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Mars Attacked: Planetary Scientists Vent Frustrations over Proposed Budget Cuts

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Mars rover tracks

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

THE WOODLANDS, Texas—Planetary scientists, usually an affable lot, are plenty riled up at the moment.

The field is bristling at cutbacks, proposed last month by the Obama administration, to planetary science and especially to NASA’s program of robotic Mars explorers. Researchers gathered here for the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference have taken turns railing against the cuts, in scientific lectures, in conference center hallways and in open meetings with NASA management. One NASA official, having briefed a group of scientists on one facet of the budgetary outlook, joked about needing a Kevlar flak jacket for his talk.

In the budget proposed by Obama for the 2013 fiscal year (pdf), NASA’s planetary science division would lose more than $300 million compared with the previous year. The bulk of that would come from Mars exploration. If Congress agrees to the Obama plan for NASA, the Mars exploration program would lose roughly $225 million, a cut of more than 38 percent. (Some members of Congress have already protested the cuts; NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will appear before a House subcommittee this week to discuss the budget.)

The impacts of the proposed budget are already being felt—NASA has announced that it will withdraw from joint Mars missions in 2016 and 2018 with the European Space Agency (ESA). Jim Green, head of NASA’s planetary science division, acknowledged during a NASA forum that the international partnership would need some repair. “We need to build back their confidence,” he said of ESA. “We want to regain their trust.”

The proposal carries an extra sting because NASA’s Mars program has been among the agency’s most productive enterprises of late, both in terms of science and public relations, thanks to missions such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Phoenix lander and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. “Why indeed are we having a 38 percent cut in the Mars program?” asked James Head of Brown University during a lecture. “Have we been too successful?”

The latest mission, the behemoth Curiosity rover now en route to Mars, was beset by budgetary overruns and launch delays. But John Grunsfeld, head of NASA’s Science Directorate, said during the NASA forum that the cuts were not punitive. Rather, he said, the agency was faced with a flat overall budget and increasing costs in certain other sectors that had to be offset elsewhere.

“The fact that the planetary budget—I think I’m not supposed to say ‘got whacked’—the fact that the NASA planetary budget took such a big hit was really a result of those tough priority settings,” Grunsfeld said. He added that it was not possible to link the planetary science cuts directly to gains elsewhere at NASA. “There really weren’t trades from one division to another,” he said.

But that is unlikely to satisfy some planetary scientists, who see an increasing share of NASA’s science budget going to other projects, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, which is years behind schedule and already well over budget. Now it is clear that planetary science will have to pay, however indirectly, for pricy programs elsewhere at NASA.

“Instead of maintaining NASA’s strengths by spreading the small amount of budget pain evenly among the agency’s projects and programs, they decided to single out planetary science for a massively disproportionate budget cut,” Jim Bell of Arizona State University in Tempe, president of the board of directors for the nonprofit Planetary Society, said during a question-and-answer session following Grunsfeld and Green’s briefing. “And within planetary science, to single out one of our nation’s most successful programs, the Mars program, for the lion’s share of the cuts. I don’t know, personally, what compels such hostility toward what’s been NASA’s singularly most successful endeavor in the past several decades.”

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. Forsythkid 4:24 pm 03/20/2012

    What better way to subdue a populace than by taking away any sense of vision or purpose.

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  2. 2. egk 4:49 pm 03/20/2012

    We all should get screaming mad when you realize that the $225 million is about what we waste every 19 hours on the miserable Afghanistan misadventure.

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  3. 3. enozo 5:02 pm 03/20/2012

    Mars is incredibly overrated. It is deceptively like Earth with its polar caps, sort of 24h day and those nice sandy dunes. The reality is that it is bone dry. Both Marsis and SHARAD (RADARs) found no subsurface water in any reasonable amounts. Even under 3+ Km of ice at the polar caps where residual internal heat + ice insulation should have meant at least a small lake Vostok, nothing. Two separate mission failed to find organics on the surface. To top all this, results from Phoenix have shown that Mars is a lot less habitable than ever thought:

    In spite of all this discoveries, more and more money is spent on Mars, neglecting all the rest of the solar system. Especially now that targets like Europa, Titan an d Enceladus look much more interesting. The latest extravaganza is a nuclear powered rover in a place were solar power has been shown to work for years, especially if something to clean the panels is included. Instead, scarce plutonium, the only way for a mission to the external planets, has been sacrificed to the Mars god.
    Even while one $2.5B rover it’s on its way, the Mars lobby is already bitching that the next two or three rovers might be cancelled. I wish I could complain that one of the next 2-3 Europa missions are going to be cancelled while a gigantic one has not even go there yet.
    Europa Orbiter, JIMO, EJSM/Laplace all dead before departing !
    The highest priority target is apparently returning rocks from Mars, even though no rocks worth the billions to recover them have been found yet.
    How about waiting for MSL results *before* spending more money on Mars ? In the meantime the funds could be spent on some other solar system targets.
    I believe that this bias for Mars is due to its link to the wasteful human space program. All this money is justified as preparation for a human mission to Mars. The reality is that, the more time passes, the less a human mission to Mars makes sense. Why ? Because the improvements in robotics.
    There is no way that a human mission to Mars is gonging to leave before the ’30s. By then, try to imagine the progress in robotics. Machines will be perfectly capable of moving on the surface of Mars, planning their own moves under the supervision of geologists on Earth. Machines can drive cars NOW with pedestrians and all : on Mars it is a lot easier as almost nothing moves! They will notice and propose unusual targets etc. etc. Most of all, instead of costing $1-200 B in 2030 $, they will still cost $1-2B or less.
    The more we wait for a human mission to Mars, the more the difference between the returns of a robotic mission and a human one shrinks while the difference in cost stays the same. And, in any case, there is no way that anyone is going to spend $1-200 B for scientific reasons, only political ones.
    So, please pause (not stop) this Mars madness and spend funds more equally.

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  4. 4. DancerTiffy 7:12 pm 03/20/2012

    If it comes down between either funding Mars or the James Webb telescope then by all means give the money to the telescope.
    We need this telescope to complete our journey back to the big bang which will much more exciting than finding amino acids on Mars.

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  5. 5. cmblast 9:18 pm 03/20/2012

    @ DancerTiffy: You neglect the intangibles of actual space exploration. (Most) Children don’t get excited over telescopes. Physical missions into space are necessary to inspire the next generation of scientists.

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  6. 6. cmblast 9:24 pm 03/20/2012

    @enozo Human space exploration is absolutely necessary, no matter how advanced robotics get. How is it that so many intelligent people are so completely out of touch with what motivates and inspires people? Stop being so isolated and meet some regular people. The scientific community as a whole needs to get better at PR.

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  7. 7. Thomasdoubting 12:31 pm 03/21/2012

    All this fuss over priorities of unmanned space exploration. What did the manned space station get us in terms of science? And what did it cost? Was it 100 billion?

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  8. 8. pokerplyer 12:38 pm 03/21/2012

    People- please get a clue.

    The US government is spending close to 40% more than it is receiving in revenues. This means that if any program is cut by less than 40% then some other program must be cut by more than 40%.

    What this means is that all programs will suffer very severe budget cuts in the very near future or the US economy will be destroyed. The days of a government promising something for nothing are coming to an end very soon. Simple basic economics

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  9. 9. geojellyroll 12:42 pm 03/21/2012

    ‘children get excited’…? This is ‘Scientific American’. In a world of 7 billion people this is now the 7th comment. The ‘inspire future generations of scientists’ is a flop. Nasa has been a complete dud in exciting all but a handfull of anybody about anything. When I was a kid in ther 60′s, this would have been the 7 millionth comment on a space topic.

    The Shuttle and ISS were absolute disasters…the cheerleading among a handful of supporters stripped the energy out of space exploration and the innovative minds went into IT technology.

    Americans still don’t get it. The cookie jar is bursting with IOUs and being stuffed with more each day. I prefer thr money going to thetelescope rather than Mars but, regardless..there is no more money. When broke it’s a choice between food and rent…not about taking a vacation.

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  10. 10. GroundedSpacer 2:36 pm 03/21/2012

    enozo speaks the truth. Those who grew up in the 50′s and 60′s were all indoctrinated into two beliefs: that Mars harbors some form of life, and it was Man’s destiny to establish colonies there. So far, despite expenditures of billions of dollars and endless investigation, there is no credible evidence that Mars has or has had any indigenous life, or can sustain any. And physiological studies indicate that long-term habitation in deep space, or on the surface of any planet other than Earth presents significant medical hazards that we do not have the technology or knowledge to overcome. But NASA does not have the guts or vision to redirect its programs to address what is increasingly glaring contradictions. It wants to double down on Mars research, even though it’s a jejune desert, and pushes for long-term manned missions, even though there is no practical use for our presence in deep space.

    I think on-going unmanned missions to all points of the solar system should be conducted, and well-funded. But if you look at NASA’s Mars programs, you can almost discern a palpable fear of sending a definitive probe there that can really determine if life is there. Instead they prefer to stretch out the analysis in small bites to tease more money out of the public. If it were ever convincingly demonstrated that Mars really is sterile, then all the excitement would be gone for good, along with funding (unless we find gold or silver there). Let’s employ our resources, both monetary and intellectual, more honestly and productively in the space program, and end our quaint Mars mania for good.

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  11. 11. Lenedwin 3:36 pm 03/21/2012

    Of course the scientists are mad about cuts because their obsession with exploring Mars is interrupted (let alone there source of income). But in reality further exploration of that barren rock will not benefit mankind one iota. We have discovered just about all we need to know about it. And a manned mission to the place in my view is a total waste of time and energy. There are far more urgent things on Earth requiring concentrated brain power than digging holes in a distant planet in the vain hope of finding a microbe.

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  12. 12. geojellyroll 5:33 pm 03/21/2012

    Manned exploration of space is a big sinkhole of limited resources squandered. Each Shuttle flight averaged out to 1.6 billion dollars to accomplish what?….trying to eep humans alive in space on a 100 billion dollar space station.

    Perhaps someday manned exploration will make some sense. Unfortunately too much Star Trek and lack of understanding of physics has colored the unrealistic expectations.. People aren’t going anywhere…perhaps a couple steps on the Moon, an asteroid but that’s ‘it’ for the 21st century. Actual science will be achieved with probes and space telescopes.

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  13. 13. jxchristopher 11:22 am 03/22/2012

    NASA (much of the US Govt, in fact) would be better served if they embraced concepts like X Prize rather than the throwing-money-down-the-hole-and-hoping-something-good-pops-out-the-other-end approach for speculative projects like this. Such would bring not only tangible results, but also the intangibles like business stimulation, spin-off technologies, and “public excitement.”

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  14. 14. Gord Davison 3:02 pm 03/23/2012

    We need to take NASA’s planetary research out of the hands of the government and organize an internationally funded space research team. Planetary research is too valuable to be financially controlled by organizations like governments.

    My first guess at a plan would be to organize all of the learning institutions around the world to fund the research and to supply the teams. These Universities in turn could get the financing from private and public sources.

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  15. 15. sjn 3:21 pm 03/23/2012

    Scientific American once upon a time (20 odd years ago) used to seriously discuss the priorities in the science budgets. Not for a long time.

    Like most of the leaders of the scientific community, they whine about their favorites losing a few million, while remaining silent about the vast proportion of US federal support for R&D that goes to the military, just like the rest of our tax dollars.

    When you look at the total US federal R&D budget, subtract NIH funding (& assume that is the bulk of funding to the biological sciences), you see that DOD, Homeland Security, DOE (nuclear weapons) etc account for 70-80% of the remaining funds. So all of NASA, NIST, NSF all non weapons focused national labs, anything related to energy, global warming or the remaining physical sciences, etc all compete for the remaining paltry dollars.
    The federal budget funding by our income tax (as opposed to dedicated streams to social security & medicare) reflects the same military dominance
    Until the scientific community is ready to join the rest of the 99% in challenging the military dominance of federal spending, all the remaining whining is just special pleading for the crumbs.

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  16. 16. RickRay 4:31 pm 03/23/2012

    John F. Kennedy would be cringing in his grave if he knew what was happening in the U.S. Putting a man on the moon was the greatest thing America ever did in the space era. I remember how proud I was to be America’s best neighbor and friend back in the 60′s and early 70′s. What happened? Now, you get anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-woman, anti-education religious nutbars of the GOP (God’ Own Party) like Rick Santorum who want to send us back into the Dark Ages. America’s pride and intelligence has been taken over by dogma, bigotry, and war-mongering. I guess the more open-minded, free-thinking countries of Europe will have to take over! But, watch out for China. They may become the first to visit Mars!

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  17. 17. hamidsadeghipour 2:44 pm 03/24/2012

    Recently I read an article on “life on the mars”.
    It is good to go slower and with more care.

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  18. 18. Grumpyoleman 4:07 pm 03/24/2012

    It’s sad to think how much was wasted on the shuttle and space station programs. Neither has delivered much of anything to the understanding of our solar system which should be our target for exploration and discovery for the next several generations. Deep space observation is important as well, but not as important as managing human life within our home system.

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  19. 19. mhenriday 6:04 pm 03/24/2012

    «The latest extravaganza is a nuclear powered rover in a place were solar power has been shown to work for years, especially if something to clean the panels is included. Instead, scarce plutonium, the only way for a mission to the external planets, has been sacrificed to the Mars god.» Perhaps signature enozo would care to explain just why he/she characterises plutnium as «scarce». In another online issue of Scientific American published on the same day as that in which the above article appears, it is noted that the UK has nearly 100 tonnes of the substance (an article in the Independent last year placed the figure at 84 tonnes of its own plutonium, plus 28 tonnes of foreignn-owned plutonium). Japan’s stockpile is said to have reached some 45 tonnes by the end of 2010. Surely there’s a sufficient amount of readily available plutonium to power both a rover on Mars and «mission[s] to the external planets» ? Of course, whether we have any moral right to pollute other planets with this highly toxic substance in the same manner that we have our own is another question….


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  20. 20. Heteromeles 6:46 pm 03/27/2012

    As for planetary exploration, the planet that’s most in need of space exploration right now is Earth, and that’s doable. It’s just not as sexy.

    Yes, I know some people in the planetary exploration business quite well, and I hate seeing their field trashed. On the other hand, having weather satellites shut down without replacement because we’re blowing our space budget exploration is one of those funding screw-ups that threatens lives, property, and international commerce. Imagine Hurricane Katrina making landfall with 6 hours’ warning. Not so long ago, that was what happened.

    Like it or not, we’ve colonized space. Our global civilization now depends on things like weather satellites, communications satellites, and GPS. None of these satellites will last forever, and we need to replace them, to keep our presence near Earth alive. Unfortunately, we rarely deal with this issue. Mostly, we’re screaming about only getting one look at Pluto, and not sending another lander to Mars.

    As for a human presence in space, I blame Star Trek for that desire. As some science fiction writers have observed, the problem with manned space flight is that canned monkeys don’t ship well. Absent artificial gravity and dilithium crystals, that’s probably always going to be true.

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  21. 21. Quinn the Eskimo 4:26 pm 04/1/2012

    I smell the crying of displaced GRANT MONEY.

    Proven: Government spending is the single most wasteful method.

    Proven: No habitation future for Mars with our tech.

    Proven: We cannot fund every boondoggle concept out there.

    Proven: ALL programs are being curtailed (except for the bankers).

    Time to turn over some of these things to for-profit ventures. Richard Branson can go to Mars. Let him.

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