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How NASA Kept MAVEN’s Launch Date During The Government Shutdown

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft sits on an Atlas 5 rocket on Nov. 17, 2013, the day before its launch window opened. Shot taken at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft sits on an Atlas 5 rocket on Nov. 17, 2013, the day before its launch window opened. Shot taken at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

As NASA Social attendees gather for NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft’s date with space today, NASA administrator Charles Bolden recalled that time in October when it looked like MAVEN may have had to lose its launch window for two years because of the government shutdown.

“It was a very complicated process that we were engaged in, back in Washington, where the term used was ‘accepted activity’,” Bolden said in an interview with Universe Today.

For launch preparations to proceed during that 16-day shutdown, Bolden and other officials engaged in the mission needed to make the case that MAVEN was vital. The mission’s science focus, examining the atmosphere of Mars and tracking down the planet’s lost water, is usually what is talked about when justifying its activities to the public.

It was a different argument, however, that got MAVEN’s launch preparations on track: “imminent risk to life or property,” Bolden said, specifically with regard to its role in sending huge data files from the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers on the surface (as well as the forthcoming Mars 2020 rover, if that gets off the ground.)

Opportunity rover’s 1st mountain climbing goal is dead ahead in this up close view of Solander Point along the eroded rim of Endeavour Crater.  Opportunity will soon ascend the mountain in search of minerals signatures indicative of a past Martian habitable environment.  This navcam panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3385 (Aug 2, 2013).  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Opportunity rover’s 1st mountain climbing goal is dead ahead in this up close view of Solander Point along the eroded rim of Endeavour Crater. Opportunity will soon ascend the mountain in search of minerals signatures indicative of a past Martian habitable environment. This navcam panoramic mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 3385 (Aug 2, 2013). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

“If we had lost the opportunity to launch MAVEN, we had to slip another two-year period of time, and during that period of time it was likely that the current communications relays working on Mars would die because the ones that were there were over their current design lifetime,” Bolden said, referring to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey.

Launch work was halted for a couple of days, and then more time had to be spent bringing the crew back in to prepare the spacecraft, but Bolden said the parties involved were able to “make it up without any major problem.” Other programs, however, took a hit. Bolden said there has been a loss in confidence in NASA workers getting the Orion human spacecraft and next-generation Space Launch System ready for a crewed mission late this decade. Bolden cites Orion as a stepping stone for NASA’s dream of sending astronauts away from Earth, including Mars missions.

“The biggest impact, to be quite honest, was not on the program but on the people,” he said. “Their attitude towards working in the government is they’re very proud of what they do, they know they do an exceptional job, and they felt the Congress — at the time — didn’t have respect for what we do. We’re spending a lot of time now trying to repair some … morale.”

New Horizons

Artist’s conception of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. Amid tighter budgets, NASA is focusing on Mars and causing concern from some planetary scientists that new missions to the outer solar system are being neglected. Credit: NASA

Another one of Bolden’s tasks these days is to allay concerns in the planetary science community that the focus on Mars may be coming at a detriment to the outer planets. NASA’s planetary science budget took a big hit in fiscal 2013 and some critics say the agency’s focus now is on developing Mars missions over those to the other planets.

“My response has been, and continues to be, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to figure out better ways” for the planetary science community to participate, Bolden said.

Characterizing the multi-billion dollar missions such as Cassini as “a thing of the past,” Bolden said the agency is now looking at creating missions that are smaller, but more technologically advanced than the behemoth missions NASA used to send when its budgets weren’t quite so tight. He added that he feels the smaller missions could still accomplish the objectives of the larger ones.

Saturn and its rings, as seen from above the planet by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Assembled by Gordan Ugarkovic.

Saturn and its rings, as seen from above the planet by the Cassini spacecraft that is currently at the ringed planet. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Assembled by Gordan Ugarkovic.

“I would hope that the scientific community … will help us define ways that we can design and build satellites that we can fly on a more frequent basis, that cost us a little less money, so you end up getting the same amount — if not more — of data,” Bolden said. He also cited more frequent missions as a boon to inspiring younger students for science, since the big missions might have a gap of 10 or more years between them.

Bolden, a former astronaut, commanded the STS-45 mission in in 1992 that did Earth atmospheric science of its own using the payload ATLAS-1. “I think I have bored the Mars atmospheric scientists to death relating it to what we’re hoping to do with MAVEN in the upper atmosphere,” he joked, but added the science is somewhat related.

NASA hopes MAVEN will help scientists better understand “what happened with the upper atmosphere of Mars that went it to go from green and fertile, to where it is today — a cold, icy planet,” he said. “In doing so, we hope we’ll learn about our own planet.”

MAVEN’s launch window opens at 1:38 p.m. EST (6:38 p.m. UTC) today (Nov. 18). The only major issue NASA was working at the time of the interview (roughly 6 a.m. EST, or 1 p.m. UTC) was weather, which was only 60% go, Bolden said.

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Heather Wallace November 20, 2013, 12:35 PM

    this water on mars hype is nothing new.. yet for some odd reason we had to send MAVEN to check it out. Nothing at all to do with Mars having a coma now. Right smh

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