NASA Planetary Science Budget To Be Cut
February 10, 2012

NASA Planetary Science Budget To Be Cut

The Obama administration´s upcoming budget for NASA plans to cut $300 million out of the agency´s planetary science program, which could keep any planetary explorations, including Mars missions, grounded.

If the budget proposal is adopted by Congress, it would most likely shelve NASA´s ability to participate in two upcoming Mars missions to be carried out in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA).

But even before any cuts have been unveiled, lawmakers are vowing to fight to preserve missions to the Red Planet.

Two scientists who were briefed on the 2013 budget, due out on Monday, said NASA is eliminating the two missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018 from its protocol. NASA had agreed to pay $1.4 billion for those missions, but with a $300 million budget cut, the agency´s overall budget drops from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion for fiscal year 2013, with more budget cuts coming in the future.

The two scientists, who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss the budget, told the Associated Press (AP) that the budget cut comes from the agency´s planetary science budget alone. The Earth science budget, which stands at $1.8 billion, will not be cut, they said.

The Mars budget will be slashed by more than $200 million, more than a third of the total budget allotted, the duo said.

Edward Weiler, former head of NASA´s science mission, told the news agency that the budget cuts are “totally irrational and unjustified.” He added: “We are the only country on this planet that has the demonstrated ability to land on another planet, namely Mars. It is a national prestige issue.”

Mars “has got public appeal, it´s got scientific blessings from the National Academy,” Weiler told Seth Broen stein of the Associated Press in a phone interview from Florida. “Why would you go after it? And it fulfills the president´s space policy to encourage more foreign collaboration.”

Weiler said he quit NASA in September because he was tired of fighting to save Mars from budget cuts. He said he fought successfully to keep major cuts from Mars in the current budget, but has no firsthand knowledge of the 2013 proposed budget.

His resignation caught the space science community by surprise. But he said a big part of his leaving had to do with unsuccessful battles with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on how to accommodate the rising cost of the James Webb Space Telescope and an overall agency budget that is continuously shrinking.

Weiler retired and moved to Florida where he said he can now relax. It is much more pleasurable than locking horns with the OMB and fending off political blows from within NASA. “I'm glad to be here, a thousand miles away from the irrationality zone.”

“Consistent with the tough choices being made across the Federal government .“‰.“‰. NASA is reassessing its current Mars exploration initiatives to maximize what can be achieved scientifically, technologically and in support of our future human missions,” NASA spokesman David Weaver told Brian Vastag of the Washington Post in an email.

But Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Texas), an avid supporter of space exploration, told Vastag: “You don´t cut spending for critical scientific research endeavors that have immeasurable benefit to the nation and inspire the human spirit of exploration we all have.”

The ESA said it is already talking with the Russian space sector to fill the gap if NASA cannot fulfill its monetary commitment to the 2016 and 2018 Mars missions, known as the ExoMars program. The 2016 mission would send an orbiter and experimental lander to the Red Planet, with the primary goal of mapping sources of Martian methane. The 2018 mission would send a rover equipped with a drill and other instruments to search for evidence of past or present life on Mars.

Culberson said the House committee would continue to push for the European missions, which Congress directed the agency to study this year.

Jim Bell, an Arizona State University scientists and president of the Planetary Science who works on NASA´s Mars rover Opportunity, told Vastag: “We´re doing all this great science and taking the public along with us “¦ Pulling the rug out from under it is going to be really devastating.”

Bell said severe cutbacks in planetary science would be doubly frustrating -- first of all because “it feels like we're on the verge of making some really profound discoveries about the worlds around us. ... It´s just damn exciting, and to kick the tires out from under that would be a real tragedy.”

And second, because NASA has been looked upon as the world´s leader in space exploration. “If a proposed budget like this comes to pass, that leadership will be at risk. If we stop looking outward and start looking inward, we´re not going to be leaders anymore,” said Bell.


Image Caption: This mosaic of images taken in mid-January 2012 shows the windswept vista northward (left) to northeastward (right) from the location where NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is spending its fifth Martian winter, an outcrop informally named "Greeley Haven." Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.


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