Red Planet meets red ink: budget ax could chop two NASA Mars missions

The budget to be released by President Obama Monday is expected to include a one-third cut in NASA's Mars program, in part to pay for other cost overruns within the agency.

Handout/REUTERS
The planet Mars is seen in this recent undated handout image from NASA.

The most successful Mars exploration program in human history appears headed for serious downsizing as the White House and Congress struggle to tackle America's fiscal woes.

In the budget President Obama is sending to Congress Feb. 13, NASA's space-science program is slated for a 20 percent cut from its current level. The Mars exploration portion is expected to be cut by more than a third, according to early reports.

Overall, the reports suggest that the total budget request for NASA will come in close to this year's budget of $17.8 billion. But the agency is having to absorb significant cost overruns for the James Webb Space Telescope, successor to The Hubble Space Telescope, and has had to do likewise with the Mars Science Laboratory, currently en route to the red planet.

Meanwhile, the agency's Earth-science and human-spaceflight efforts are expected to fare better.

To be sure, whatever the president sends to Capitol Hill on Monday only begins the budget conversation for fiscal year 2013, analysts caution.

“The president's budget is just a proposal,” says Howard McCurdy, a space-policy specialist at American University in Washington who tracks space and technology policy.

Already, members of Congress from California and Texas are vowing to fight the cuts to the Mars program. Others are expected to follow.

The cuts “reflect the new reality” in which the economy, budget deficits, and the federal debt have elbowed their way to the top of Washington's agenda, McCurdy adds.

NASA accounts for only about 0.5 percent of the federal budget. But it falls under the broad category of discretionary spending – the category easiest to pare when budgeteers hunt for spending cuts. The government is having to cope with mandatory cuts that kicked in for fiscal year 2013 after a “super committee” in Congress failed to craft a bipartisan plan to deal with the deficit.

For Mars aficionados, a key concern is two ambitious missions jointly planned by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). Over the past several years, the two agencies have tried to merge their Mars exploration program, recognizing that the missions were getting too expensive for one agency to underwrite.

Plans called for sending an orbiter to Mars in 2016 to hunt for so-called trace gases in the atmosphere, especially methane, which can have a biological source. The two agencies also were going to split the cost of sending a rover to Mars in 2018, one capable of drilling deep into the Martian surface to hunt for signs of past or present life. It also would lay the groundwork for a later sample-return mission.

In an interview with the BBC Feb. 6, ESA's science director, Alvaro Gimenez, said, “The Americans have indicated that the possibility of them participating is now low, very low. It's highly unlikely.”

The Europeans reportedly have started talks with the Russians to pick up activities the US would have undertaken.

On one level, the cuts anticipated in Obama's budget request for NASA's space-science program and its Mars component represent in microcosm a government trying to come to grips with burgeoning red ink.

“The fist things to go are the 'nice to haves,' things that won't result in lots of jobs being cut,” says Keith Cowing, editor of the website NASAWatch. For instance, cutting the James Web Space Telescope at this point would cost jobs, while delaying beyond its projected 2018 launch would add costs to an already expensive observatory. That project remains on the books.

On the other hand, the two Mars missions, which he dubs “gold plated,” aren't yet far enough along to yield similar losses if canceled, he suggests. The missions are likely scrapped.

At the same time, some of the financial challenges are of the agency's own making – underestimating costs initially, then having to cope with the overruns.

Some of the overruns come from trying to make quantum leaps in design and having to adjust to the "unknown unknowns," aerospace specialists have observed. But not everyone is convinced that progress needs to come via quantum leaps.

McCurdy notes that the cost of Mars missions has grown significantly since 1996, when NASA landed its first rover, Sojourner Truth, on the red planet. This mission was dubbed Mars Pathfinder for a reason, he explains. At a cost of about $265 million, the mission was to be the first of a series of inexpensive landers that then-NASA administrator Daniel Goldin suggested could be launched quickly and cheaply to Mars. Break up the research into small chunks, the logic went, and the failure of one or two wouldn't throw the exploration program off stride.

NASA then bought two very successful, long-lived rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, for less that $1 billion. Original plans called for one, but like the Mars Viking program in the 1970s, NASA ordered up two to ensure that at least one would succeed. The cost of a second rover was seen as manageable.

Now, the latest rover – expected to arrive on Mars in August – carries a more robust price tag of $2.5 billion. And it will use a landing technique necessitated by its large size but which has never been fully tested as a system.

By some estimates, it overshot its original budget by about 30 percent. NASA delayed its initial 2009 launch to allow time for additional testing.

Warnings in the early 1990s that a sequence of big ticket missions – especially to one destination – was likely to be financially unsustainable are coming true, McCurdy says.

Meanwhile, competition for NASA's limited space-science pot is heating up.

For instance, researchers are developing a mission concept that would set an instrumented raft to drift on one of Titan's hydrocarbon lakes to analyze the planet's chemistry and perhaps hunt for evidence of life there. The mission's cost must be held to around $400 million.

“That's a real bargain,” McCurdy says. “Juxtapose that against another Mars Science Laboratory or a Mars sample return, and it's not hard to choose which one you would do, especially when you've got astrobiologists saying the chances of finding life are equal on Mars, Europa, and Titan.”

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