If humanity is truly outbound, it will likely take bold steps derived as much from the incremental advances pioneered by Morpheus and other modestly funded test programs as Curiosity's “Sky Crane.” In concert, they will usher the first human explorers to the doorstep of carefully selected Martian landing sites and quite likely other alien destinations along the way.
“Morpheus is currently not configured for a specific mission, so the landing approach is not directly comparable,” notes Jon Olansen, its NASA project manager. “However, the concept of an approach using Alhat components would enable identification and targeting of sufficiently safe landing sites within an area that currently would be considered too hazardous to be accessible.”
So, while Curiosity touched down an impressive 2.4 km (1.5 mi.) from its target, the rover is weeks from reaching the base of Mount Sharp, the hoped-for reservoir of information about the planet's environmental past.
Morpheus and Alhat would place explorers just footsteps away, in essence.
So, what's available to nurture the next steps?
NASA's flat (or worse) budget outlook, a matter under review by the agency's Mars Program Planning Group, reflects a much-publicized decreasing planetary science line. Mars spending drops from $587 million this year to $360 million in fiscal 2013 and less for at least three notional budget cycles beyond.
Morpheus, meanwhile, is one of 20 Advanced Exploration Systems projects nested within NASA's Human Exploration Operations Directorate. AES spending doubled to $142 million for fiscal 2012. But it awaits a less-publicized decrease to $109 million annually for the foreseeable future.
“Given our philosophy, we try to test early and often, learn from tests rather than try to do everything through analysis and reach the point where each test is so expensive you cannot fail,” explains Olansen. “In order to do that, you have to be lean and hardware-rich.”
The 40-member Morpheus team, drawn largely from NASA's shuttle, space station and Constellation ranks, intends to assemble a second lander from spare components largely in hand.
Early data from the crash investigation points to the loss of inertial measurement unit (IMU) data within the first second of flight. A NASA video shows Morpheus rising, minus the Alhat avionics, rolling quickly as if blind, then plummeting to the ground 8 sec. later.