NASA to get 20 percent cut in Planet Science

Exo MarsTWO years on from what Congress deemed a ‘crushing blow’ to NASA’s plans for human space flight, when President Obama cancelled the Constellation programme, the administration heads into its final first-term year with further plans to chop space exploration. This time the planetary sciences programme is likely to be gutted when the Fiscal Year 2013 budget is unveiled next Monday, 13 February. The word on the streets in Washington DC is that the Obama administration is to cut planetary exploration by 20%, stripping the anticipated $1.5billion budget for that sector by $300million. The effects of this will be to drop the ExoMars mission it had agreed with the European Space Agency in 2009 for launches in 2016 and 2018, and to cancel the planned Europa mission to that moon of Jupiter. Under the ExoMars plan, NASA was to pay $1.4billion of the $2.6billion project, leaving the Europeans to pick up the tab on the balance. That is not now going to happen under plans for the spending year starting 1 October that the Obama administration will send to Congress for approval.

But the fight is only just beginning. For Europe, the short-term solution may well be to do a deal with Russia, whose own planetary programme is in the doldrums following the loss of Phobos-Grunt late last year. But both sides agree that without the expertise and some of the technology NASA agreed to bring to the ExoMars project, the Euro-Russia deal will not have the same level of engineering and science capability. Moreover, expect sparks from Congress, who will not sit lightly on this proposal from the White House. Yet, in a time of austere budgets and cuts, Congress has mandated NASA to spend $3billion a year for the rest of this decade and beyond on a super-booster for which there is as yet no mission, and a NASA-funded Orion MPCV currently without a destination and unlikely to carry astronauts before 2021.

The House of Representatives is expected to fight long and hard to get back the money for Mars exploration and to push forward with Jovian science on the Europa mission. However, the $1billion overrun on the James Webb Space Telescope, its launch now delayed until 2018, is absorbing funds that NASA has to find internally and which it cannot spend on other programmes. Opposition to the planetary science cut is likely to flow from the National Academy of Sciences and from a broad range of scientific opinion across the US and the space-faring world. NASA achieved outstanding success with Mars spacecraft during this last decade and many believe that this is fast becoming NASA’s jewel in the crown of its broad based science programme.

The Editor (Spaceflight)

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