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Lost Worlds: The Passing of an Age of Space Exploration

The Goal
The Goal | Photo: Andy Zeigert /Flickr/Creative Commons License

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.

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.