Cut back on missions to Mars? No way, backers say


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.

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