Amidst Budget Cuts, NASA Announces New Mars Program Planning Group
February 27, 2012

Amidst Budget Cuts, NASA Announces New Mars Program Planning Group

During a time of strict budget restraints, NASA still presses on by announcing the new Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) on Monday.

NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld, named former NASA program manager Orlando Figueroa as the head of the new MPPG.

Figueroa is tasked with the job to reformulate NASA's Mars Exploration Program, which has faced budget cuts from President Barack Obama's new proposal.

Due to the new budget restraints, NASA will have to skip a planned 2016 Mars mission launch, and hope to churn up a cheap mission to the Red Planet by 2018.

Phil Christensen, a Mars researcher at Arizona State University, told The Associated Press (AP) that if Obama's budget continues to go as planned, "in essence, it is the end of the Mars program."

NASA is just a few months away from seeing its Curiosity mission land on Mars, but the price of this feat cost taxpayers $2.5 billion and was $1 billion over budget.

Alan Stern, a former NASA sciences chief, told AP that researchers are partly to blame for over-budget missions because they promise to do it cheaply, and once the mission is approved the costs start to rise.

The space agency said Figueroa will lead the scientific and technical team to develop an integrated strategy for NASA's Mars Exploration Program amidst the funding constraints.

"The program's official framework will be developed in consultation with the science community and international partners and is expected to be released for full review as early as this summer," NASA said in a press release.

NASA said MPPG will ensure that the U.S. continues to develop technical skills to achieve "the highest priority science and exploration objectives."

"We'll look at all of the assets NASA is developing to reach, explore and study Mars, as well as spacecraft at or on its way to Mars," Figueroa said.

NASA said that America's investment in exploring Mars during the past 10 years totals $6.1 billion.  Grunsfeld's job is to lead a team to help optimize a strategy of Mars exploration within available budgets.

President Obama has given the U.S. space agency a $17.7 billion budget for 2013, which was a 0.3 percent cut.

Obama originally announced two years ago that he would like to see the U.S. send astronauts to the Red Planet by the mid-2030s.

However, now with the budget cuts, and canceling a 2016 launch opportunity, Christensen told AP it's like "we've just flown Apollo 10 and now we're going to cancel the Apollo program when we're one step from landing."


Image Caption: Global view of Mars as seen by the Viking 1 orbiter in 1980, showing the Valles Marineris (center). Credit: NASA


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