House Appropriators Balk at Obama Mars Exploration Cutbacks

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In a sign President Barack Obama's plan to inflict deep cuts in NASA's planetary science budget is not sitting well with Congress, the House Appropriations Committee has refused to reprogram funds from that account in the current budget, according to Aviation Week.

Why did the White House make the reprogramming request?

In the fiscal year 2013 proposed budget for NASA, the White House canceled two joint missions to Mars now being conducted with the European Space Agency, one an orbiter called Maven to study the Martian atmosphere to be launched in 2016, the other a rover with a drill attached called "ExoMars" to be launched in 2018. The administration would like the two missions to be shut down early so as not to waste money since it does not plan for them to proceed. The cuts were made in the 2013 budget primarily to cover cost overruns in the James Webb Space Telescope project.

Why did the House appropriators balk?

The proposed budget cuts for NASA's planetary science programs met with a hostile reaction in Congress and the scientific community. Two members of Congress, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, wrote an op-ed in Space News decrying the planned budget cuts. The Planetary Society, a space exploration advocacy group, also opposes the cuts, stating in a news release it would constitute an abandonment of space exploration and walking away from agreements with Europe.

Rep. Frank Wolf, chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA spending, suggested more time and effort would have to be made to understand the effects of the planned shutdown of not only the two Mars missions but curtailing future missions to the outer planets.

As Paul Spudis, a planetary scientist who writes frequently on space subjects, points out the Mars program was scrapped with as little thought and consideration as was the Constellation program in 2010. Spudis also takes the Mars science community to task for not having a backup plan just in case the Obama administration decided to cancel some of the planned, large scale Mars missions, which are designed to lead up to a robotic sample return. NASA is now scrambling to rebuild Mars exploration based on smaller, cheaper missions that would fit into the constrained budget.

Déjà vu all over again

Just like with the cancellation of Constellation, the Obama administration did not consult with Congress about its planned cutbacks for planetary science. In the previous case, Congress and the White House wrangled for about a year and a half, while funding for the officially cancelled Constellation was kept in place. Rep. Wolf has signaled acceptance of the planetary science cutbacks will not come automatically.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.

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