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Obama's NASA budget: Mars takes a hit, but space science isn't dead

Two major Mars missions lost out to the James Web Space Telescope in Obama's proposed NASA budget, but there's still money for other ambitious space-science missions.

By Staff writer / February 15, 2012

A stellar nursery called the Carina Nebula is captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, which is to be replaced by the James Web Space Telescope. President Obama's fiscal 2013 budget proposal was released Wednesday, and two major upcoming Mars missions took the back seat to the James Web project.

NASA/AP/File

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Reports of the demise of ambitious space-science missions at NASA may be somewhat exaggerated.

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To be sure, in President Obama's fiscal 2013 budget proposal, two major Mars missions for 2016 and 2018 lost a budgetary wrestling match with the replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Web Space Telescope.

But Mr. Obama's plan also includes money to begin preliminary studies on a mission to Saturn's moon Enceladus, as well as an orbiter-probe mission to Uranus.

Both represent major “flagship” projects. And the Uranus mission was the planetary-science community's only pick for a flagship mission under a “cost constrained” budget in it's latest 10-year survey, released last year, which outlines the community's research priorities for 2013-2022.

Indeed, with the high-profile exception of Mars, money for the other “cost constrained” priorities – data analysis from existing and past missions as well as money for two other classes of robotic missions in NASA's portfolio – have been targeted for budget increases.

“If you want to set the decadal survey side by side with the NASA budget you're going to find that a lot of the priorities are being pursued,” says Roger Launius, a former NASA historian and now curator of planetary exploration programs at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Spending levels may not be as high as advocates want, he adds, “but it's not as though NASA said, 'We're not doing this. We're not doing that. Go pound sand.' “

However it certainly doesn't feel that way to planetary scientists who focus on Mars.

Although many could see the handwriting on the wall during the past year, seeing the cuts in a final budget proposal hit them hard.

“Everyone realizes it's austere times, that cuts have to be made and growth curtailed” in spending, says Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University who focuses much of his research on Mars' geology. But many people in the science community and at NASA “assumed that the pain would be spread around”– discomfort introduced in no small measure to compensate for cost overruns in both the James Web Space Telescope and the Mars Science Laboratory, currently en route to the red planet.

Initial estimates for the James Web Space Telescope, slated for launch in 2018, hovered around $1 billion in the late 1990s. Current estimates put the cost at $8 billion.

Instead of shared sacrifice, “we're seeing very targeted pain, targeted at the planetary exploration program, and very frustratingly targeted at the most successful part of the planetary exploration program,” the Mars exploration program, he says.

The cuts are all the more frustrating, he and other researchers say, because the latest decadal survey for planetary sciences, which NASA uses as a blueprint for missions, went to great lengths to outline what it saw as a realistic exploration program with modest budget growth as well as scaled-back priorities if budgets truly tightened, as they have.

“We get it,” he says. 

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