In its budget submitted to Congress on February 13, the Obama administration zeroed out funding for NASA’s future Mars-exploration missions. The Mars Science Lab Curiosity, currently en route to the Red Planet and the nearly completed small MAVEN orbiter, scheduled for launch in 2013, will be sent, but that’s it. No funding has been provided for the Mars probes planned as joint missions in 2016 and 2018 with the European Space Agency, and nothing after that is funded either. This poses a grave crisis for the American space program.
NASA’s Mars-exploration effort has been brilliantly successful because, since 1994, it has been approached as a campaign, with probes launched every two years, alternating between orbiters and landers. As a result, combined operations have been possible, with orbiters providing communication links and reconnaissance guidance for surface rovers, which in turn can conduct investigations on the ground to verify and calibrate orbital observations. Thus, the great treks of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003, were supported from above by Mars Global Surveyor (MGS, launched in1996), Mars Odyssey (launched in 2001), and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO, launched in 2005). But after serving ten years in orbit, MGS is now no longer operating, and if we wait until the 2020s to resume Mars exploration, the rest of the orbiters will be gone as well. Moreover, so will be the experienced teams that created them. Effectively, the whole program will be completely wrecked, and we will have to start again from scratch.
Furthermore, if the administration’s cuts are allowed to prevail, we will not only destroy America’s Mars-exploration program, but derail that of our European allies as well. The 2016 and 2018 missions have been planned as a NASA/ESA joint project, with the Europeans contributing over $1 billion to the effort. But if America betrays its commitment, the European supporters of Mars explorations will be left high and dry, and the partnership and both missions will be lost.
America’s human-spaceflight program is currently completely adrift. Unless it is reorganized as a mission-driven directorate committed to efficiently achieving important objectives within a meaningful timeframe — like the Mars program has been — it may well prove to be indefensible in the face of the oncoming fiscal tsunami. But the Mars program is defensible. It has real and rational objectives, reasonable costs, and a terrific track record of success. It can and must be saved.
There is no justification for the proposed cuts. The U.S. federal government may be going broke, but it’s not because of NASA. Since 2008, federal spending has increased 40 percent, but NASA spending has remained the same. Trillions of dollars in out-of-control entitlement spending cannot be remedied by cuts in NASA, or even in the entire discretionary budget, defense included. Rather, the financial bleeding needs to be staunched where the hole is, and nowhere else.
The Mars program is not being terminated to make funds available for future missions to other planets. In fact, there is no money in the Obama plan to fund any of them, either.
In any case, cost is not the issue. With the Europeans putting up their share, a matching $1 billion contribution from NASA spread over the next six years would be sufficient to fund both the 2016 and 2018 missions at a level of a billion dollars each. This would require less than 1 percent of NASA’s current budget. There is no excuse for not doing this.
Indeed, what is truly remarkable about the Obama administration’s NASA management is that it has managed to wreck both the human-spaceflight program and the robotic planetary-exploration effort without saving any money. In 2008, NASA spending was $17.4 billion; this year’s budget is $17.7 billion. Yet in 2008, NASA was running an active space-shuttle program, preparing for the critical mission to save the Hubble Space Telescope, developing systems for returning astronauts to the moon by 2019, building the Curiosity and MAVEN Mars probes, and planning an orbiter for Jupiter’s moon Europa. Today the shuttles are gone, the moon program is gone, and this decade’s Mars and Jupiter probes are gone — all without saving a nickel. In terms of damage done per dollar cut, it may be a world record.