Video: NASA braces for budget cuts

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updated 2/13/2012 11:53:43 AM ET 2012-02-13T16:53:43

The proposed 2013 federal budget unveiled by President Barack Obama on Monday 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.

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 got 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.

"We are having to make tough decisions, because these are tough economic times," NASA chief Charlie Bolden told reporters Monday. "We are doing all that we can to be fiscally responsible."

The reduction in planetary science funding compels 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 and various instrumentation for the two missions, but Bolden confirmed that NASA will withdraw from both of them.

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. "They don't want to head down that road."

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.

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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 vehicle development program, NASA's effort to encourage American private spaceflight companies to start ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Since the space shuttle retired in July 2011, NASA has been completely dependent on Russian Soyuz vehicles to perform this taxi service. The agency wants several different private spaceships to be up and running by 2017 or so.

Last year, the White House allocated $850 million for commercial spaceship development in fiscal 2012, though Congress ended up granting only $406 million. Obama requested a total of $18.7 billion for NASA last year, but Congress eventually approved just $17.8 billion.

Next-gen telescope eats up NASA funds
NASA's planetary science funding is likely being slashed in part to help pay for the James Webb Space Telescope, a huge instrument that NASA bills as the successor to its Hubble Space Telescope.

JWST has suffered numerous cost overruns and delays over the years. Back in 2001, the National Academy of Sciences pegged the telescope's price tag at $1 billion. NASA's first official appraisal, performed in 2008, estimated a cost of $5 billion, with a launch coming in 2014.

The telescope is now slated to cost $8.8 billion, and to launch in 2018 at the earliest. The White House proposes giving JWST $628 million in fiscal 2013, compared with $519 million in the current year.

"Finishing Webb is being given a higher priority than starting or committing to new Mars missions," Logsdon told Space.com.

NASA officials stress that the agency is still committed to exploring Mars, both for scientific purposes and to enable future manned missions to the Red Planet. Obama has directed NASA to get astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s.

ESA
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is billions of dollars over budget and years late.

However, NASA has now decided to restructure its unmanned Mars strategy, to find cheaper, more efficient ways to meet these ends, Bolden said. The reassessment is a nod to the tough budget environment; it will likely be difficult to greenlight expensive flagship missions like the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory — which is due to drop the 1-ton Curiosity rover onto the Red Planet's surface this August — anytime soon.

"We're talking about a fundamental change in the way we do business," Bolden said.

You can follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station

    NASA

    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology

    NASA

    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Dan Durda  /  FIAAA

    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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