Lost Worlds: The Passing of an Age of Space Exploration

The 2013 budget that President Obama rolled out on Monday (2/13) will compel NASA to abandon future missions aimed at Mars and leave other planetary exploration projects in doubt.

The $300 million in cuts to robotic exploration of Mars are supposed to backfill some of the cost overruns that have plagued the development of the James Webb Space Telescope. The orbiting telescope - set to launch in 2018 - is way over its proposed budget. It was supposed to cost $500 million and launch by 2007. Its cost is now over $6.2 billion and may reach $8 billion.

Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Glendale), a vocal advocate of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its planetary programs, told reporters last week that NASA's budget will hit JPL's future Mars missions with "absolutely devastating" cuts.

Story Continues Below
Support KCET

JPL laid off 240 staff members after earlier rounds of cuts to planetary programs in 2010 and 2011.

NASA's proposed $17.7 billion budget ends a joint effort with the European Space Agency to develop the capability to return soil samples from Mars. Eliminated are two joint missions in 2016 and 2018 that NASA had agreed to partially fund at a cost of $1.4 billion.

The ESA has already shifted to a contingency plan to partner with the the Russian space agency instead.

For NASA, that leaves only the Mars Science Laboratory, now on its way to Mars, and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission set for 2013. After that, who knows? All planetary missions may be suspended for a decade.

[Discover Magazine's Phil Plait offers his very bleak view here. Other reactions (updated 2/14) are here.]

NASA funding is caught in a three-way tug of war for dollars that will be increasingly scarce as future administrations - whatever their party - struggle to write down the deficits that the irrational fiscal policies of the past 30 years created.

Congress wants "men in space" (despite enormously high costs, minimal scientific returns, and limits where manned missions can go). Advocates of "big science" want hugely expensive, single-purpose projects like the Webb telescope (despite the risks inherent in big science projects). And planetary scientists want to sustain a program of relatively inexpensive orbiters and rovers to look at and crawl over the fascinating surfaces of the solar system.

Right now, Congress and "big science" are ascendant in the fight for NASA's deflating budget. Further exploration by robotic surrogates is waning and along with it, an era of discovery that began with the first missions to Mars in the 1970s.

Both planetary science and this nation's leadership in Mars exploration will probably never recover.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
RSS icon

Previous

5.6 Earthquake Strikes Northern California [Updated]

Next

President Obama in L.A. this Week to Raise Campaign Funds

LEAVE A COMMENT Leave Comment  

user-pic

If you are reading this and don't want America's highly successful space exploration to end, and don't want to see jobs lost from JPL, please join us at the Planetary Society, which is based here in Pasadena, to shout loud at Congress to overturn these proposed cuts. Our CEO Bill Nye (the science guy) made a public statement today and will be marshaling the ranks of space enthusiasts in the coming days and weeks to show Congress that not only do we think space exploration is important, but also that funding it is key to America's leadership in technological innovation, inspiring kids to careers in science and technology and paying off downstream in the form of better jobs and better quality of life for everyone.

user-pic

Congress wants "men in space" (despite enormously high costs, minimal scientific returns, and limits where manned missions can go). Advocates of "big science" want hugely expensive, single-purpose projects like the Webb telescope (despite the risks inherent in big science projects). And planetary scientists want to sustain a program of relatively inexpensive orbiters and rovers to look at and crawl over the fascinating surfaces of the solar system.

Ah, no. The reason that Mars exploration took it in the shorts in this budget was because the NRC planetary science decade study made Mars sample return a major priority. That task requires not one, but three major "Flagship" missions - one to land and collect the rocks, one to transport the rocks to Mars orbit and finally, one to rendezvous with spacecraft 2 and transport the samples back to Earth. Each mission is a multi-billion dollar event and would take over decade. This robotic campaign is of such scale and complexity as to make JWST look like Explorer 1.

user-pic

I definitely agree that we should take Emily's suggestion and work to restore funding to the planetary program. However, it's hard not to argue with Paul. MSL is $2.5 billion. To put that into the perspective of "relatively inexpensive", that's the equivalent of five Discovery class missions or ~6 MERs (using $820 million as the cost for two). And I can say with some certitude that MSL prevented new starts of other planetary missions due to its overruns. Additionally, the NRC Planetary Decadal Survey specifically calls out that if the Mars Sample Return mission cannot be done for

The President's budget has the following line in it: "NASA
will inform Congress as the new [Mars] program architecture is defined, and will identify the first mission in the FY 2014 budget request." If the cuts do hold, I can understand the need to nurse wounds. But it would also be good wake up to take a long, hard look at the Mars program and decide how to be cost effective.

user-pic

Oops, looks like my comment got interpreted as an HTML tag. That should have been "cannot be done for less than $2.5 billion that there is no alternative Mars program").