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Why Mars

NASA and the Politics of Space Exploration

W. Henry Lambright

Publication Year: 2014

Mars has captured the human imagination for decades. Since NASA’s establishment in 1958, the space agency has looked to Mars as a compelling prize, the one place, beyond the Moon, where robotic and human exploration could converge. Remarkably successful with its roaming multi-billion-dollar robot, Curiosity, NASA’s Mars program represents one of the agency’s greatest achievements. Why Mars analyzes the history of the robotic Mars exploration program from its origins to today. W. Henry Lambright examines the politics and policies behind NASA's multi-decade quest, illuminating the roles of key individuals and institutions, along with their triumphs and defeats. Lambright outlines the ebbs and flows of policy evolution, focusing on critical points of change and factors that spurred strategic reorientation. He explains Mars exploration as a striking example of “big science” and describes the ways a powerful advocacy coalition—composed of NASA decision makers, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Mars academic science community, and many others—has influenced governmental decisions on Mars exploration, making it, at times, a national priority. The quest for Mars stretches over many years and involves billions of dollars. What does it take to mount and give coherence to a multi-mission, big science program? How do advocates and decision makers maintain goals and adapt their programs in the face of opposition and budgetary stringency? Where do they succeed in their strategies? Where do they fall short? Lambright’s insightful book suggests that from Mars exploration we can learn lessons that apply to other large-scale national endeavors in science and technology.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: New Series in NASA History

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-xii

In 2006, a conference took place at Syracuse University’s Minnowbrook Center in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The focus of the conference was on the “great stories” of humanity, including Greek tales such as Homer’s Odyssey. The conference organizer, Kaye Lindauer, asked me to speak about a...

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pp. 1-16

At 1:25 a.m. (EDT) on August 6, 2012, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), encased in a larger spacecraft and protected by a heat shield, hit the atmosphere of Mars. After a journey of eight months and 352 million miles, MSL embarked on what NASA called “seven minutes of terror.” In this brief span of time, MSL...

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Chapter One. The Call of Mars

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pp. 17-26

Long before NASA’s journey to Mars began, there were Mars enthusiasts who said it was a special place. For many it was a mysterious place that possessed life—thinking beings capable of creating engineering marvels that scientists on Earth could see. For others, it was a place for humans to explore. For all, it...

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Chapter Two. Beginning the Quest

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pp. 27-33

NASA began its martian quest with a long-term program called Mariner. It planned a series of increasingly challenging probes. The Apollo Moon decision indirectly helped martian advocates. Apollo raised the level of NASA funding enormously. More money overall gave more money to Mariner. Mars enthusiasts...

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Chapter Three. Leaping Forward

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pp. 34-53

In 1965, even as NASA and its Mars constituency celebrated the success of Mariner 4, they thought ahead to what would come next. “Next” meant not only next in the line of Mariner projects, but the beginning of a new program called Voyager. Not to be confused with an interplanetary Voyager, launched in the...

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Chapter Four. Searching for Life

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pp. 54-69

The shuttle decision provided a measure of stability for the agency. However, there were still annual budget fights between NASA and the Office of Management and Budget, and Fletcher was clear about his need to protect Viking, NASA’s top priority after the shuttle.1 Fletcher’s personal interest in Viking was...

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Chapter Five. Struggling to Restart

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pp. 70-89

Viking had failed! At least that was what many critics believed. NASA knew better. There was much that Viking contributed in new knowledge about Mars. But the agency and the Mars community were deeply disappointed on the life front, the central purpose of the mission. In the wake of Viking, NASA debated...

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Chapter Six. Moving Up the Agenda

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pp. 90-110

The Mars Observer project kept Mars exploration alive in the mid- and late 1980s, but not in a manner that Mars advocates desired. Within NASA’s Science Directorate, Mars policy fell to Briggs, the planetary director, as superiors concentrated on other matters. Briggs found little support for going beyond...

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Chapter Seven. Prioritizing Mars

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pp. 111-127

The year 1992 began reasonably well for NASA from a White House budgetary standpoint. The president called for a 4.5% raise for the agency. Space science in particular was augmented, with a 9% increase.1 Congress, however, was less interested in giving NASA more funds and ordered the Science Directorate to...

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Chapter Eight. Accelerating Mars Sample Return

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pp. 128-147

As 1996 got under way, NASA found itself pressed between the Republican Congress and President Clinton, as they fought over the federal budget. This bitter struggle had led to the government’s shutting down in 1995 because of an inability to get a budget bill passed to keep it running. That shutdown was...

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Chapter Nine. Overreaching, Rethinking

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pp. 148-167

As 1999 began, NASA surged forward. NASA now planned an advanced rover, the kind analogous to one first discussed after Viking, which would traverse great distances and aid in identifying and collecting soil and rock samples. The sample would be reclaimed later and returned for analysis in Earth laboratories...

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Chapter Ten. Adopting “Follow the Water”

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pp. 168-187

Formulated at the end of the Clinton administration, the new “follow-the-water” Mars Exploration Program was adopted under President GeorgeW. Bush. The question at the conclusion of the Clinton years for Mars advocates was whether the political consensus favoring Mars would hold. Aiding in the transition to a...

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Chapter Eleven. Implementing amidst Conflict

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pp. 188-224

Implementation of the Mars Exploration Program, elevated to a more favored basis, and projected to grow substantially by O’Keefe, ran into an unfavorable environment soon after he left. On March 11, 2005, the White House announced that Michael Griffin would be replacing O’Keefe. Age 56, Griffin was a lifelong...

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Chapter Twelve. Attempting Alliance

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pp. 225-243

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became president, and Congress tilted more dramatically in the Democrats’ favor than was the case under Bush. With economic crisis at home and wars abroad, Obama had many priorities. Space policy did not appear to rank high on his agenda, although he extolled Apollo...

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Chapter Thirteen. Landing on Mars and Looking Ahead

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pp. 244-256

As 2012 got under way, the Mars program was in limbo. The ambitious joint program with ESA was dead, and the National Research Council scientists’ goal of Mars Sample Return apparently gone with it. The Mars Science Laboratory landing was scheduled for August, and that mission had stakes not only for...

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pp. 257-274

Mars has always been the compelling prize in exploration for most space enthusiasts. For many involved in the space program, from von Braun’s time to today, the dream that has galvanized them has been that of landing human beings on the Red Planet. Fulfilling that dream lies ahead. The reality that has marked...


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pp. 275-308


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pp. 309-320

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9781421412801
E-ISBN-10: 1421412802
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421412795
Print-ISBN-10: 1421412799

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: New Series in NASA History

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Space flight to Mars.
  • Mars (Planet) -- Exploration.
  • Astronautics and state -- United States.
  • United States -- Politics and government.
  • United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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