NASA budget cuts could be felt on Mars

Lean financial times are prompting belt-tightening far and wide — and now that extends to Mars and the rest of the solar system.

President Obama's proposed budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for fiscal year 2013 would eliminate $300 million from the agency's planetary sciences division, a 20% cut from the $1.5 billion it received for 2012. Though the budget plan, released this week, would preserve funding for high-profile projects like the James Webb Space Telescope and manned space missions, scientists were alarmed by the size of the hit to relatively inexpensive programs that explore the solar system with high-tech robots.

Scott Hubbard, a member of the NASA Advisory Council Science Committee and the agency's former "Mars czar," has been assessing the effect the cuts would have on the agency's programs. Now a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, he spoke with The Times about what the future holds for exploration of the Red Planet.

How long have these cuts been in the works?

It was signaled that bad things might be happening well over a year ago, when the fiscal year 2012 budget came out. The decline from the previous budget was really startling, and many of us were worried that this already was indicating that OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] was intending to take the planetary science area and Mars program even lower.

The president's budget is for five years. It shows the budget rising in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. But of course projecting budgets five years from now is pure guesswork.

How does that uncertainty affect NASA's planning?

They have really reduced the program to where it cannot realistically commit to anything large and anything long term.

When I put the [Mars] mission program together in its current form 10 years ago, OMB was willing to talk about a whole decade. They have committed in the past to long-term missions like Voyager, and Cassini to Saturn and Galileo to Jupiter.

NASA has been given, overall, actually a fairly good budget. This hit to the Mars program and planetary science is a real dark spot.

How will this affect the Mars rovers and other missions there?

One thing that is very worrisome: If you look at the details, in a line called "Mars extended operations," that budget is significantly lower than it should be. It raises questions about whether or not OMB intends for NASA to keep operating missions that are there and working successfully, like the Opportunity rover and Mars Odyssey [a satellite looking for evidence of water and volcanic activity] and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter [which is studying the history of water on the planet] and so forth.

This cut to Mars seems to threaten the existing missions and their operations as well as the future beyond what's called MAVEN [a mission to study the upper Martian atmosphere that's set to launch in late 2013].

What does NASA stand to lose?

Loss of human capital is an immediate and very serious risk. I just gave a lecture at NASA where I pointed out how close we are to really answering this question of, "Was there ever life on Mars?" We've built up the scientific momentum and we've got the instruments, the spacecraft, the direction to go and do this. And when you take something like this apart, the scientists go elsewhere. You lose the capability, the momentum and the knowledge that you've built up.

Historically, the success rate for missions to Mars is only about 1 in 3. The Russians have tried 21 times and they've never been fully successful at Mars. That's how hard it is. So it's in the skills of people. It's not just a piece of hardware sitting in the corner that you dust off. These are technical capabilities that reside in very highly trained people.

What's the argument that NASA science programs deserve more money?

We've got indisputable evidence of vast amounts of water on Mars, which — coupled with what else we know — leads to the high probability that Mars was habitable in the past. The Kepler mission [a space-based telescope] has found well over 1,000 new planets; Hubble Space Telescope has given us pictures of the galaxy and understanding of things as exotic as black holes. We've really expanded our knowledge of the solar system and the whole universe though NASA's programs.

Is there any chance the cut could be reversed?

I think the best way forward for the people out there in the science community and in the public is, frankly, to appeal to Congress to see if they can't reverse this cut. The administration proposes a budget, but it's Congress that actually enacts the budget and appropriates the money. I think that's what we're going to have to do in order to head off this danger before it gets too far down the road.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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