Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Unsung Heroes

There are a couple of unsung heroes of the space program that should get mentioned this week. These guys don't drink (not much water anymore around them), they don't wear diapers, they don't mind getting their fingers dirty, and they have discovered the fountain of youth.

The twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on Mars in January 2004. Some 45 months ago, they bounced around inside their airbags starting missions originally planned to last for no more than 90 days. In that time, Spirit has driven 4.51 miles and has returned more than 102,000 images. Opportunity has driven 7.19 miles and has returned more than 94,000 images. While a little rough around the edges, there appears to be no end in sight for the plucky explorers, so the Emperor is extending, for a fifth time, their activities on the Red Planet.

But every silver lining has a cloud, and so too does this story. Originally NASA planned to build only one rover. Seeing that as being two risky for programmatic success, a second rover was added to the bill. All told, NASA planned to spend about $600M for the two rovers. The second one cost only about half as much as the first, call it $200M. Multiple copies beyond that would have been even cheaper.

You know where we are going with this line of thought. Instead of taking advantage of a proven landing system (three times, counting Mars Pathfinder), NASA once again threw away a working design to "do better." The yet unbuilt Mars Science Lander (MSL) is already up against its $1.5B cost cap and will utilize an unproven Flash Gordon-like "SkyCrane" landing system to deliver its payload to the surface of Mars. This Rube Goldberg-inspired device if fraught with risk but is said to be "required" to carry the much heavier rover safely to the ground.

Humbug. (BTW, only 69 shopping days left until Christmas).

NASA could have built at least seven more Rovers just like Spirt and Opportunity and spread them around Mars to have a look at some real undiscovered territory. Think of the discoveries possible just by upping the statistical coverage of the planet! A variety of upgrades and instruments could have been deployed to do everything MSL might do and more and sooner. Without radioactivity. So why MSL?

Well, if NASA tells you that the lifetime of the Rover is an issue, hold your nose. If they tell you that the Rover solar panels don't provide enough power for expanded operations, keep reading. If they tell you they couldn't land the heavy instrument set in airbags, ask them why they didn't split the MSL into two pieces? One piece with the payload, one with the power pack. You get to use a proven landing system and get something for free with that idea. Eventually, whether it happens on the moon or on Mars, robotic vehicles will have to find each other, get together, and move things around in anticipation of their human partners coming later to use those assemblies. And guess what? A Spirit-like rover could have been updated to find such an airbag landed power pack as well, to extend its capabilities.

We could have saved a lot of money and done significantly more science if NASA had not walked away from these successful systems. Unfortunately, that seems to be in its genes. Saturn, Skylab, EELV, soon ISS. We at RocketsandSuch sure wish our parents were more like the American taxpayer, willing to fund new toys whenever the old ones, although working perfectly, aren't shiny enough to impress anymore.

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