Planetary attraction

Ken Pounds ponders whether the Mars Science Laboratory's success will revive public interest in going boldly where no one has gone before

August 16, 2012

When the Mars Science Laboratory rover - aptly named Curiosity by Kansas high school student Clara Ma - landed safely within the Martian Gale Crater last week, the relief of mission controllers and planetary scientists at the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory was shared far more widely.

After several years of budget cuts and cancelled programmes, might this success represent a turning point in the space agency's fortunes - and in the prospects for human space exploration?

Mars traditionally has been a tough target for robotic exploration, with a number of high-profile failures by Russian, American and European missions there since the 1970s. That record is now rapidly improving, with the European Space Agency's Mars Express (the orbiting parent of Beagle 2) continuing its eight-year mapping of Martian weather, surface features and subsurface structures; Nasa's Phoenix lander recently finding strong evidence for water on the planet; and the unmanned rover Opportunity continuing its crawl across the Martian landscape.

Curiosity's powerful science payload (with a unique capability to retrieve surface material for rapid on-board analysis) is now set to take a critical step in establishing whether life has existed on Mars. As my colleague John Bridges, reader in planetary science at the University of Leicester and one of two UK mission scientists, said while describing the final moments of Curiosity's descent via a link from Pasadena to an excited audience of schoolchildren at the National Space Centre in Leicester: "What an opportunity we have now to explore this fascinating planet."

Curiosity is also seen by proponents of human spaceflight as an important step towards the ultimate aim of a manned mission to Mars, with the Gale Crater a favoured landing site. Notwithstanding the diagnostic capabilities of Curiosity, many geologists consider that humans will always outperform robots in exploring the unknown, an assertion that may first be tested when a lunar base is established. But for the present - 40 years on from the final Apollo Moon landing - space exploration remains the province of robotic spacecraft.

Nasa's Space Shuttle and the International Space Station have meanwhile maintained a capability in manned spaceflight (with occasional high-profile successes, such as the crucial repair and regular upgrading of the Hubble Telescope) and have significantly improved their ability to construct complex space hardware in situ.

However, manned spaceflight has undoubtedly lost much of its public appeal post-Apollo: significantly, with that loss of support the overall Nasa budget from 1966 to 2012 halved in real terms, whereas US gross domestic product grew fivefold.

Recapturing that public support was undoubtedly a primary reason for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential initiative, which set out a new US-led programme of space exploration with a mix of robotic and manned missions. The international impact of that vision was strong, with 14 space agencies agreeing a global space exploration strategy in 2007.

Significant input to that collaboration framework came from the UK Space Exploration Working Group, which detailed the case for taking part in both robotic and manned exploration. In addition to the economic returns to the UK through technological challenge, innovation and new commercial ventures, the group identified the key benefits to be derived from engaging the public in the excitement of space exploration while inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers.

The global financial crisis in 2008 put those international plans on hold, with an important exception being China. Its ambitious human spaceflight programme is now catching up with American and Russian capabilities, and continues to pursue a clear target: to put Chinese men (and women) on the Moon within a decade.

While Russia appears content to market its still-competitive launchers, the country's longer-term ambitions are unclear. However, continuing Chinese progress is likely to have a major influence elsewhere, not least on the stance taken by the US Congress. The Obama administration's position - to bypass a human return to the Moon and target an asteroid visit as a new (and cheaper) next step than Mars - may soon need to be amended.

The prospects for young Britons with ambitions for careers in space research remain less clear. University space science does not appear to be a priority for the new UK Space Agency, while the configuration of financial support for space science leaves academic researchers facing a double funding hurdle: they must apply for funding for experiments and their scientific exploitation separately. The UK's space industry - currently seen as a success story - will also suffer if the creative ideas and flow of trained graduates from our university research groups dry up.

Curiosity's arrival on Mars coincided with the outstanding success of British athletes at the London 2012 Olympics - a timely reminder of the importance of carefully targeted, adequate investment of resources to give aspiring young men and women a fair chance of succeeding in a high-level international endeavour. In that respect, it is encouraging to recall a BBC online poll conducted a few years ago that found that a substantial majority of UK taxpayers believed that space exploration was just such an inspiring target. Unlike the Olympics, of course, a key focus of these inspiring interplanetary endeavours could be international collaboration, not competition.

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