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Obama's NASA budget favors a space telescope over Mars exploration

The proposed 2013 federal budget shifts funding away from missions to Mars and emphasizes manned spaceflight and astronomy.

By Mike WallSPACE.com / February 13, 2012

This artist's rendering shows a 'sky crane' lowering NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover onto the surface of Mars. The rover launched from Cape Canaveral in November 2011 and is scheduled to land on Mars in August. The mission may be one of the last to the Red Planet in the near future, as deep budget cuts are forcing NASA to abandon plans to visit neighboring planets.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/AP/File

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The proposed 2013 federal budget unveiled by President Barack Obama today (Feb. 13) keeps NASA funding relatively flat next year, but bites deep into the agency's robotic Mars mission coffers while shifting new funds to human exploration and space technology.

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According to the White House's 2013 budget request, NASA would receive about $17.7 billion for next year — $59 million less than the space agency received for 2012.

However, NASA's planetary science efforts would suffer a 20 percent cut next year, with the president allocating just $1.2 billion for unmanned missions to Mars and other solar system bodies. Meanwhile, funding for human exploration and commercial spaceflight would rise nearly 6 percent, to $3.93 billion, and space technology would get a 22 percent bump, to $699 million.

Experts say the reduction in planetary science funding will probably compel NASA to drop out of the European Space Agency-led ExoMars missions, which aim to launch an orbiter and a drill-toting rover to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, respectively. NASA was due to provide rockets for both missions, as well as various instrumentation.

These two missions are viewed as key steps along the path toward a Mars sample-return mission, which many researchers regard as the best way to search for signs of life on the Red Planet.

"Underpinning this is not committing to a long-term Mars program ending in a multibillion-dollar sample-return mission," said space policy expert John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "They don't want to head down that road." [NASA's 10 Greatest Science Missions]

NASA's budget basics

The White House's proposed allocation for NASA in fiscal 2013 represents less than 0.5 percent of the overall federal budget request, which is $3.8 trillion.

Other NASA programs fare better than planetary science in the request for fiscal year 2013, which runs from Oct. 1, 2012, through Sept. 30, 2013. The space agency's Earth sciences program, for example, would receive $1.78 billion, slightly more than the president allocated in his fiscal 2012 budget request.

The White House also prioritizes space technology, as evidenced by the 22 percent increase requested in the 2013 budget proposal.

"The Administration's commitment to enhance NASA's role in aerospace technology development aims to create the innovations necessary to keep the aerospace industry — one of the largest net export industries in the United States — on the cutting edge for years to come," the White House wrote in a summary outlining the budget request.

Obama's proposal also allocates about $2.9 billion for NASA's next-generation manned transportation system, which consists of a heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) and a capsule called the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

The SLS and Orion, which are designed to carry astronauts to destinations in deep space such as asteroids or Mars, received $3 billion in fiscal 2012. NASA hopes the combo is operational by 2021.

Commercial space transportation gets a vote of confidence in the 2013 budget request. The president slotted $830 million for NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, NASA's effort to encourage American private spaceflight companies to start ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

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