Embarrassed by two recent launch failures, NASA might have to conserve its resources by developing a less diverse array of space missions to Mars, a high-ranking space agency scientist says.
"If we have another failure, the (Mars) program may be at its end," researcher Daniel J. McCleese said in an unusually blunt speech Tuesday at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
"The complexity of the program has got us by the neck ... Look at how many vehicles we're trying to develop simultaneously," said McCleese, chief scientist of the Mars program at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "The scope of the (planned) vehicles is huge."
In recent years, NASA has launched an all-out robotic assault on Mars and tried to develop numerous small, low-cost, innovative missions to the red planet. To illustrate the sheer complexity of NASA's ambitions, McCleese pointed at a slide projection listing the planned Mars fleet.
The full-page list includes "landers" that will explore the surface of the planet and "rovers" that will roll around on wheels, "sniffing" the chemical composition of rocks and transmitting TV pictures to Earth.
The list includes "orbiters" that will orbit Mars to monitor weather conditions and survey mineral resources, "sample return" flights that will land, scoop up rocks and haul them back to Earth and "Scouts" that would land at specific sites to investigate narrowly defined phenomena. And there are others.
Given a tight budget and limited staff, it's hard for NASA to build so many different devices and launch them at the originally planned frequency, McCleese said. He echoed concerns about NASA's Mars program expressed by a recent study panel chaired by former Lockheed Martin executive Tom Young.
Hence NASA might have to narrow its near-term goals for Mars exploration, McCleese said: "A focused program is more likely to succeed than a broad-brush program."
In September and December, NASA lost two highly touted probes launched to Mars. Both disappeared while nearing the planet the first mainly because of space agency teams' failure to convert between English and metric units, the second for reasons that remain under investigation.
The twin failures have spurred charges, both inside and outside NASA, that the space agency is trying to do too much too fast, and with too little money and staff. As a result, NASA chief Daniel Goldin is investigating ways to revamp the Mars program.