Space scientist at NASA helped get the U.S. back on the road to Mars

space exploration
The ‘Mars czar’ tells how he got us there
“Exploring Mars,” University of Arizona Press

Mars is hard. Getting there is hard, landing there is hard — and negotiating the corridors of power in Washington to fund a long-term exploration program is even harder.

In 1999, NASA lost two Mars-bound spacecraft; one due to a math error, the other because the spacecraft had not been properly tested. With the Mars program in tatters, Dan Golding, the agency’s administrator at the time, summoned a technical wizard and longtime space scientist, Scott Hubbard, to save it.

Over six months, “Mars czar” Hubbard and his crew designed an ambitious 10-year program to “follow the water,” search for past or present life, and prepare for an eventual mission to haul Mars rocks back to Earth.

The plan was a radical departure for NASA: Instead of one-off missions, the agency would launch a sustained campaign, flying spacecraft every two years when Earth and Mars were properly aligned. The plan alternated orbiters, to scout the planet, and landers, to scour its surface.

Hubbard called it the “ladder to Mars.” And it worked, with five successful missions. A sixth, the two-ton Curiosity rover, is now in transit for an August arrival.

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The campaign revealed an unknown Mars where water once flowed — and still might — and ice lies buried near the poles, a place where conditions favorable for life likely existed for a billion years or more. While life on Mars has not been found, the string of discoveries has edged the needle closer and closer. And each mission took the public along for the ride, beaming every rock and crater onto the screens of space fans everywhere.

Hubbard’s new book, “Exploring Mars: Chronicles From a Decade of Discovery,” details NASA’s Mars renaissance as Hubbard organizes scientists, whips engineering teams into shape and gamely dives into policy battles with congressional staffers and White House budget-cutters.

By the end of 2000, after nearly a year of trying to launch the campaign, Hubbard writes, “I was beginning to feel like I had been sucked into a nightmare version of Risk or Stratego . . . where we moved cool game pieces around a board trying to feel powerful and grown up.” But Hubbard played this game expertly, securing sustained funding for the effort.

Now retired from NASA, Hubbard is working as a professor at Stanford University. With budget pressure squeezing the agency’s Mars plans once again — after an orbiter named Maven launches in 2013, no more missions are in the works — space fans who read “Exploring Mars” might just launch their own campaign: Maybe they can bring the first Mars czar back for a second tour of duty.

Brian Vastag

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