Non-profit BoldlyGo space exploration program charts path to Mars and back

At the 224th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, the new non-profit BoldlyGo is set to announce an ambitious plan to send a robot Mars — and bring it back with a little souvenir.

With budgeting concerns rising for NASA, more and more private individuals and organizations are picking up some of the science and discovery that government no longer funds on its own. At the Westin Copley Place tonight, the New York City-based BoldlyGo Institute will detail how it intends to help continue that work with plans to build and launch its own scientifically-focused space missions.

Among the missions that BoldlyGo already plans to launch are a robotic there-and-back trip to Mars and a new space telescope mission for the “post-Hubble era.” The Mars trip is code-named SCIM and plans to bring back samples from the planet, while the telescope project is being called ASTRO-1.

BoldlyGo has a pretty impressive and experience board of directors filled with experienced space engineers and NASA veterans.

Led by Dr. Jon Morse, the chief executive of BoldlyGo Institute and a former director of astrophysics at NASA, the board also includes Dr. Laurie Leshin, the president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Leshin was on the science team for NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover and was the deputy center director for science and technology at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and deputy associate administrator of exploration systems at NASA headquarters.

Morse, who will be making the announcement tonight and detailing the organizations plans, said, “One of the reasons I left NASA when I did a couple of years ago is because we could see a trajectory for government funding in space sciences that was flat or declining for the rest of the decade.”

And the contributions of government-backed exploration are still vital: Yesterday, at the same meeting, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that it has discovered a “Godzilla of Earths,” made possible by NASA’s Kepler space discovery mission, a government-backed project.

While a recently revealed budget includes an increase in funds for NASA, most of the new funding is going towards plans to send astronauts to Mars. Morse said that the budget report is proof of NASA funding flat-lining. Although NASA has a multi-billion dollar budget, the space program has put an end to its shuttle mission program and is even cutting back on exploration missions. (NASA now relies heavily on Russia’s space program to send astronauts and scientists to the International Space Station.)

Morse said that he started to ask around about the possibilities of creating a privately funded space exploration project and got an immediate, positive response. “Astronomy in general has a long tradition of privately funded observatories,” he said, “and we are extending that model to space science.”

BoldlyGo’s missions are not NASA level, yet, but are only just slightly smaller in scale than mission like the Kepler, which was involved in the “Mega-Earth” announcement yesterday. The organization plans to run “discovery or probe class exploration missions, beyond the price-range of research organizations and universities,” Morse said.

Morse added that with the space industry undergoing a “transformation” with companies like SpaceX developing lower-cost capabilities for space travel, the new space science paradigm that he called NewSpace Science, is at a place where privately funded organizations will be making many more transformative discoveries.

When I asked Morse if anything similar exists, he said that no other non-profit currently exists with a focus solely on scientific discovery.

As far as the timeline for the projects, BoldlyGo is ready for its Mars SCIM material collection mission as soon as it completes its funding, with launching capabilities already scheduled within in the next six years. The ASTRO-1 telescope project is hoping to launch in a decade or so as the Hubble telescope mission is coming to an end.

Dennis Keohane was a Senior Staff Writer for BetaBoston.
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