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Is NASA giving up on Mars? (+video)

NASA's 2013 budget includes deep cuts to its planetary science mission, particularly its efforts to send spacecraft to Mars. Instead, the space agency will focus on human spaceflight and infrared astronomy. Is NASA now heading down the wrong path?

By Nancy AtkinsonUniverse Today / February 14, 2012

People look at the Orion crew test module earlier this month at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. Museum visitors were invited to sign the module. The Orion spacecraft is designed to take the next generation of astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit.

Glenn Baeske/The Huntsville Times/AP

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As expected, NASA’s 2013 budget request calls for an overall decrease in funding, with especially tough cuts to planetary science and education. The budget proposal of $17.7 billion is a decrease of 0.3% or $59 million from the 2012 budget and puts NASA at its lowest level of funding in four years. President Obama’s budget request for NASA includes a flat budget through 2017, with no out-year growth even for inflation.

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Using the phrase “very difficult fiscal times” countless times, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden tried to put an upbeat spin on the bad news during a press conference on the budget on February 13.
 
“We are having to make tough decisions because these are very difficult fiscal times,” he said. “However this is a stable budget that allows us to support a diverse portfolio and continues the work we started last year.”

While the proposal includes continued funding for the agency’s human space programs —including $4 billion for space operations and $4 billion for human activities for the International Space Station, nearly $3 billion for the heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion MPCV, along with $830 million for the commercial crew and cargo — planetary science took a huge hit, especially the Mars science program, considered by many to be the “crown jewel” of NASA’s planetary program.

Mars exploration would be cut by a whopping 38.5 percent, going from $587 million this year to $361 million in 2013. As predicted NASA has pulled out of the Exo-Mars collaboration with the European Space Agency, for dual Mars missions in 2016 and 2018, with no future flagship missions even in the offing, beyond the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory rover, now on its way to Mars.

“Flagship missions are essential for the nation,” said Bolden when asked about what could be expected for future missions, “but we just could not afford to do another one right now given the budget an these difficult fiscal times.”

The Science Mission Directorate budget, which includes planetary exploration, astronomy and Earth environment monitoring, would receive $4.911 billion in 2013 instead of the $5.07 billion it received in 2012.

The NASA education budget was cut $36 million, down from $136 million in 2012 to $100 million in 2013.

The only bright spot for potential future planetary missions is that funding for the re-start of making Plutonium-238, the power source for outer-planet missions – is included in the 2013 budget. However, the cut to exploration missions means there is no funding for any new mission to study the moons of Jupiter or a Uranus orbiter, two projects that were a high priority in the Decadal Survey released by the science community in 2011. The reduction might also affect ongoing missions such as the remaining Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. Those missions will be reviewed by NASA later this year.

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