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President's Budget Cancels Current Outer Planets Plan in Favor of Developing Nuclear Propulsion and Power for Mars Landers and Future Outer Planets Probes


Mat Kaplan
Phone: +1-626-793-5100

The Administration's fiscal year 2003 proposed budget for NASA released today, placed strong emphasis on planetary exploration and space science, although planned missions to Pluto and Europa were deleted.

This is the first budget developed by the Bush Administration, with new NASA Administrator, Sean O'Keefe at the helm, and it is being carefully watched by The Planetary Society, the world's largest space interest group.

Wesley T. Huntress, Jr., President of The Planetary Society, commented, "It is welcome and positive news that despite the setback to the Pluto and Europa missions, the proposed budget is supportive of planetary exploration. With all the pressures on the NASA budget, especially in the troubled space station program, we take heart with the commitment to the established planetary exploration programs."

The budget constrained the funding for the International Space Station and endorsed the scaled-down objective proposed by an Ad-Hoc task force, which was endorsed by the NASA Advisory Council. Goals for increased science and improved management were set.

The budget proposal also includes a new program to develop nuclear propulsion and power for future outer planet missions and Mars landers. The robotic Mars program is fully supported, albeit with a delay in the 2007 lander to accommodate a specific goal of a nuclear powered rover in this decade.

Huntress said, "We welcome the proposal to develop nuclear power and propulsion technology to make the entire Solar System more accessible with much shorter flight-times and more powerful investigations at the planets. These developments will revolutionize space exploration in the same way that the Navy was revolutionized by nuclear power."

Full funding of the Mars program in the proposed budget enables the development of a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for 2005. But, the Smart Lander with a long-range rover will be slipped from 2007 to 2009 to permit extra development time of the advanced robotics and nuclear power source for that mission. NASA intends to proceed with a smaller Discovery-class Scout mission, and will be inviting proposals for the 2007 opportunity.

The proposed NASA budget rates the Discovery program of low-cost planetary missions highly and provides for its continuation. Current Discovery missions include Stardust sampling a comet, Genesis sampling the solar wind, Contour performing a Comet nucleus tour, Messenger to orbit Mercury, Deep Impact to sample cometary nuclear material, Dawn to orbit the large asteroids Ceres and Vesta, and Kepler to search for extra-solar planets.

The most surprising proposal in this budget is to develop nuclear technology for in-space propulsion and power. This technology was under development at the beginning of the space program, but dropped in the 1970s. It has always been clear that this capability would dramatically reduce the flight-time to the planets and provide almost unlimited power for operation in space and on the planets. The decision to resume development and complete this technology for early application in this decade is applauded by the Society. This will solve two of the most limiting problems in space exploration; the time it takes to get to the planets, and the amount of power available once at the planets, especially for landers and rovers.

The Administration proposes to initiate a program for competitively selected "New Frontier" missions. The new "rating system" in the Federal Budget was used to judge the current outer planets program as ineffective. That program, with a Pluto-Kuiper Belt flyby and a Europa orbiter, was deleted to accommodate the nuclear propulsion technology.

Last year the Society led a grass-roots campaign for a mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. As a result, Congress added funds for a Pluto mission to the fiscal year 2002 budget, and NASA selected the New Horizon mission. The Administration's proposal will not support a 2006 launch for this mission and requires a delay at least until the new in-space propulsion technology can be developed to reduce the flight-time to Pluto.

Louis Friedman, Executive Director commented, "We are disappointed that the Administration proposes to delay the current Pluto mission in order to incorporate the new in-space propulsion initiative. Congress specifically added the Pluto mission in response to public interest - and we believe that public interest is important to the program."

Commenting on the International Space Station situation, Friedman added, "The Administration feels that getting the space station cost and management constrained is of prime importance, but we are worried that the purpose of the space station - to prepare humans for flight beyond low Earth orbit - will be lost. That problem is not addressed yet, and should be in any re-direction of the program."

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