The Press Reads: Why Mars

lambrightOur summer Friday series on the blog, The Press Reads, features short excerpts from recent JHUP books to whet your appetite and inspire timely additions to your summer reading list. With a nod to the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, this week we offer a selection from W. Henry Lambright’s Why Mars: NASA and the Politics of Space Exploration. The author is a professor of public administration, international affairs, and political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. His books include Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA and Space Policy in the Twenty-First Century, both published by Johns Hopkins.

Beginning with NASA’s establishment in 1958, the space agency looked to Mars as a compelling prize: the one place besides the Moon where robotic and human exploration could converge. Over the years, the human space venture to Mars remained a dream. It remained on NASA’s agenda, but always on a distant horizon. NASA’s Mars robotic program—the focus of this study—has now been actualized, marking one of NASA’s greatest achievements. What has been the nature of NASA’s Mars exploration program? How was it created and sustained? How has it adapted to scientific findings and shifting political winds? What have been the barriers to the program? How was opposition countered? Where is the program going? These and other questions have not been answered adequately in the existing literature. Most writing about Mars deals with specific missions and emphasizes the technical aspects of exploring the planet. The people, institutions, politics, and policy behind the technical exploits get relatively little attention. NASA’s role, although mentioned, is seldom addressed in depth. What is significant is that the missions form part of an ongoing government effort that has lasted over half a century and promises to extend indefinitely into the distant future. Mars is a federal program, but it is also a destination, a place and a magnet for the human imagination. For advocates of robotic and human Mars exploration—who seem often to disagree as much as they agree—it is a great quest, a difficult and noble journey into the unknown.

Mars exploration has evolved from the Mariner flybys of the 1960s, which provided the first blurred glimpses of the Red Planet, to orbiter and lander missions in the 1970s. Later, in the 1990s, NASA created machines capable of  not only landing but also roving the planet. The Clinton administration in 1996 set as a national goal that NASA embark on “a sustained program to support a robotic presence on the surface of Mars.”2 By the early  twenty-first century, NASA was building an intricate infrastructure on Mars, a technical system involving orbiters, landers, rovers, laboratories, and communications systems. NASA, moreover, had company on Mars, as  other nations sent their own devices. The names of the machines have become well known not only to scientists but also to the public over the years: Mariner, Viking, Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, MSL with its Curiosity rover, and others. With modern technology, citizens on Earth can participate in an epic adventure and explore Mars through robotic machines of incredible capacity. These machines extend human senses of sight, sound, and touch across millions of miles. They have taken NASA, America, and the world to a period that John Grotzinger, chief scientist of the MSL, called “the golden era of Mars exploration,” a time of “extended, overlapping, and increasingly coordinated missions.”

The evolution of the program has not been all positive. Nor is the future certain. There have been expensive failures amidst the successes. There have been ebbs and flows in scientific and public enthusiasm, heights of exultation, depths of despair. Between Viking in 1976 and Mars Observer’s launch in 1992, there was a long gap in exploratory missions; in addition, Mars Observer was dubbed a $1 billion failure. But NASA maintained the quest for Mars in the 1990s and into the new millennium. That it did so was not easy. It was a test of scientific, bureaucratic, and political resilience. The key issue in understanding the Mars exploration  program is one that is generic in American democracy: how to maintain a long-term, large-scale, high-risk, and expensive federal research and development program in the face of competing scientific, bureaucratic, and public priorities and ever-changing political winds.

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