Image: ExoMars rover
ESA
An artist's conception shows the ExoMars rover in operation on the Red Planet.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/10/2012 12:14:33 AM ET 2012-02-10T05:14:33

Scientists say NASA is about to propose major cuts in its exploration of other planets, especially Mars. But even before the cuts are unveiled, lawmakers are vowing to fight "tooth and nail" to preserve missions to the Red Planet.

With limited money for science and an over-budget new space telescope, the space agency essentially had to make a choice in where it wanted to explore: the neighboring planet or the far-off cosmos.

Based on the advance word about NASA's budget for the coming year, Mars lost out.

Two scientists who were briefed on the 2013 NASA budget, due to be released on Monday, said the space agency is eliminating two proposed joint missions with Europeans to explore Mars in 2016 and 2018. NASA had agreed to pay $1.4 billion for those missions. Some Mars missions will continue, but the fate of future flights is unclear, including a much-sought project to bring rocks from the Red Planet back to Earth.

PhotoBlog: Mars orbiter spies on probes of the past

The two scientists spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the budget.

They said the cuts to the Mars missions would be part of a proposed reduction of about $300 million in NASA's $1.5 billion planetary science budget. The other big part of NASA science spending — the $1.8 billion Earth science budget — is not being cut, the two scientists said.

The current Mars budget of $581.7 million will be slashed by more than $200 million, they said.

"To me, it's totally irrational and unjustified," said Edward Weiler, who until September was NASA's associate administrator for science. "We are the only country on this planet that has the demonstrated ability to land on another planet, namely Mars. It is a national prestige issue."

Weiler said he quit last year because he was tired of fighting to save Mars from the budget knife. He said he fought successfully to keep major cuts from Mars in the current budget, but has no firsthand knowledge of the 2013 budget proposal.

Mars "has got public appeal, it's got scientific blessings from the National Academy," Weiler told AP in a phone interview from Florida. "Why would you go after it? And it fulfills the president's space policy to encourage more foreign collaboration."

The European Space Agency is already in discussions with the Russians to fill the gap if NASA reneges on its commitment to contribute to the 2016 and 2018 Mars missions, known as the ExoMars program. The 2016 mission would send an orbiter and experimental lander to the Red Planet, with the primary goal of mapping sources of Martian methane. The 2018 mission would send a rover equipped with a drill and other instruments to search for evidence of past or present life on Mars.

Ultimate goal vs. tough choices
Two years ago, President Barack Obama said his ultimate goal was to send astronauts to Mars. The robotic exploration program was seen as laying the groundwork for those eventual human missions.

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NASA spokesman David Weaver said that, just like the rest of the federal government, the space agency has to make "tough choices ... and live within our means."

To do so, Weaver said in an email, "NASA is reassessing its current Mars exploration initiatives to maximize what can be achieved."

One of the big problems for NASA's science budget is the replacement for the wildly successful Hubble Space Telescope. The James Webb Space Telescope, which would be about 100 times more powerful and would gaze farther into the universe than ever before, is now supposed to cost around $8 billion. It was originally estimated to cost $3.5 billion.

NASA has had to deal with cost overruns on other missions as well — including the car-sized Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL, which is currently on its way to an August landing on the Red Planet. The mission was initially budgeted in the range of $1.5 billion, but it ended up costing $2.5 billion.

Years of cost overruns
Keith Cowing, editor of the independent NASA Watch website, said NASA's past leadership, including Weiler, had to take some of the blame for the budgetary mess. He noted that the Webb Space Telescope's cost overrun "grossly eclipses the cuts that are being made elsewhere."

"Alas, the grossly over-budget and oft-delayed MSL is on its way to Mars while the grossly over-budget ISS orbits overhead," Cowing wrote. "Fifty years of doing this — and NASA still can't figure out what things will actually cost?"

Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University who also serves as president of the nonprofit Planetary Society, said "there's some validity" to the criticism of NASA's budgetary record. He said the scientific community "has heard that message" and is trying to focus on the highest-priority planetary projects for the next decade, including missions to Mars.

"The community has a responsibility to demonstrate that we can do this within cost limits. ... If there are to be cuts, let's try to make them as fair as possible," he told msnbc.com. "It would seem to be fair if everyone across the board is being asked to scale back. The cuts should be equitable, but I don't think we're seeing that."

Will budget cuts fly?
Bell said severe cutbacks in planetary science would be doubly frustrating — first of all because "it feels like we're on the verge of making some really profound discoveries about the worlds around us. ... It's just damn exciting, and to kick the tires out from under that would be a real tragedy."

The second source of frustration comes because NASA has been looked upon as the world's leader in space exploration, Bell said. "If a proposed budget like this comes to pass, that leadership will be at risk. If we stop looking outward and start looking inward, we're not going to be leaders anymore," he said.

The Washington Post quoted U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, as saying deep cuts "absolutely will not fly" with the House committee that oversees the space agency.

“You don’t cut spending for critical scientific research endeavors that have immeasurable benefit to the nation and inspire the human spirit of exploration we all have,” Culberson was quoted as saying.

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that he voiced his opposition to the rumored cuts during a "tense" meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Thursday.

"If this is what they have in mind, I'm going to be fighting them tooth and nail," Schiff said.

More about Mars:

This report includes information from The Associated Press' Seth Borenstein and msnbc.com's Alan Boyle.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (24) The greatest hits from Mars
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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