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March 17, 2008

NASA Cuts Mars Budget, Focuses on Outer Solar System

NASA recently announced its plans for a new direction of space exploration.

Speaking at the 39th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Dr. Mike Griffin told the group of lead scientists that now is the time to re-balance the agency's priorities.

One of the most notable changes can be seen in NASA's 2009 budget request, which calls for funding cuts over the next five years for its Mars program.

The average annual budget for the period of 2009-2012 is currently set around $343m, which is just nearly half of the $620m in last year's budget estimates.

The cuts will provide more funding to explore other areas in the outer Solar System.

Over the past 10 years, NASA's Mars program has provided several successful missions with extensive science results.

In May, Phoenix is scheduled to land on the Red Planet to study Mars' "Arctic" terrain.In 2009, NASA plans to send a rover to the planet in hopes of continuing the search for signs of life.

However, Griffin referred to a recent evaluation from the US National Research Council which gave NASA an "A" for its ventures to Mars, while it received a "D" for outer planets and a "C" for research and analysis.

He announced that a major robotic mission to the outer planets was in the works. "We've rebalanced our planetary science portfolio accordingly," Dr Griffin told the conference.

"As I discussed elsewhere, we've learned more, and had more questions to answer, about the many other planets and moons in our Solar System.

"So after Mars Science Lab - the current planetary sciences flagship - we are now planning in earnest for an outer planets flagship to Europa, Titan or Ganymede."

However, some international scientists voiced concerns over agency's new direction fearing that it would set a precedent for their research as well.

"The Mars program today is at the level it is to support the Mars Science Lab, which is the planetary sciences flagship. It cannot be an entitlement that the Mars program gets a flagship and then retains, for all future time, a flagship level of funding," Griffin said.

"Now, if as an entry-level requirement to get co-operation on international missions, I am required to keep the funding of any one community at a historically high level, then I can't meet that requirement."

He also addressed the issue of NASA's future and professions for the next generation. "Don't specialize," he advised. "Specialization is for insects. Don't specialize. It's not professionally smart. I think a bold vision has to be flexible and adaptable."

Griffin, who joined NASA in the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster, was asked to comment on his greatest achievement.

"I can't grade my own paper - I have a deep ethical aversion to self-assessment," he said.

"I would like people to say that I repopulated NASA headquarters with people who were at the top of the business, rather than people whose first job in the space business was at the top."

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Photo Caption: This artist's concept depicts NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander a moment before its 2008 touchdown on the arctic plains of Mars. Pulsed rocket engines control the spacecraft's speed during the final seconds of descent. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Calech/University of Arizona

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