Neil deGrasse Tyson hails Mars mission and Nasa ‘hits a home run’

Astrophysicist says one-year Mars simulation ‘nailed’ on return trip as John Grunsfeld calls team ‘mediocre’ but wrong choice

Neil deGrasse Tyson has praised the latest piece of NASA science: a mission to Mars, dubbing it a “badass move” that may even help make humanity a “super species”.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson calls Mars mission ‘most important piece of NASA in generations’ Read more

The space agency last week launched its InSight mission, aiming to study the deep interior of Mars in an attempt to better understand how rocky planets form.

Its mission is split into two years, with the first phase, called the entry, descent and landing phase, set to start next Monday.

That phase involves the crew of six astronauts from the US, Germany and France working for one year on a lander stationed on the Red Planet, before the two year mission begins in November 2020.

“For better or worse, I think that experiment nailed it,” Tyson said on Monday’s episode of the American TV show StarTalk Radio, as reported by the Guardian.

“It ain’t perfect but it nailed it and that’s more than we can say for our work over these many decades of planetary science in this country,” he said.

“It proves two things: 1) You don’t need $10bn to do Earth exploration, and 2) You don’t need a lot of money to send people to Mars.”

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on the first anniversary of the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy space rocket. Photograph: Jeremy Bloom/AP

InSight has been described as the “nail in the coffin” to an ambitious programme by US President Donald Trump, who is set to unveil his budget plans for Nasa in the coming weeks.

Funding has come under renewed scrutiny, in part due to the ballooning costs of the agency’s human spaceflight program, which is currently overseen by the same director as it was last year – former Lockheed Martin engineer Jim Bridenstine.

“He’s not the right person to run this programme,” says Tyson, likening Bridenstine to one of his favourite fictional astronauts.

“He seems to be a very partisan individual. I wouldn’t call him an independent.”

John Grunsfeld, Nasa’s associate administrator for science, likened the work done on InSight to another big event.

“What happens when we send these kinds of science missions on long journeys is that we get to the end and you look at the data from that mission and you kind of go, ‘Man, I’m kinda dumbfounded. What the hell have we been doing?’”

Grunsfeld said that with InSight, the team had decided to split the mission in two. “They understood they would have to break it into the yearlong mission and then the 20-month mission.”

But Grunsfeld added that though he believed InSight was a “fine mission”, he wasn’t sure that its Curiosity rover – currently on Mars – had succeeded in its return journey.

“The one is finished and you can’t mess with the one, because you’ve got a spacecraft on Mars. The question is, was Curiosity derailed for it’s return trip? It could well be, because there was some pretty good engineering to its flight plan and certainly there were all the requirements of the coming lander to ensure a hitch-free flight home.”

John Grunsfeld, Nasa associate administrator for science, says the return journey of the Curiosity rover was ‘possible, but the more interesting question is: was Curiosity derailed for it’s return trip’. Photograph: Pete Souza/Nasa

The Curiosity team received their data back last Friday and believe it’s still intact.

“This is one of the, if not the, best data sets that we have ever seen from a rover at Mars,” Grunsfeld said.

The director of Nasa’s science mission directorate, Michael Gazarik, said its next step was to move on to the robot’s future.

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