NASA's Mars chief frets over heat shield for probe

July 10, 2012 by PAN PYLAS
A Vulcan joins the Red Arrow fly pass the airfield to mark the start of Farnborough International Airshow, Farnborough, England, Monday, July 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

So far, the scorecard for missions to Mars reads attempts 40, successes 14. Not so good.

Well over 60 percent of Earth missions to Mars have failed, ever since the pioneering efforts of the former Soviet Union in the 1960s and including Britain's high-profile Beagle 2 space probe.

As NASA's latest mission to Mars heads closer to the Red Planet, the head of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, Doug McCuistion, acknowledged Tuesday that many things could still go wrong before its scheduled Aug. 6 landing date.

The one thing that worries him most is if the spacecraft's heat shield will detach as planned when the U.S. Mars Science Laboratory mission sets down a large, mobile laboratory on Mars — the rover Curiosity.

"If you look at the scorecard, Earth is doing less than 50 percent; less than 50 percent of Earth's missions to Mars have been successful," McCuistion, a former U.S. fighter pilot, said at the Farnborough Airshow south of London.

In the seven minutes before its planned touchdown, the U.S. spacecraft has a number of tasks it has to complete for Curiosity to make a safe landing. First it must get rid of the heat shield and avoid a subsequent collision with it. Then it has to slow its descent to the Red Planet with the aid of a massive parachute as well as use rockets mounted around the rim of an upper stage. In the final seconds, the upper stage of the spacecraft acts as a sky crane, lowering the upright rover on a tether to the surface.

In spite of the challenges, McCuistion remains positive that the $2.5 billion mission will be a success and praises the unprecedented international cooperation between NASA and companies like German electronics company Siemens AG.

After all, NASA, the world's biggest space agency, enjoyed success with its twin Mars Exploration Rovers in the mid-2000s.

"I can't really give you a hard number .... but I think we are in a medium-to-low risk environment," McCuistion said.

After spending eight months travelling to Mars, Curiosity will spend 23 months analyzing dozens of samples drilled from rocks or scooped from the ground as it explores Mars with greater range than any previous rover.

Mars missions all share the same ultimate goal: Seeing whether Earth's nearest planetary neighbor can sustain life. President Barack Obama has set a goal of the 2030s for a manned mission to Mars, but with budgetary constraints, NASA faces a tough task defending its current $18 billion annual budget.

NASA is hoping a scorecard of 15 successful trips to Mars will help in that task.

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Peter Hent
4 / 5 (5) Jul 11, 2012
$18 billion a year for NASA.
$684 billion a year for the US military.

America is a country bordered by others too poor or too friendly to attack.

Something's not quite right there.
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 11, 2012
Man that seems like a complicated way to land on a planet. But when every ounce counts you do what you must I suppose.

As for NASA vs Military budget: The military budget has little to do with countries bordering the USA, and more to do with Congress budgeting federal dollars to their constituents in what are essentially jobs programs. Witness the congress mandates for spending on things the military doesn't want. That aside, NASA gets some of the money allotted to the military for it's own space programs.

But the disparity is pretty stark and I suspect is indicative of a lack of general public support despite the general positive view the public has for NASA and the vocal but small group of supporters.
3 / 5 (4) Jul 11, 2012
That aside, NASA gets some of the money allotted to the military for it's own space programs.

I was going to say the same. NASA gets money from a LOT of sources besides its own budget. It contracts out to both private and public agencies for a lot of stuff, especially for the military.

Also, the military spends money on a LOT of things that don't have anything to do with defense, such as over 500 million a year for college tuition assistance.

The military really is an essential service though. NASA isn't really essential in the same way. It's probably more fair to compare its budget to other non-essential agencies such as FDA, Dept of Agriculture, EPA, etc. The EPA gets under 9 billion compared to NASA's 18, while the Dept of Energy gets around 27 billion. One shocker is the Federal Highway Administration which Obama asked for over 300 billion for 2013. Dept of Agriculture is around 150 billion.
The Singularity
5 / 5 (2) Aug 02, 2012
A 10% rollback in military spending would tide nasa over nicely for a good few years. Fighting religious freaks in thier homeland is not proving or improving anything.

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