Exploring another planet is an expensive business. We all know this, but sometimes it hits home harder than others. Today was one of those times. This afternoon at an all-hands meeting of the Mars Exploration Rovers team, we heard about some particularly bad budget news. The situation is this: the Mars Science Laboratory mission is costing more than expected. It is common for this to happen with spacecraft missions because there are so many unexpected difficulties to overcome. Due to the overruns with MSL, the powers-that-be at NASA have decided that, rather than hurt other missions in space science, the money should come from the Mars Exploration program's budget.
Starting immediately, $4 million is going to be cut from the remaining $11 million in the MER budget for the rest of fiscal year 2008. The remaining $7 million is not enough to operate both rovers on Mars.
The Mars Odyssey mission is also facing a devastating $4 million cut, with the stipulation that the spacecraft must remain safe and operational to be used as a communications relay with landers on the surface. I am not directly involved with Odyssey, so I can't comment on what has been going on within their team today, but I will say this: if this cut goes through, it will reduce a spacecraft doing revolutionary science at Mars to a communications satellite.
As for the Rovers, it is entirely possible that one of the rovers will be put into hibernation mode from now until the end of this fiscal year (October). Coincidentally, from now until October happens to be winter at Spirit's site, and the rover was already going to be very limited in its activities. However, "very limited" activities are still scientifically valuable, and are certainly better than none at all. A lot of people are very upset about this.
Not only will this likely eliminate the valuable science from the Spirit winter campaign, it may also result in members of the MER team leaving to pursue other projects with more stable budgets, and some team members may simply be let go to cut costs. Once those team members leave, there is no simple way to get them back. It is possible (but extremely difficult) to recover from a cut and get a healthy budget again, but trained members of the MER team are irreplaceable.
At the meeting today, Steve Squyres made it clear that there are three assets that cannot be replaced and that he is going to fight tooth and nail to preserve: the two rovers and the MER team.
The heads of the MER team also called upon everyone listening not to get negative about these cuts and not to take out our frustration with pot-shots against other missions or against the NASA administrators. Nobody at headquarters or on the teams affected wants to see things like this happen, but sometimes hard decisions have to be made.
The Rovers and Odyssey are extremely successful and extremely valuable missions, returning never-before-seen data from Mars every day. To cut their budgets and halt the science operations of perfectly good spacecraft just to scrape together a little money for a future mission seems like a bad way of doing things. The problem is, if all the money has to come from the Mars budget, there is no way to win. Either you sacrifice current missions to keep MSL on track, or you maintain current missions and delay MSL, and that delay costs more money than you save. All in all, it's a bad state of affairs.
With all the uncertainty in these events, things may change minutes after I post this. We will be doing our best to keep you up to speed. Check back here for the latest...