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Obama Administration Proposes Big Cuts to NASA’s Mars Programs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Artist's conception of ExoMars mission, from which NASA has withdrawn. Credit: ESA

NASA just released its presidential budget request for 2013 and, as expected, the space agency’s planetary science program takes a big hit. The budget document (summary pdf) is merely the first volley in an often drawn-out exchange between the White House and Congress, but still sets the general direction for the space program. Although the Obama administration’s proposal would slice less than 1 percent from NASA’s current budget, it proposes some major shifts of funds within the agency.

The planetary science program, which received $1.5 billion for 2012, would take a 20 percent cut. NASA would still fly the Mars MAVEN atmospheric mission in 2013 but would back away from two joint missions with the European Space Agency:

NASA is terminating further activity on the formulation activity for the NASA/ ESA ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter 2016 (EMTGO) mission and planning for the previous NASA/ESA Mars 2018 mission concept.

The latter mission would have included the first direct search for life on Mars since the Viking landers of the 1970s. With NASA bailing out, ESA is now casting around for another partner.

The planetary science community has seen this coming for some time now. In September, a group of 18 prominent planetary scientists signed an open letter warning that the James Webb Space Telescope (NASA’s costly, complex planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope) was eating up funds previously earmarked for planetary missions. Ed Weiler, who had been NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, resigned in September, partly in protest over the impending cuts. “The Mars program is one of the crown jewels of NASA,” Weiler told Science. “In what irrational, Homer Simpson world would we single it out for disproportionate cuts?”

The Webb telescope is indeed taking an ever larger slice of a slowly shrinking pie. Under the proposal, it would get $627.6 million for 2013, up from $518.6 million in 2012 and $476.8 million in 2011. An even more dramatic boost, albeit one outside the NASA sector that includes planetary science and the Webb telescope, would go to programs that stimulate the commercial spaceflight industry. The Obama administration wants private firms such as SpaceX and Boeing to launch future U.S. astronauts to orbit, a job that has traditionally been NASA’s. With the retirement of the space shuttle, the next time NASA astronauts lift off from U.S. soil they will likely do so as paying customers on commercially operated rockets. The president asked for $829.7 million for commercial spaceflight for 2013, more than double what those programs received in 2012.

The details of NASA’s final budget will take months to work out, but it looks as if the agency’s next stab at looking for life on Mars will hit the NASA scrapheap, joining other once-promising missions such as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna and the Space Interferometry Mission as victims of the current budget morass.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. geojellyroll 4:22 pm 02/13/2012

    Wake up folks. This is nothing compared to what will come. Obama announced a 1.3 TRILLION deficit this year. Yes TRILLION. The Piggy bank is stuffed with IOUs. Nothing is about to change in the decades to come except even more stifling interest payments.

    Reality check: Space exploration will be via China and ‘possibly’ private enterprise if it can lure tens of billions(with little prospect of a return).

    Link to this
  2. 2. sjn 5:23 pm 02/13/2012

    As long as the scientific community maintains it’s silence about the overall composition of the US R&D budget – with nearly 80% of the R&D funding in the physical sciences going to the military – it’s programs, like every other socially useful program will continue to be sacrificed to a sacred military colossus.

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  3. 3. Spiritbro77 5:35 pm 02/13/2012

    Explain to me how we have 1.5 billion dollars to GIVE to Egypt this year, but we don’t have 1.5 billion dollars to give to NASA for planetary exploration? We are ceding space to the Chinese and paying for their space program in interest payments on money that at least partially goes to others. We try to buy friends with money we borrow from China and that always ends badly, while our own people suffer and we fall behind in education and the space race. Yet we have plenty to give to those that hate us and to maintain troops in Korea and Okinawa. Hello Mr. President. You want to make cuts? Cut foreign aid to everyone until we’re in the black. Cut the 1.5 billion you’re giving to Egypt this year and give it back to NASA. Cut our troop deployment in countries we fought in over fifty years ago and get our manned space program back on track.

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  4. 4. Savamerica 5:59 pm 02/13/2012

    Ron can fix it!!
    Ron Paul for President!!!!

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  5. 5. geojellyroll 6:31 pm 02/13/2012

    spirit: “Cut the 1.5 billion you’re giving to Egypt this year and give it back to NASA’

    No, cut the 1.5 billion and don’t spend it at all.Tthe country owes 15 trillion dollars. Shuffling money around does nothing to address over spending. Every interest group feels it is worthy of that same 1.5 billion.

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  6. 6. mbdsta 7:17 pm 02/13/2012

    “Explain to me how we have 1.5 billion dollars to GIVE to Egypt this year, but we don’t have 1.5 billion dollars to give to NASA for planetary exploration?”

    I haven’t talked to the President about this yet, but let me give it a shot: “$1.5 billion spent ON EARTH in a country CURRENTLY in the midst of political and social upheaval that can and will affect the U.S. immediately might actually mean something. $1.5 billion spent on MAYBE getting to Mars sometime in the next decade to see where they filmed Total Recall is relatively meaningless in the real world, except to the people funded by the $1.5 billion.”

    How’s that?

    Can’t wait to hear the GOP’s new rallying cry “The President is waging war against our interplanetary freedoms!”

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  7. 7. alan6302 7:43 pm 02/13/2012

    kill NASA and give a tax credit for a private mission to mars

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  8. 8. geojellyroll 7:45 pm 02/13/2012

    Actually 1.5 billion to Egypt may be an investment in not having a potential multi billion or trillion dollar war down the road. 9/11 knocked more capital (investment) off the stock market that the total US defense budget.

    Personally think military and foreign policy spending is way too high but spending on the security of the USA has to be whatever it needs to be…it’s the main reason the Federal government is there.

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  9. 9. r0b3m4n 7:53 pm 02/13/2012

    There is no point in cutting federal spending and saving that 1.5B to pay down our debts.

    “Democracy dies as soon as people realize they can vote themselves money” (I loved that $600 tax return Bush gave all us middle to poor people – shows you how worthless money really is.)

    Every democracy is doomed to fail. What is the longest standing democracy in histroy? The good old USA, Since 1776. How many democratic countries are debt free today? Not many… 75% of the US national debt is owed domestically – mostly to the wealthy and large corporations. Who in turn get tax and grants and other advantages from the govt. So they are loaning the govt money, which the govt later gave back to them in a different form and we still have the original outstanding loan plus interest, it’s a reciprocating cycle of debt where the govt takes from the poor and gives to the rich. This cycle is doomed to fail once the poor get wise, eventually… So who cares if the wealthy never get paid back? Only those with gov’t bonds (sorry grandma but I told you to sell those a long time ago) in their 401K’s get really screwed, and perhaps I am having to classify you as the “wealthy” since your children all owe a stupid amount of money because of your actions/inactions.

    So what to do with the 1.5B? The best possible thing for humanity at this point is to get humans off this planet and self sufficient else where’s too. Saving 1000′s of lifes in Egypt is meaningless if their are doomed to die in 5 years from a comet. I would place my bets on the teraforming astroids and moons. IMO Mars is too big a place to start and can’t be sustainably occupied soon enough. But large astroids piled up on eachother and placed just right… Well that alteast has a chance. It’s time we start abusing things that are economically free in our environment and that are outside of earth. Who gives a crap about debt when humanity is on the brink? Not I…

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  10. 10. Whammer2 8:59 pm 02/13/2012

    Such “useless” scientific knowledge is regarded as valueless by the “anything for a profit” corporate culture that is coming to dominate western (U.S. and Europe) economic society now.
    Of course, this mindless preocupation on profit is really self-destructive…but no one in corporate society dares to get off the treadmill…like rats running on a spinning whell going nowhere.
    This is just another spasm in the death throes of mindless Capitalisim.
    “The Machine Stops”…that’s the title from an old Science Fiction story. And now, the Machine is indeed stopping.

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  11. 11. Whammer2 9:03 pm 02/13/2012

    That should have been wheel not whell…but how do you edit typos once you post?

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  12. 12. Spiritbro77 1:56 pm 02/14/2012

    So you guys think we can BUY Egypt’s friendship? It’s working great so far, as they now have 19 Americans held hostage, ready for “trial”. Everyone in that region hates us, they will continue to hate us no matter how much money we throw down that hole. As a matter of fact, I can pretty much guarantee they will use that 1.5 billion on weapons they will turn around and point at US. Better to just leave the crazies alone.

    If we’re not going to properly fund NASA then shut the damned doors. Leave space to the Chinese and the Russians. Obviously Communism IS winning. I can’t wait to look up at the weapons platforms they build over our heads and know we no longer have the ability to do a damned thing about it. We should probably stop teaching Math and Science in schools as well. Wouldn’t want to fill our kids heads with such things.

    If we can no longer afford a space program, then ADMIT that and close the doors on the entire enterprise. NASA, JPL, all of our observatories etc. END science in America once and for all.

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  13. 13. raccman 2:49 pm 02/14/2012

    Of course they want to drastically cut the funding ! They want to destroy any and all U.S. superiority in anything – and everything !
    Hence the emasculation of our Military, the ruination of our economy, and the gradual destruction of our democratic Republican form of government ! Like it or not our greatest Enemies are from WITHIN ! We may well not survive another
    Obama term in office as president – as a democracy !

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  14. 14. Spiritbro77 3:43 pm 02/14/2012

    The one word I wanted to hear out of ANY candidate this election season was PRIORITIES. I really wanted to hear a politician admit that we can no longer be everything to everyone. That as a nation we needed to embrace that reality and decide what our priorities are. Not ONE politician has had the guts to do so. Each one “really believes in the greatness of America” and believes we should continue to “lead the world”. Why? Hell, why do we WANT to be the “leader of the free world”? It doesn’t put money in our pockets or jobs in our factories. It in fact does exactly the opposite.

    Priorities…. we NEED some from Washington right on down to our local governments.

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  15. 15. N a g n o s t i c 2:14 pm 02/19/2012

    I’m so glad I’m old enough to remember the glory days of NASA and to have shared with many others dreams of future glories, yet sad that I’m young enough to have witnessed NASA’s long decline and the demise of those dreams.
    Oh well. It was cool while it lasted.

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  16. 16. Xudisa 9:59 am 02/20/2012

    The ‘money needed’ is not the issue we have technology, electricity (in the air), light (from the sun), fields of farming, come on what does “Gold” do? I think it’s society breeding that is all, come on don’t fork out the truth because you know we’re here on Earth while you dips are dipping on the lunar eclipse?

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