The NRC report cites loss of an entire generation of scientists and technical ability in the affected disciplines, along with erosion of national capabilities and leadership. It spotlights aerocapture as an at-risk capability.
That technique, which dips a vehicle approaching from Earth into a planet's atmosphere to slow it enough to go into orbit, could be useful at Mars in the future. Yet the panel found NASA's draft science plan did not link the proposed Mars 2020 mission—essentially a replay of the Curiosity-rover exploration using as much hardware from that program as possible—to the decadal priorities set by a survey of planetary scientists.
At the same time, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) mission (see illustration), launched Nov. 18, may hold a key to solving some of the problems the NRC found NASA has not addressed. That mission was organized and managed by Principal Investigator (PI) Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado. The NRC panel faulted the draft science plan for slighting the approach in mission planning across NASA's four space-science disciplines—astronomy and astrophysics, planetary science, heliophysics and Earth Science.
“[S]mall-/medium-size PI-led missions [have the potential] to provide a steady stream of new science results at a time when the possibilities for implementing new large missions is severely limited,” the panel states.
So far Maven is on track to stay within its $671 million budget cap, an achievement Jakosky attributes to his willingness to avoid “requirements creep” by adding instruments and engineering capabilities beyond what is needed for its focused mission to study the interaction of the Martian atmosphere and the Sun (AW&ST Aug. 26, p. 40).
A NASA spokesman says the agency requested and respects NRC's opinions and “will review their findings and recommendations over the next several weeks and revise the plan where appropriate” before releasing the final version in February.