASA vessel to be driven by nuclear power during its Martian-year
(687 Earth days) mission. If all goes as planned, states NASA’s
Web site, MSL should be setting up shop on the planet surface
by October 2010.
It won’t be long after MSL touches down that the next still
undetermined Scout probe will be launched, which could involve
the use of balloons or airplanes to sail through the Red Planet’s
constant cover of clouds.
a follow-up mission in a sense,” explains the University of
Arizona’s Peter Smith, principal investigator of the Phoenix
project and a former member of the team of scientists working
on the twin rover program.
not a life-detection experiment, but we do have the ability
to see organic material,” Smith says. “We wouldn’t know if
it’s a layer of microbes or cometary debris on the surface
that’s organic. We don’t really disentangle the DNA molecules
to figure out what it is. But in any case, it’s a part of
the search for life on other planets.”
Selected by NASA from 200 proposals, Phoenix is different
from the rover mission in another important way: Spirit and
Opportunity were tasked with looking at the planet’s ancient
environment by examining the composition of rocks. Phoenix
will look at what’s happening now with Mars’ tumultuous climate
by monitoring and measuring atmospheric conditions as they
was a big discovery made in 2002 just as we were thinking
about submitting a proposal, and that was ice was found in
the polar regions, what on Earth we might think of as permafrost.
We’re not exactly sure what it is on Mars,” Smith says of
the Phoenix team’s initial ideas for areas of exploration.
As Jeanna Bryner of SPACE.com explains, scientists have learned
that Mars has enough ice at its south pole alone “to blanket
the entire planet in more than 30 feet of water if everything
In this mission, says Smith, “we are looking at dust and ice.
We are looking at the current processes that are happening
today. Not the rocks. We avoid those. But how is the polar
region changing? Because, personally, I think that’s where
the action is on Mars today. How did that ice get there? Does
it change over time? What’s the chemistry of the ice? Is it
the kind of place where biology could exist?”
In 1993, Smith became associated with NASA’s Mars program
after his camera proposal was accepted for the Pathfinder
mission, the first lander to follow the two Viking missions
of 1976. Smith’s camera returned the first images from the
Martian surface on July 4, 1997, according to a brief profile
on the university’s Web site.
But rocks “are where history is written,” as Smith says, and
thanks to research done on samples analyzed in the rover program,
scientists now know that there was water on Mars at some point
in the distant past.
For Smith—who, believe it or not, says the most exciting thing
that could happen would be to witness ice forming—the most
interesting mineral found by Opportunity has been jarosite,
which is a sulfate that exists in an acidic environment.
Sulfates also are associated with volcanoes and interacting
with water. Smith believes these stones originated at the
bottom of some sort of large body of water.
So, in essence, “We’re looking at what I hope is the bottom
of an ancient ocean.”
As part of its mission, Phoenix will try to determine if there
are salts associated with soils in the northern plains, which
is the lowest part of Mars, but the area with the highest
atmospheric pressure, meaning “the pressure is actually high
enough that you can have stable liquid water,” Smith says.
Along with planes and balloons, another proposal for the third
mission in the Scout program is the Astrobiology Field Lab,
a complicated contraption that, according to NASA, would conduct
a robotic search for life, making it the first time since
the Viking mission of the 1970s that NASA specifically went
looking for past or present life forms.
Another is the Mars Sample Return. Details on NASA’s Web site
were a little sparse for the moment on that proposal, but
the general idea is to fly samples off the surface and back
to Earth for closer examination. Whichever of these devices
is finally selected, the next Scout mission is set for takeoff
But much of what happens in the next few years will depend
on the success or failure of Phoenix, which finally will land
on Mars in June 2008.
Three separate missions over four years to watch ice form
on what amounts to an otherwise lifeless planet may seem like
a poor investment to some. For those folks, maybe it would
help to imagine all the orbiting cameras and rovers and landers
and balloons and airplanes as an armada of sorts, the unmanned
Nina, Pinta and Santa Marias of the Space Age-version of New
Because as all that is happening, the United States will be
working with 16 other nations on completing the $100-billion
international space station, which should be fully built and
stocked as the space shuttle completes 13 more missions to
help finish construction of the behemoth circular space outpost
After that, the shuttle will be replaced by a sleek, airplane-like
vessel—a space plane—developed by Lockheed Martin that can
break out of orbit and actually fly to the moon. From there,
a base will prepare missions to Mars, ultimately launching
manned missions by 2035.
Bad investment of public funds? Perhaps. But would we send
humans into an extremely hostile environment merely to collect
rocks or other data that’s interesting but not necessarily
vital to our survival like, say, Social Security or Medicare
or education? Or is there something more that scientists aren’t
yet telling us about, something to justify spending billions
upon billions of dollars to collect and analyze lifeless objects?
Is there water on Mars, as scientists now believe? How about
carbon, the backbone of life as we know it? Or how about potential
alternative fuel sources, like helium-3, which isn’t yet ready
for widespread public use but has been detected on the moon?
What about diamonds, gold, silver and other precious metals?
JPL’s Leslie Tamppari, co-lead investigator of the Phoenix
project, isn’t yet ready to rule out the possibility of life
existing on Mars.
think the question is open because I don’t think we have enough
information one way or the other,” said Tamppari, who will
be overseeing the atmospheric testing portion of the project
from JPL in Pasadena. “I would say there is not enough information
to say there is definitely life there, but there is certainly
not enough information to say there definitely isn’t life
Probably like many Americans who aren’t quite as funny, Barry,
in his February 2004 column for the Herald, questioned
the staggering costs involved with all of this intergalactic
Bush administration says the Mars mission can be accomplished
for only 143.8 zillion dollars, but critics claim that the
true cost is likely to be much more like 687 fillion dillion
dollars. (These numbers are imaginary, but trust me, they’re
as accurate as any other cost estimates you see about the
Mars mission.),” Barry wrote.
Actually, the costs involved with accomplishing all of the
previously listed projects is incalculable right now, largely
because those missions are mostly still locked in the heads
of the scientists mapping them out.
NASA’s requested budget for the upcoming fiscal year was $17.3
billion, with nearly $4 billion earmarked for space exploration.
Unfortunately for the space science community, Congress, according
to recent Associated Press reports, held the 2007-08 funding
level at the previous-year level of $16.6 billion, $545 million
less than expected.
Not quite a fillion dillion, but pretty darn close. And while
that ’07-’08 funding foul-up may be a big disappointment to
scientists, that’s still an awful lot of money, which raises
some other interesting questions.
In a desperately needy and deteriorating world with rapidly
depleting resources, can we afford to fly off to Mars in search
of rocks, water, life . . . anything?
Or maybe a more prescient question, given the realities contained
in the first part of the previous question: At this point,
can the human race afford not to start looking for another
place to live?
In the opinion of Friedman, colonizing Mars would be on a
par with the creation of the pyramids: public efforts that
are mounted only once over generations.
There is certainly a strong probability of such a thing happening.
But for the time being, Friedman says, “I would say your payoff
is in science and advanced knowledge. Your payoff is not in
looking for Martians to satisfy our understanding of the Earth.”
Smith agrees for the most part. However, he believes making
comparisons between what is going on climatically on Earth
and Mars could be beneficial to mankind in the short term
in the face of global warming.
happens is Mars changes rapidly over time in its polar tilt,
and as it changes its polar tilt, it changes its climates.
The polar regions on Earth are very sensitive to climate change,
and we’re going to study climate change in the northern plains
and relate it to the climate change that we see on Earth,
the melting of the glaciers, the sea ice shrinking every summer,
the change in salinity in the ocean, the rise of the ocean,
all that sort of thing that’s indicative of climate change
on Earth, and we’ll look at how climate changes on Mars,”
Smith says. “It should be an exciting mission from a weather
Tamppari seems anxious about getting Phoenix underway, primarily
because each mission to Mars yields discoveries. She expects
nothing less this time out.
time we land a spacecraft on Mars and get new information,
high-resolution information, we make discoveries, so I suspect
we will also make discoveries with our mission,” Tamppari
says confidently. “If we land there and find exactly what
we expect, it will still be an exciting mission. But I expect
we will make some discoveries, and that will be even more
Uhrich is the editor of Pasadena Weekly in Pasadena,
Calif., where this article first appeared.