At the end of this pathway lies, of course, the goal of human exploration of Mars. Unless some other target becomes so enticing as to replace it, Mars remains the Holy Grail of human spaceflight. Components of Curiosity's mission, specifically the radiation detection instrument, are critical tools for continuing to develop a realistic mission plan for reaching the red planet. The 2020 rover will return even more data critical to human survival en-route to, and on, Mars. It may also test in-situ resource utilization strategies, depending on the final instrument and experiment selections. Of course, a sample return would provide a bounty of information about how the surface environment can be utilized and made safe for human explorers.
But this is all far in the future. Robotic exploration must precede any crewed missions. And with ever-tightening budgets and competing priorities, the Mars exploration program must remain clever, nimble and innovative to stay on course. Whatever the new designs may entail, you can be sure that the designers, researchers and engineers at JPL will come up with new, and very likely, startling methods to cope with the challenges of continued exploration of the red planet. The spirit of innovation, both in incremental and disruptive terms, is alive and well as we prepare to head off, once again, to rove Mars.
Rod Pyle is a space author and documentary producer. He led leadership training at NASA's Johnson Space Center for its top executives and has written extensively about space exploration and organizational principles. Pyle's latest book is "Innovation the NASA Way: Harnessing the Power of Your Organization for Breakthrough Success " (McGraw-Hill, 2014). He contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
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