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.
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.
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:
- Is the case for Mars facing a crisis?
- What NASA's Mars Science Laboratory will do
- What the 2016 Mars lander and orbiter would do
- NASA lays out its plan for future spaceships
This report includes information from The Associated Press' Seth Borenstein and msnbc.com's Alan Boyle.